Friday, October 3, 2008

Accommodations for ADD/ADHD and LD Students

Most of us work with multiple students who have been diagnosed with ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities of some type.  In fact, with each new 1L class, our Student Disability Services usually sends letters of accommodations for at least 5 or 10 students. 

Those numbers reflect the students that we know about first semester.  The numbers increase the second semester as grades come out, and additional students come forward.  A few more students come forward at the end of the first year when further probations and academic dismissals are announced.  I suspect even then that we have seen the tip of the iceberg, and some other students may hover just above our academic minimums without being identified.

I am always glad to see accommodations letters from Student Disability Services before fall semester begins or during that semester in time for at least exam accommodations if not classroom accommodations.  It means that those students have a level playing field in place.  The Associate Dean for Students and Diversity meets with them, and many students will follow up for discussions with me. 

It is the students who go through the procedures to gain a level playing field after bad grades that concern me greatly.  The damage to their self-esteem, the stress of probation, and the academic hole from which they have to dig out exacerbate their situations.  With new accommodations and hard work, we see them succeed at new levels.  But some are unable to turn it around because of the extremely low grades before they received accommodations. 

Occasionally a new diagnosis is made for students who surface after bad grades.  The problem never showed up in prior education because the student could compensate and do very well.  Let's face it, the national statistics tell us that high schools, colleges, and universities often have grade inflation and require little work for bright students to excel.  When undiagnosed students start law school they suddenly come up against an overwhelming amount of reading, the need to stay focused for longer periods of time, course grades based on one exam, exams with strict time mangement requirements, and competition from the best and the brightest.  It is no wonder that they get surprised by bad grades.

However, I have found more and more that the students were previously diagnosed with one of these disabilities and had prior accommodations, but decided not to ask for assistance as law students.  Some students (with their doctors agreement) decided to discontinue medication before law school to be "like everyone else."  Other students decided to forego accommodations because they did not want anyone to know.  Some students decided that dropping prior accommodations would create a level playing field because it would be unfair to other students if they had accommodations.

I can understand these students wanting to be like everyone else and not wanting anyone to know.  However, the potential damage to their academics makes these desires high-risk for some of them.  Because they do not realize the many ways in which law school will be a different academic experience, they make their decisions on insufficient information.  There is a summer communication to all students about accommodation requests.  In orientation, an announcement is made to all students to encourage disabled students to apply through Student Disability Services for accommodations if they have not already done so. 

Some undiagnosed students or students who had initially decided against accommodations will be identified during the first semester.  Our Legal Practice professors often recognize problems because of the intensive writing assignments and the small class sizes.   Others are identified by doctrinal faculty or administrators.  Timing is important if accommodation requests are to be processed before the semester ends (especially for undiagnosed students who must also undergo testing) .

A new twist has developed regarding identified students who have acommodations for laptops in the classroom.  Several students have told me that even though a laptop helps their learning they will not use this accommodation if a professor has banned laptops.  Other students will realize that they must be disabled if they are allowed to have a laptop when everyone else cannot.  It is very sad that students who need this legitimate accommodation have to make this decision.  The banning of laptops is vogue right now, but the consequences for students with disabilities (and different learning styles for that matter) are not always recognized.                

As an academic support professional, I can refer students for accommodations, work with students on strategies to improve their learning, and advocate for them.  Hopefully, more students will self-identify or be discovered before the semester results in bad grades.  (Amy Jarmon)   

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