April 4, 2011
Adapting to new or newly discovered disabilities
Each year I have a few law students who work with me as they adapt to disabilities that are either new or newly discovered. A new disability might occur when a student has lost an arm in a car accident. A newly discovered disability might occur when a student is diagnosed with ADHD or learning disabilities after successfully compensating in earlier education but under-performing with the overwhelming amount of work and one-exam system in law school.
Depending on the timing of the new or newly discovered disability, some students will be adjusting to the diagnosis itself still as well as trying to determine different strategies for their studies. They may have some hurdles to get over before they are comfortable with their circumstances.
Some students are shaken by the fear that they are "no longer just like everyone else." They are not certain how to proceed. As time progresses, I see them grow more comfortable in their new circumstances. They learn to manage the disability, whatever it is, through physical therapy, medication, accommodations, and other appropriate methods. Some turn to our university counseling center for assistance in their adjustment. Later in the year, they will often tell me that they have accepted the circumstances and moved on from the initial uncertainties. They also comment that they have rediscovered themselves and realize that they are just like everyone else, but have a unique circumstance to manage.
Some students worry about using accommodations because they fear accommodations mean "having an unfair advantage" rather than "levelling the playing field." They do not want others to resent them because they get extra time on exams, laptop use in classes where they are banned for others, or note-takers in class. It is sometimes hard for them to realize that the accommodations are very fair - after all, that is why they are given. Even if some other students' reactions are negative, those reactions merely indicate the immaturity of those other students. After all, none of those other students would opt for the disability; none of them would give up accommodations if they had the same circumstances.
Some students are concerned that accepting accommodations will mean that "everyone will know" when the disability is otherwise invisible. This concern is often harder for students because it resurfaces the concerns about not being like everyone else and being open to criticism from students who react negatively about accommodations for disabled students. Most students realize, however, that achieving their true academic potential is ultimately more desirable than hiding their disability. (An added aspect is that many boards of law examiners will look at accommodations in law school to determine accommodations on the bar exam.)
Each student adapts differently to a new or newly discovered disability. For some, the adaptation occurs rapidly. For others, it takes a bit longer. And, for others, it is an on-going process.
How can we help as ASP'ers?
- Listen carefully. There is often a sub-text if we are alert to it.
- Provide a safe environment. Allow the student to talk about concerns and fears as well as study habits.
- Work with the student on specific study strategies tailored to the disability. Often the doctor or testing report will suggest specific strategies. Brainstorming can assist the student in selecting possible strategies.
- Make referrals. Support from your university's student disability services, counseling center, or doctors can be valuable to the student.
- Turn to the experts on your campus if you need more information about a disability or suggestions on how to work with a student on study strategies.
All law students have adjustments to make during 1L year and throughout law school. And they make the adjustments at different speeds. By layering on a new or newly discovered disability, the students may need some additional time and assistance. (Amy Jarmon)
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