Assistive Tech & Student Support

Helping Students with Learning Disabilities Transition to College

Although assistive technologies and other supports can help, too few students who need them take advantage once they leave high school. Here's what K-12 schools can do to help.

As an occupational therapist and assistive technology specialist for Florida's Alachua County Public Schools, Elisa Wern works with students who have various learning disabilities — such as dyslexia, dyscalculia or a lack of executive functioning — every day.

Assistive technology "plays a critical role" in these students' success, Wern said. Students with a documented learning disability are eligible for a variety of supports and services, and Wern collaborates with each student's individualized education program (IEP) team to identify the accommodations he or she needs to be successful. These can range from adaptive papers and portable word processors to operating system accessibility features, word prediction software and screen reader technology.

Alachua County serves more than 29,000 students, and while Wern doesn't know how many of these have a learning disability in particular, about 14 percent of the district's population — or more than 4,000 students — are entitled to some kind of support under an IEP.

That's a significant number. But if any of these students go on to college after graduation, the chances are high that the supports they had in high school won't exist for them in college.

A national longitudinal study from the United States Department of Education found that 87 percent of students with learning disabilities received some kind of support at the K-12 level — but when these students moved on to college, only 19 percent continued to get support.

"It's shocking to see such a huge change" from high school to college, said Sam Johnston, a research scientist for CAST, a nonprofit organization that works to expand learning opportunities for all students. "These are the same students, but for whatever reason, they're not being served in higher education."

Students who have learning disabilities often face steep challenges in making the jump from high school to higher education, and these challenges go well beyond the shift to more intensive, college-level work.

The transitioning of students with learning disabilities from high school to college "is a very important issue, and it often gets overlooked," said Tracy Gray, managing researcher for education at the American Institutes for Research.

While assistive technologies can help with this transition, Johnston, Gray and other disability specialists warn that too few college-level students are taking advantage of these tools. There are a number of reasons for this, but they say K-12 schools can play a critical role in preparing students with learning disabilities for a more successful transition to college and beyond.

'A Bit of the Wild West'
Although many students arrive at college after having had an IEP in high school, "the process is very different for getting services in K-12 compared with higher education," Johnston said.

At the K-12 level, the onus for identifying learning disabilities and providing the right kinds of support is on the school or district, Johnston said. When students move on to college, the responsibility shifts over to them — and "it often falls apart somewhere along the line," she said.

As students get older, "they don't necessarily want people to know they have a disability," Gray said. "They don't want to be singled out." As a result, many college students choose not to self-identify as having a learning disability.

This problem is made worse by the fact that many college students do not live at home and therefore no longer have their parents advocating for their education.

What's more, the scope of services that colleges and universities offer to students with learning disabilities varies widely. While the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 requires colleges to support students with learning disabilities, colleges differ in terms of the resources they have devoted to this challenge.

"It's still a bit of the Wild West out there," said Gray, describing colleges' focus on the issue. "Some colleges and universities have been more responsive to the needs of students with disabilities, but we hear from many students that the kinds of supports they had in the K-12 system just aren't there."

What K-12 Schools Can Do
Gray urges high school guidance counselors to know which colleges and universities are most responsive to the needs of students with learning disabilities — and which are not. Directing students with learning disabilities to a campus where there is not as much awareness on the issue "doesn't really make a lot of sense," she said.

Wern said he believes K-12 schools can help students with learning disabilities prepare for college success by teaching them to be 21st century learners. That includes making sure they are familiar with several technology tools and can choose the best tools for the job at hand.

"Today's students are digital natives, and we need to teach to them with technology," she said. "This is true for all students, but particularly true for students with disabilities. Incorporating technology across the curriculum and helping students identify the right tool for the task is a large part of helping them succeed after they leave the K-12 environment."

Alachua County schools provide a variety of assistive technologies for students with learning disabilities. These include text-to-speech software, such as Kurzweil 3000-firefly, to help students understand printed content, as well as word prediction software, such as Co:Writer, to help them communicate their ideas in writing.

"We have really zeroed in on the students" and their needs, Wern said — looking first at what tasks they are being asked to complete and the nature of their struggles, and then matching them with tools that can help them with these tasks.

While these tools are important, the most important thing educators can do to help students with learning disabilities transition to college "isn't giving them technology, but empowering them to be advocates for themselves," Wern said. "It's critically important, and needs to start early."

Giving students a set of tools, she explained, isn't a solution unless they know why they need these tools. 

"Once our students leave us, they must be able to advocate for what they need," Wern concluded. "This could mean to say, 'I use Kurzweil software to access my textbook and take notes, and here's what I need to do that.' Or to say, 'I need to take my test in the disability resource center,' or 'I need a peer note taker.'"