Starting College with Learning Challenges

Is another learning task…here is how to plan for this.

Starting college can be the most exhilarating time and the most deflating time for a young adult. (Yes, this is an attempt at paraphrasing Dicken’s ‘best of times, worst of times.’) This roller coaster ride is often amplified for a person with a learning challenge.

Pursuing a college education with a disability necessitates working within two different frameworks – the legal framework of the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and the framework of the rules, regulations and procedures established by the college to ensure effective and appropriate supportive services for students.

This article is not designed to be a summary of those frameworks. Rather, the focus is to introduce the concept that this is a changed terrain and to begin the learning process for a college student to navigate and be successful in this different environment. Students with a disability should anticipate and know that there will be a learning curve on securing the resources and support they need to be successful. Knowing there will be a learning curve leads towards acknowledgement and acceptance of the emotions and the personal growth dimension of becoming a successful college student.

Starting and effectively using student support services requires navigating a rule and procedure bound process. Sometimes this can be confusing and frustrating but it is important to know that the school staff is always doing their best to listen, to find solutions and to guide new students.

All of this happens in the frameworks mentioned above. These frameworks establish defined musts, not allowed, and possibilities for each of the people (student, parents, disability services staff, instructors) to follow in the use of disability support services.

Let’s follow two college students through the process of starting their first semester and what they learned about the use of disability support services.


Marcella has ADHD and thrives when playing sports. She is planning to play college level baseball but is less certain on her academic path. She wants to pursue a career related to sports, perhaps kinesiology, teaching/coaching, or media. Her academic record has been mixed – A’s and C’s with no definable pattern; but this seems related to her level of interest in the course, reactions to the instructors’ methods and personality, and other factors outside of academic work like her success in sports or social up and downs. Marcella has developed skills with using apps in her phone to keep track of her appointments and deadlines for work and uses extra time and a quiet space on tests. Her written work is often noted for thoughtful ideas but marked down for poor organization and writing mechanics.


Ben has a specific learning disability, which he describes as dyslexia, but has more nuances than only reading difficulties. He loves science and is focused on a career in the health field. He dreams of becoming a doctor but holds seeds of doubt that he can manage the academic work. He wants to stay focused on mastering the core science classes, and he is worried about being overwhelmed by the reading demands. Ben uses supportive technology like recorded books, Grammarly for writing, and apps to look up unfamiliar words. He routinely uses friends and family to provide feedback on his writing tasks. He always uses extra time on exams.

Before Classes Start

The journey begins. Marcella and Ben submit the requisite paperwork and schedule an intake appointment with disability support services (DSS). Marcella is pleased she managed to complete the task with only one reminder from Mom. However, feeling overwhelmed with orientation activities she loses track of time and misses her appointment. When her mom checks in on her progress, she follows her advice and schedules a fill-in appointment during the first week of class. Marcella does program her calendar app with class times and the appointment time.

Ben makes the appointment and experiences the questions and advice from the counselor as helpful and likes how different aspects of his learning process is explored. He leaves with a copy of the accommodations letter that will be emailed to his instructors and an appointment to meet with the technology support staff person. He does not remember the instructions on how to schedule and use the proctored exam room but hopes the papers he was given will have the information.

First Week of Classes

Marcella attends the meeting with her disability support counselor. The meeting is only a half-hour given the demands of beginning week for counselors. After listening to Marcella’s description of supports she received in high school, an accommodation plan is setup for exams with a quiet space and extra time along with classroom supports for note taking and preferential seating. She does not fully comprehend the counselor’s explanation that she will be held to the same standards as other students, particularly in regards to not being given extended deadlines or modified instructions for assignments. The counselor, sensing her anxiety and confusion, schedules a second full hour appointment in two weeks. Marcella makes it to all of her class sessions but does not check in with instructors afterwards about her accommodations. Introduction to Kinesiology has many assignments and projects which Marcella expects to be challenging.

Ben attends his classes and successfully checks in with the instructor afterwards to verify they received the email regarding his accommodations. Some instructors are solicitous and engage in brief conversations about his learning process while other instructors are perfunctory and quickly move on to other tasks. Ben sits in his room with the piles of books fretting over how he can possible read the many pages for each class by the next class period. He knows he typically takes more than twice the time of other students for reading assignments. Organic Chemistry looks particularly daunting with pages of diagrams and formulas, so he checks out what resources are available for tutoring and/or study strategies.


Marcella has had a rough start with later or missing assignments in some classes. When she was unable to convince an instructor to accept later work, she had called her mother and asked her to call student support services. Her mother texted back that she had been told that she does not have permission to talk with school staff. The second session with the counselor happened at just the right time when her sense of panic was peaking. The counselor reviewed the syllabus with her so she knows the work completion and grading rules. The counselor clarified her privacy rights as an adult and gave her the form to complete if she wanted to have her mother involved. She also took a workshop offered by disability services on study strategies for time and work management. She was attentive and strictly followed the procedures for scheduling the exams in the proctored room. However, even with the extra time and private room Marcella arrives overtired and stressed from with recalling information and guesses on many answers on the Intro to Kinesiology exam.

Based on his challenges with quizzes In Organic Chem Ben searches and attends a workshop on comprehension and retention strategies provided by DSS. He now has color coded drawings of molecules all over his wall and a script for each one. He practices visualizing these in his mind and repeating the script. He struggles with the reading load in Sociology and Chemistry. The complexity of the new words and the number of pages is exhausting. He uses electronic textbooks so he can listen but that only works after studying the new vocabulary. On the midterm exams Ben does well on the Organic Chemistry but has a D in Sociology.

After Midterms

Marcella met with the instructor to discuss the low grade on the Midterm exam. The instructor said that her work on the assignments indicated she knew the material. They negotiated an assignment for extra credit on a subject of interest to her and he encouraged her to arrive well rested to the final exam. Marcella now schedules her study periods into her calendar as solidly as class time for each subject. She makes it to the gym for exercise each day and stops looking for other clubs or activities to join. She wants to finish out the semester with good grades, and she is looking forward to baseball practice starting next term.

Ben schedules a session with the DSS counselor to discuss his sociology class. They come to a decision for him to withdraw from the class and file the online form.  The counselor reviews with Ben on strategies to estimate the reading demands of a class before enrolling and to plan out his classes going forward for a workable amount of reading. They review the requirements in different subject areas for a degree and look for classes in the arts to take next semester as he finishes Organ Chemistry. He enrolls in a short-term course in health and nutrition for this semester.

Questions for You

What in these stories sounds familiar to you?

What challenges do you (or a friend or a family member) have with being successful in college courses? What supportive services do you (or a friend or a family member) need to be successful in college courses?