Saturday, November 7, 2015

The transition to college, II: what if your disability disables your abiity to get the help you need?

In light of the scary new challenges of J's first semester of college, I've appreciated the supportive suggestions from you guys.

Anonymous asks: Is having someone explain the computer science assignment something you could find, but not something to expect the school to provide?

And kcab writes: Can J meet with the CS professor or TA to discuss assignments when they're given - during office hours or other times? They'd be best placed to say what it is they want and might also benefit if they learn how the assignments are misunderstood. Sounds like J might need someone to take notes during that meeting though - perhaps another student could?

Shortly writing that earlier post, I accompanied J to a meeting with his faculty advisor. There, I learned, among other things, that the school offers a variety of tutoring centers tailored for particular subjects, including computer science. I also learned that the staff at the computer science center work directly with the comp sci professors and are on top of what is going on in specific classes. And I learned that they would have been able to assist J with the sort of things that were baffling him: i.e., what exactly the various (multi-page) assignments were asking him to do, and how to find/download/run/interact with the various websites/software/assignment submission mechanisms involved in completing and submitting the assignments.

If only J had paid attention to one of the many times these services were mentioned, he would have known about them in time to succeed in classes that he's now having to drop.

One of the many ironies here is that one of the classes J is in danger of failing is a "college experience" class whose raison d'etre is to help students not fail classes. It is in this class where, if only J had been paying attention, he would have learned about the various tutoring centers.

The model for college students with disabilities assumes not just a certain level of self-advocacy, but also a certain level of attentiveness, especially to oral discourse. It assumes, in other words, that the student's disability isn't one that impairs actively seeking out, and attending to, information about additional supports that go beyond the boiler plate disability accommodations in the disability letter. In this sense, J's disability is meta: it impairs his access to the very things that are supposed to increase access to the help he most needs.

There are other challenges for the under-self-advocating, under-attentive student. As I noted earlier, the boiler plate accommodation most obviously helpful to J is note taking services. As it turns out, however, it's not enough to have "note taking" written down on the disability letter that one submits to one's various professors on the first day of class. Two weeks into the semester, one realizes that an additional step was necessary: filling out and sending over to the disability office a second form that requests a note taker for specific classes. Several weeks further into the semester, one realizes that a third step was necessary: emailing the disability office and asking them where the note-takers are. Only at that point is one explicitly assigned note takers and provided with their contact information.

Even then, all you have is a note-taker for class time; not for tutoring sessions (great suggestion, kcab!) or for any interviews that you might have to do as part of completing an assignment (for example, an assignment for your "college experience" class).

Much is made in the disability world about the transition from high school to college. One of the biggest challenges, in our experience, is going from an environment where a designated individual at the school is responsible for watching over you and making sure you get what you need, to one in which there is no such person or entity, nor any obvious mechanism for going beyond the various boiler plate accommodations.

Then, before you know it, you are floundering even in the classes that (a) you're normally good at or (b) are supposed to be helping you rather than hurting you--all because of the ways in which your disability completely undermines your ability to get what you need to succeed.

The "transition to college" could use a little less lip service and a lot more actual transition.


FedUpMom said...

Typo alert -- you used J's full name in this post.

There are many kids who can't advocate well for themselves, for instance kids with anxiety and depression (ask me how I know!)

Katharine Beals said...

Whoops. Thanks.

What do you think the solution is?

Unknown said...

This is not specifically a response to your question (What do you think the solution is?) but rather a general thought. My mind heads in the direction of asking what type of educational process (and later on, work process) can obviate the need for the kinds of attentiveness and help-seeking that are so difficult for J? Sort of like, what kind of educational/work experience makes it possible for blind people to succeed? Clearly, in the case of blindness, you need to remove the necessity for responding to visual cues and content, and you need to embed the entire process instead in auditory and tactile (Braille) cues and content.

In the case of J, what are the cues that don't work for him, and can they be removed from his educational process? what are the cues that do work, and can the educational process be built completely around them? It seems to me from the way you describe him, that J's problem could be described as being very specific-task-oriented coupled with great difficulty in sensing the institutional matrix in which those tasks exist, and the institutional features that could help him perform the tasks well. Blind people who succeed in school and work have the advantage of being able to sense that matrix and those features. And schools typically require all students to see or sense them too. At the university level, they insist upon it, and there are good reasons why.

So I end up wondering if a non-university educational setting would be better for J. Something like coding boot camp, only at a higher level?

lgm said...

Our experience is totally different. Of the three schools my offspring have attended (CC, state U, private U) all share the tutoring and disability info at orientation. It is also posted on their websites.I didnt get to visit the CC open house, b ut the other 2 also shared at open house during a presentation for potential students and parents. The set up for accomodations is done before the semester begins...but the initisl contact has to be by the student. The school is responsible for ensuring services are provided.the student is also responsible for contacting the office at the beginning of each semester. The tutoring info was shared in the same manner, with the addition of it being in the syllabus, posted around the res halls, and at the private school, a request link available on the student schedule. Tutoring is made accessible by having it in dorms in the evening as well as on campus during the day and, at state u, via email.
If your student were in the workplace, he would be asking for an interpreter and a mentor/personal assistant. He would still have to perform the essential functions.

GoogleMaster said...

When I first read this post, I was concerned for J's future as a programmer, because software requirements from product management can be notoriously vague. Case in point, the infamous tire swing cartoon:

There are many times when I have to initiate a conversation with someone who speaks business language, and ask sufficient questions so that I can turn that into a functioning piece of software.

However, last night I came across a news story about a company that hires people with autism: . Earlier this year there was a documentary about them called "Programming Hope":

That company is in TX, not PA, but if there's one company out there, there might be others.

ChemProf said...

I deal with this all the time -- my institution has a large population of students with disabilities and yeah, it is very hard when the disability interferes with their ability to access help. I just had an advising meeting with an autistic student and her parents, in part because they know she won't necessarily hear everything I tell her, so unfortunately, that may be J's best bet -- to have you bird-dog him.

I've seen it also with depressed students -- they need to get in paperwork, say to drop a class they are failing, but their depression makes them incapable of getting the form together. It is hard to say what the best solution is.