Invisible Disabilities and Postsecondary Education

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Over a blurry gray background showing students, color photos of indidivuals move onto the screen. Each photo is cut into three horizontal slices and they drop into place one at a time. Phrases moving across the background include "Attention Deficit Disorder", "Traumatic Brain Injury", "Health Impairments". A title reads, "Invisible Disabilities and Postsecondary Education."
[Narrator] Amrit has a disability. It's just not obvious to most people. And the wheelchair has absolutely nothing to do with it.
[Amrit] I have ADD.'s cool.
[Narrator] The wheelchair is a temporary aid because he had foot surgery recently. Most people can relate to that; we've all known someone who broke a leg skiing or tripped over the dog and sprained an ankle. It's harder to understand a permanent disability that others can't see. Especially when that disability affects how the brain works.
[Amrit] I go to a private school, I'm on a scholarship, I'm really smart; so I have no problem learning. I just have a problem focusing on things.
[Narrator] Jesse, a college sophomore, also has an invisible disability.
[Jesse Shaver] I have dyslexia, and for me that means a great difficulty with spelling; it means I have difficulty telling directions, so I've been known to go left instead of right or right instead of left. It means that I had a whole lot of difficulty learning to read.
[Narrator] A car accident in 7th grade left Laura with some permanent injuries. One of those disabilities is invisible until she explains it.
[Laura Bersos] I have a traumatic brain injury, yeah. And so with that there comes a lot of memory issues, like when I was in the accident, I lost like a lot of vocabulary; I ....I.... now what I have to do is, and which is kind of more difficult for me, is I can't get straight to the point of what I'm trying to express, so I talk my way through it. So with vocabulary I have to talk "it's that thing that you drive into right in front of your house, you know-- oh, a driveway!"
[Narrator] These are three of the many students on campus who look just like anybody else. In other words, they have disabilities which aren't easily noticed. And sometimes, that leads to misunderstandings.
[Bea Awoniyi] You may look at a student and you say, you know, you look like every other student in the class, what do you mean you need note-taking? What do you mean you need extra time on the test?
[Sheryl Burgstahler] So it won't be apparent to the faculty member that a student has a disability, but that disability may impact their participation in the class.
[Teacher] Does it go directly through the walls of the heart?
[Narrator] Sometimes, students with invisible disabilities are perceived as lacking in intelligence, or as just not paying attention. That happened to Nate before he was diagnosed with a learning disability.
[Nate McCoy-Winston] And they'd look at me and they'd be like, Oh, well, you're faking, you're playing around, you're just not trying hard enough or something. But I was trying.
[Jesse Shaver] My father has learning disabilities and actually his mom does too, so there's a history there and my parents kind of wondered if something was going on. But the school kept saying, "He's just a little slow, he'll pick it up." So by the end of second grade I still couldn't read at all.
Students are walking on campus.
The number of college students with these types of disabilities continues to grow.
[Al Souma] There's a very good chance that we'll be seeing a lot of these students in our classrooms over the years. Now with the new wave of psychiatric medications that is out there, students are finding that they are able to concentrate better and participate in classroom activities more than ever before.
A woman works at a desk.
[Narrator] Invisible disabilities may affect the way a student processes, retains, and communicates information. He may not be able to screen out distractions, making it hard to focus. She may not have the stamina for a full class load, or be able to interact well with others. And anxiety may make it difficult to take tests, or to approach professors with questions.
[Rebecca Cory] Every person experiences their disability differently. So even students that have the same label or the same diagnosis for their disability are going to have a different experience of that disability. You can't assume that because of the label, the student's going to have the same needs. So we want to make sure that we work with every individual on a case-by-case basis to figure out what's best for them.
[Narrator] Professors may have safety concerns about students with particular disabilities, such as seizure disorders. It might feel like too much responsibility.
[Sharon Bittner] Students with seizure disorders often are very well controlled with medication, so they're really not going to see frequent seizures in the classroom. It is important, however, for an instructor to know what to do in the event of a seizure. And if the student discloses and says, "I have a seizure disorder," then it's very easy for the disability services officer to talk with him and say, "What would you like for your instructor to know?"
[Narrator] There might also be concerns about psychiatric conditions. What if a student has an outburst? What if his behavior disrupts the class?
[Al Souma] There is a common myth out there that individuals with mental health issues or psychiatric disorders will present a larger problem to the instructor in the classroom, when in fact that is not the case.
[Audrey Smelser] We would encourage faculty to refer those students who have some outburst in class to the counseling center for us to work with them on stress management, appropriate behaviors, just as we would any other student.
[Narrator] Familiarity with conditions such as Asperger or Tourette Syndrome can help faculty feel more comfortable with a student's occasional lack of social skills.
[Linda Walter] Sometimes students with Asperger's don't have the filter to be able to stop asking questions if there are certain things that they want to know. So they may monopolize a lot of class time and one of the things that we really try to work on is a signal where the professor can let the student know that, "You've asked enough questions, and I will help you, but it's just not going to be now."
[Andrew Lyon] The media does a lot to play on Tourette Syndrome, for instance Deuce Bigelow, the second movie, I guess the main guy, dated all these people that sort of had problems, and one of them had Tourette Syndrome, but it was one of the most rare cases and she would just scream swear words, and so whenever I talk to people who have seen that movie, they always say, wait, Tourette Syndrome, isn't that where you scream bad words? And I'm like, I wouldn't say that, it's not like that at all.
Provide Appropriate Accommodations
[Narrator] Students with invisible disabilities may or may not need accommodations in a college classroom. If they do, it's their responsibility to self-disclose, provide documentation of a disability, and request accommodations. However, they may choose not to let anyone know about the disability and just try to "make it on their own."
[Rosezelia Roy] A lot of individuals choose not to self disclose because they feel the pressure and the stress that is related to it. In previous years, before coming to post secondary education, a lot of times they're labeled; and when they get to us they feel that this is a brand new day for me and I don't want anyone to know that I have a disability.
[Narrator] That's usually not a recommended course of action. It can be stressful for both the student and the professor.
[Suzanne Tucker] There are times faculty are frustrated with students because they self disclose later in the semester. They don't do it at the initial start of a semester. And they often will come to the disabled student service person and say, "Oh, you know, why didn't this student disclose? Why did they wait 'til they did badly on that first exam?" And I think, you know, there's not one answer. Often students, because of the hidden nature of their disability, that risk of having to disclose, being judged by their professor, is one that prevents them from taking that initiative and disclosing.
[Narrator] College students with disabilities should contact the disabled student services office on campus before they start classes. The staff people there will typically check documentation of the disability, determine appropriate accommodations, and give the student a letter authorizing those accommodations.
[Bea Awoniyi] What we look into is, How does that disability affect that specific person for that specific class? And then we make a determination of what types of accommodation will be reasonable and what will be appropriate. Not all accommodations are reasonable and not all accommodations are appropriate.
[Narrator] An accommodation is not appropriate if it would:
A student meets with staff.
If an accommodation request seems unreasonable, a compromise could be discussed between the professor, the student, and the disabled student services staff.
[Rebecca Cory] I was working with a student who had Tourette Syndrome, which is a disability that causes her to experience some physical and vocal tics. And this student was taking a chemistry class, and was working with a chemistry professor, and the professor was concerned that these physical tics may cause a hazard in the chemistry class, in the laboratory specifically. And so we worked with this professor and the student to get a lab situation that was not going to be a problem for the student. We replaced the glassware with plastic when we could, and with Pyrex when we could, and we paired the student with a lab partner. So that if there was a chemical that the student might have a difficulty handling, in case she had a physical tic during the handling of it, the lab partner would handle those specific chemicals and the student was still working in a situation that was safe, and she could learn what she needed to learn.
[Teacher] I'm going to see if I can find those sunspots.
[Narrator] Students with disabilities have the right to confidentiality. If a student appears to be struggling in class, but hasn't requested accommodations, the professor is not advised to ask if a disability is involved. But there are acceptable ways to offer assistance.
[Bea Awoniyi] It's okay for the professor to call the student and say, "It seems as if you are struggling with the concepts in this class. Is there anything I can do to help you?"
[Narrator] You could suggest resources on campus, such as tutoring or instructional centers, and include disabled student services as one of those resources. A very good plan is to include a statement on your class syllabus, inviting students to talk with you about any disability-related concerns. For example, you could say: This will make students with disabilities more comfortable discussing accommodations.
[Suzanne Tucker] It's letting students know that you care and that you're open and responsive, and that's one of the biggest barriers that students confront. They want to know that when they approach a faculty member, especially if your disability's one that's not obvious or apparent, that they've got a faculty member who's already invited that disclosure.
[Narrator] A student may request accommodations for the classroom, assignments, and exams. Some commonly-requested classroom accommodations include:
[Jesse Shaver] I use my laptop in class extensively for both notes and for things like essay tests. I'll email them to a professor at the end of the class, and so they are in their inbox when they show up in their office afterwards.
[Narrator] Assignment accommodations include:
[Andrew Lyon] I've received extra time from the teachers, a reasonable amount of extra time, saying that if I don't get this assignment accomplished, I have until later to get it in. Accommodates for exams include:
[Amrit] Extra time on tests. I have problems taking tests, that's my major issue is that I can't take tests to the best of my ability. Like I can do my homework, I can study, I can memorize; but I can't take the tests very well.
[Laura Bersos] For some classes, I'm allowed to take oral tests, because I can work my way to the answer and they'll understand that I'm actually saying the right thing, it's just that when written, it's like, la, la, la.
[Narrator] In some cases, accommodations may extend beyond the classroom. For example, a medical student might eventually need to do clinical work. An individual discussion of options may be necessary.
[Deb Casey] What I would most likely talk about are the technical standards of the program. Can this student meet the technical standards? So sitting with the student who wants to go into the College of Nursing, I may say to them, "Okay, here are the technical standards for this program. Are you able to perform these standards in order to graduate from the program? Not just participate, but be able to graduate from the program. And included in those technical standards are some of these field work sites, clinical experiences, hands-on aspects of working with patients - are you able to do that?"
Apply Universal Design
[Teacher] So it's a good idea to look through the list. Like we're going to...
[Narrator] Good teaching can minimize the need for accommodations. By using principles of universal design in your instruction, you'll maximize learning for all students in your class.
[Bea Awoniyi] When we talk about universal design, we are not talking about something that is out of the ordinary, but is teaching to a wide variety of individuals. So preparing ahead of time, thinking about the different types of learners that you may have in the class, and making sure that those individuals can participate.
[Sheryl Burgstahler] Universal design strategies are usually not difficult to employ. For instance, as you're designing your course, you might think of alternative assignments for students: they might write a paper, they might give a presentation, they might put together a portfolio to meet a requirement in class.
[Narrator] These alternatives work well for students with a variety of learning styles and backgrounds, including those with disabilities.
[Al Souma] For example, having notes available in the library, having notes available online, having books available and syllabuses available before class starts so students can get, have access to that.
[Narrator] Planning your curriculum with universal design can reduce or eliminate the need for accommodations later, and that's helpful for both faculty and students.
[Meryl Berstein] If you're designing your class work so that it will accessible to all students in class, it might take a little bit longer for you to do that initially. But the benefits of it to you, as well as to the student, will be reaped later. Because once you've done it, you've done it. You are not going to have to re-invent the wheel. Other elements of universal design which may be particularly helpful to students with invisible disabilities include: such as multiple choice and essay
[Bea] When we adopt the principle of universal design, that minimizes the amount of accommodations that we're going to need, and students who are in the class who have disabilities may not even have to ask for accommodations any more. Of course, that doesn't mean that we're not going to have anyone requesting accommodations; we just limit the number of accommodations that we have to provide.
Learn From Your Students A teacher meets with students.
[Narrator] Finally, just listening to students will let you know what they need to be successful in your class. And who knows? They may be teaching your children some day.
[Laura Bersos] I want to teach middle school. I want to be a math teacher, and one of the main reasons I want to teach is because, have you ever gone through, like, a problem or something where it's just like, "Oh, I don't understand what they're talking about, aargh!" And then you have that click, and then you have that huge smile on your face. I want to help kids get that everyday.