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Self-Advocacy in Educational Settings

By: Lydia S. Block (1999)

Lydia S. Block

Receiving appropriate services and accommodations is a critical part of any educational experience for an individual with learning disabilities (LD). Adults with LD and professionals who instruct them need to address considerations that traditional students in educational settings generally do not need to address.

In order to access services, every individual seeking accommodations must have a documented learning disability. Standards for documentation will vary, but every setting requires that a learning disability be identified by a qualified professional. In the case of an adult who has been out of school for a number of years, it is possible that retesting will be required to obtain a current diagnosis.

In an article from The PostSecondary LD Report (October 1996), Patty Carlton from The Ohio State University states that documentation must include a diagnostic interview, including academic and medical history, and a description of the learning problems. A comprehensive test battery must be administered that measures aptitude and achievement. The resulting report must conclusively state that the individual has a learning disability, include specific suggestions for appropriate accommodations, and describe how these accommodations can be effective.

In the case of a newly diagnosed adult who has never been served in a school setting, the self-reported history becomes a key piece of documentation. Because this history is not based on teacher observation, the individual should gather significant information from parents, school records, siblings, pediatricians, etc. Their observations will be helpful to the diagnostician. It is important to know that documentation will likely be denied if it is incomplete or if it is from other than a qualified professional.

Once the documentation of the disability has been established, it is important to identify the individual or office that serves students with disabilities in the setting that the student is entering. In the case of a community college or technical school, there will be a professional who is designated to work with students with disabilities. These services may be housed in an office whose title may be similar to "The Office for Disability Services," or they may be offered in a learning center setting. In the case of GED and/or literacy classes, services are provided in most cases in the setting in which the course is offered. For example, if a GED course is offered at a community college, the college provides accommodation.

As stated previously, it is important that diagnostic information offer suggestions for accommodation. For example, an individual with a learning disability in reading and written language might benefit from a reader, a scribe or note taker, extended time on exams, or note-taking assistance. These accommodations would be offered to address specific areas of the learning disability.

Mandated services include:

  • Testing accommodations (reader, scribe, extended time, computer availability);
  • Books on tape; and
  • Note-taking assistance.

Services that are helpful to students with learning disabilities but not required by law include:

  • Tutoring,
  • Counseling,
  • Learning strategies help, and
  • Study skills assistance.

Note-taking assistance can be offered in several different formats. In some school situations, the student takes NCR (carbonless) paper to class and asks another student to take notes. In some settings, there may be a designated note taker or scribe, and, in other cases, the student may be offered a copy of the teacher's notes. To ensure that the student with LD is engaged in the learning process, he or she should take notes as well.

The following tips will help students with learning disabilities negotiate with professionals to get the academic support and accommodations they need:

  • Understand your learning disability well enough to describe it.
  • Be able to explain how a specific accommodation will help you do your best. For example, if you have an excellent oral vocabulary but have trouble spelling what you say, you may request access to a computer to spell check your written work.
  • Explain that an accommodation helps you accomplish the same tasks as your peers. It is not "a break" or an advantage over other students to have extended time on exams. If you write or read more slowly than your peers because of your disability, extra time allows you the time you need to finish.

If you are working with someone who is reluctant to provide you with what you need, talk to the learning disabilities or special education professional. Ultimately, if you have a diagnosis of a learning disability, you are entitled to accommodations.

Taking classes to improve one's ability to read and to enhance one's life is an important step in reaching one's potential. Having a learning disability is something that affects a student's progress. It is critical that individuals in literacy programs ask for, and receive, the help that they need and to which they are entitled.

About the Author: Lydia S. Block is an Educational Consultant with Block Educational Consulting in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Block coordinated special services for college students with learning disabilities at The Ohio State University for 14 years. She currently lectures on the topic of learning disabilities and consults with educational institutions and families.

Lydia S. Block Linkages Vol. 4, No. 2 National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center