By Kathy Kuhl
Can your child with learning challenges make it through college?
When you are homeschooling a ten-year-old who cannot read or a twelve-year-old who still struggles with math facts, thinking about college seems unrealistic. College can look like just one more goal your child may not reach.
Self-advocacy is one key to success–whether in college or at work. In this two-part series I’ll look first at general principles and suggestions for self-advocacy, and more specific recommendations for college.
College is not for everyone
First of all, however, it’s important to evaluate college fairly. I believe that college is oversold. Not everyone needs a college degree. The Harvard commencement address for 2017 was given by Harvard dropout and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Forbes reported that after he received his honorary doctorate, he “posted a photo of himself and his parents with a diploma on Facebook with the caption, ‘Mom, I always told you I’d come back and get my degree.'”
Besides entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, millions more get along well without college. We need more smart, honest, hardworking people in trades and other work that does not require a degree. I agree with Mike Rowe, host of the show Dirty Jobs, that working with your hands is underrated. Getting dirty working is unfairly looked down on. I am happy to know people who get their hands dirty doing useful work. We would all be in trouble without them.
College is for some students
Is college right for your child? It can be hard to tell. Right now, it may seem impossible. But kids do change. As they grow, new abilities and talents emerge. For instance, I never dreamed my child who struggled to get words on paper in second grade would get an A on screenwriting in college. I didn’t expect my shy child to teach high school or college classes.
So don’t sell your child’s abilities short. If it’s even possible that college could be part of his or her future, keep reading.
Even if you’re sure college is not part of your child’s future, keep reading. Self-advocacy still matters. It is something people with learning disabilities and special needs should learn. They’ll need it no matter what they do after graduation.
(For more on self-advocacy specifically related to employment, see my review of Dale Brown’s books in the resource section below.)
Self-Advocacy: What is it?
Self-advocacy is not arguing why I should get the last donut. It is not arrogance and it is not helped by egotism. Instead, self-advocacy is:
“An individual’s ability to effectively communicate, convey, negotiate or assert his or her own interests, desires, needs and rights. It involves making informed decisions and taking responsibility for those decisions” (VanReusen et al., 1994).
In college, self advocacy is a student’s ability to “communicate, convey, negotiate or assert” their rights as a person with disabilities, especially with regard to the accommodations they need to succeed in college.
I’m not saying that every person should be given enough assistance to get a college degree. However, some student with the intelligence and ability to succeed in college still need some help to compensate for their learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, autism spectrum disorder, or other challenges. They may qualify to receive services that help them get a fair shot at success.
These students may also be gifted. For example, I know one mother whose son could write college-level work even early in high school. But he still had the handwriting of a kindergartener. He needed to be allowed to type in order to show his true communication skills. With his mother’s help, he got that accommodation in college, and even qualified for unusual accommodations on the SAT. Their story is in the link below.
Reluctance to tell or ask
Some of our teens don’t want to disclose a learning disability. This is their personal decision. If you think your student needs such accommodations, prepare to discuss this early on. You cannot spend the high school years telling your child that they’ll be going off to college and be independent, and only mention special services their junior or senior year.
Stress the concept of effectively advocating for themselves early on. Talk about how to talk to professors and bosses. (More on this in another book review this month.)
Some of our kids aren’t as polished as we would like. Some of us have kids who don’t read faces well. They sound demanding. Dr. Temple Grandin credits her professional success partly to her mother’s insistence on good manners. (Dr. Grandin has autism. She teaches animal science at Colorado State, and has designed half the livestock handling facilities in the United States. She also speaks internationally on autism, and has written several books on the subject.) Good manners, grit, and intelligence have taken her far.
So teach carefully and practice how to address professors and bosses. Role play explaining needed accommodations to a professor. This is important because, after the college or university approves any accommodations, the student will still need to explain them to and request them from individual professors. Some professors don’t know about these accommodations or disapprove of them, and can be uncooperative. It’s worth asking at the disability services if they can recommend professors in particular departments, and checking reviews of professors when considering course enrollment. Reviews aren’t likely to mention the instructor’s attitude on disability services, but they may help you identify and avoid a grouch.
It doesn’t take conceit to advocate for oneself. For example, the Torah, the Jewish Bible, tells us that Moses was the meekest man alive (Numbers 12:3). But he stood before the Pharaoh many times to advocate for himself and God’s people. So parents need not worry that teaching teens to advocate for themselves will make them obnoxious; it doesn’t have to be that way.
In fact, self-advocacy is less effective when it’s obnoxious. Teens need to understand that arrogance and conceit aren’t just wrong, they also hurt their cause. They may be legally entitled to certain help, but an abrasive approach won’t promote their cause.
The late Randy Pausch, a charismatic, engaging professor at Carnegie Mellon and author of The Last Lecture, told a great story illustrating this months before his death. He recounted how a professor he respected once took him aside to give him advice. Cleverly, the professor didn’t tell young Pausch that he was acting like a jerk. Instead, he told him it was a shame that some people perceive Pausch as arrogant, because it would going to limit his opportunities. This is true for students advocating for themselves, too; behaving arrogantly can limit opportunities and keep them from achieving the very goal of self-advocacy.
How to teach self-advocacy skills
In my next post, I’ll discuss in more detail the practical aspects of college accommodations, as well as questions you may have about this subject.
What are your tips and tools for teaching self-advocacy? Please add them in the comments section below.
- Mike Rowe’s TED talk on what we can learn from dirty jobs.
- My review of Dale Brown’s books on work-related skills and life skills.
- The quotation above defining self-advocacy comes from Self-Advocacy Strategy (Van Reusen, Bos, Schumaker, & Deshler, 1994):
- Self-advocacy sheet from University of California at Santa Cruz.
- My post on SAT accommodations.
- My review of Dr. Temple Grandin’s book Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships
- Dr. Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture: Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.