Increasing Program Accessibility for Students With Learning Disabilities

Local students with disabilities are finding their place on campus.

MAKING THE GRADE: West Chester University students Antoine Bland (left) and Garrett Harty. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)
By Jared Castaldi

Stopping Antoine Bland is not easy. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound offensive lineman doesn’t let many things stand in his way. But Bland tackles his biggest challenge off the field at West Chester University. To help, he has a unique game plan—one laid out for him at Philadelphia’s Simon Gratz High School, where he shared a classroom with no more than 10 students.

“People were jealous of me being in those classes because of the attention and help I got,” Bland says with a laugh. “They were like, ‘Why do you get to be in those classes?’ and I’d say, ‘Because I’m special.”

In truth, Bland has a learning disability. Public schools must create an individualized education program for students who qualify as special needs. Resource rooms, additional testing time, class sizes and mainstreaming for certain subjects are all components of IEPs. They’re created by teachers and learning-disability specialists with consent and in-put from parents and, when appropriate, the student.

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IEPs were mandated when the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became federal law in 1990. Since then, a generation of IEP-enabled students has begun to enter college. It’s called “transitioning,” and it needs navigating because the law doesn’t apply at colleges and universities, which operate under the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“They have to provide resources, but are prohibited from asking students if they need those resources because that’s seen as a form of discrimination,” says Andrea Chipego, director of Individualized Student Services for Tredyffrin/Easttown School District. “Students with special needs have to seek out services on their own. As early as eighth grade, we help them find the programs that suit their interests and abilities, and prepare them—academically and socially—for taking that step.”

At WCU, those programs—tutoring in specific subjects and help with time management, stress management, study skills and note-taking—flow through the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities. “In the seven years I’ve been at West Chester, the population of kids using our services has tripled,” says Sharon Watson, the office’s assistant director. “Disabilities are now diagnosed at an early age, and students are given IEPs to get the support they need to succeed academically. College is a real option for them.”

That’s how it works in the best-case scenario. But Garrett Harty faced a different reality. Diagnosed with dyslexia in first grade, he received academic support from teachers beginning at the elementary level and extending through high school. He was allowed extra time to take tests and attended special math and English classes.

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None of that stopped Harty from discovering his acuity in science. “If there are concepts behind the numbers, I understand that much better than straight math,” he says. “Over time, I realized that I actually excel in science.”

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Yet, when it came time for Harty to discuss his future with a guidance counselor at Neshaminy High School, science wasn’t part of the equation. “He didn’t see me as a college-caliber student,” Harty says. “He said that my best option was to join the military.”

Harty comes from a military family, but they also believe in the benefits of higher education. His parents helped him find the right school, which actually turned out to be two right schools. He spent two years at Bucks County Community College, where he thrived in the smaller classes. Harty then matriculated into WCU, which has the professional studies and exercise science majors he’s looking for and the academic support he needs.

Still, college isn’t easy. “I may be on the seven-year plan,” Harty quips. “But doesn’t that mean I’m really committed to this?”

Bland echoes that commitment. When it came time to consider colleges, his athletic prowess made him a desirable recruit. He was most attracted to WCU’s Academic Development Program, a five-week mini-semester of college-level courses for incoming freshmen. While spending half of summer going to school might not sound all that appealing to some students, Bland jumped at the chance. “No other college offered me a program like that, and I knew I needed it,” he says. “ADP made a huge difference in preparing me for college. It’s the best move I made in my college career.”

Needless to say, investigating such academic support programs is a must for special-needs students considering college. Chipego lists other factors to consider, including class size, general campus population and distance from home (see sidebar). Roommates can also be a challenge for kids with social anxiety or inabilities, as can intimate relationships and the prevalence of alcohol and drugs. To provide honest information and ease the transition, both Conestoga High School and WCU have ambassador programs in which special-needs college students speak with their high school counterparts about the realities of  living on campus.

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Special needs students aren’t the only ones facing a transition. “For most of their lives, parents advocate for their kids, and that’s multiplied 1,000 times for special-needs kids,” Watson says. “Going to college means students have to be able to know what help they need and ask for it. Self-identifying and self-advocating are the most important things they must learn to do.”

Bland has done exactly that. He’s just started his senior year and will graduate from WCU with the class of 2014. The NFL is an option, but Bland has a second goal: He wants to be teacher.
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