A disability isn't always visible — even to the person who has it. As a freshman who choked on a college algebra pretest, I learned that firsthand.
Unlike everyone else in the lecture hall, I couldn't concentrate. Every cough, flip of a page and zip of a backpack reminded me I was still mulling over the first page. During those moments of hot panic, I didn't know what I had studied. I just knew I couldn't take tests like this for the rest of the semester.
Students don't always need special accommodations to succeed. But others, like me, can find a huge boost at the college disability services office — if they ask for it.
An outdated definition
"I think for some students there's a stigma around the word 'disability,'" says Jan Edwards, director of Colorado College Disability Services, "and I think there are students who could benefit from our services, but they don't perceive themselves as having a disability."
And "the definition of a disability," adds Ida Dilwood, director of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Disability Services, "is ... either a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life functions."
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) states that major life functions, or major life activities, include "performing manual tasks, seeing, hearing" and other physical actions. But the ADA also addresses mental disabilities, such as those that affect "learning, reading, concentrating, thinking, communicating, and working."
Even before amendments made the ADA more highly applicable at the end of last decade (see "Better than ever"), numbers of students with disabilities were higher than you might think. According to the Government Accountability Office, 11 percent of all college students in 2008 reported some kind of disability, up from 9 percent in 2000.
People like Edwards, Dilwood and Michael Nusen, director of Pikes Peak Community College's Office of Accommodative Services and Instructional Support (OASIS), are empowered to provide accommodations for affected students, based on documentation from previous schools or a medical professional, or from testing centers around the city.
All three say testing accommodations are what they most commonly provide. Extended time — say, two hours to do a test that others have to do in one hour — can provide an easier test-taking experience.
Not that it's synonymous with an easier test. Whereas the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) allows modified assignments for students with disabilities, higher education can only provide accommodations that don't affect the amount of work and quality required.
"Some people are like, 'Well, if I had more time, maybe I would do better, too.' And that might be so," says Dilwood, "but if you don't know the information, if you were given unlimited time, you're still not going to be able to recall the information.
"We're not eliminating standards, we're not waiving requirements," she adds. "We're just trying to equal the opportunity that someone has to be successful, to show that they know the work."
Help them help you
Testing accommodations — for which not everyone qualifies, Nusen adds — are only some of the services available. Disability service offices also offer accommodations including, but not limited to, specialized furniture, alternative test and textbook formats, and peer or paid note-takers.
Nusen, for instance, has arranged accommodations for veterans with bomb-blast-related hearing impairments, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
"They may never have realized how they can be accommodated because they're afraid to be in a closed room or to be in a room with a lot of students, so we'll work with them," he says, maybe providing a desk close to a door or window.
More veterans, says Nusen, have needed service animals over the past year and a half. Although service animals are commonly associated with hearing and seeing, they're being used for new needs every day.
"A couple semesters ago, we had a student who had a severe issue where she would get in these confrontations with people, and she didn't have self-feedback, so she was getting herself in trouble," Nusen says. "So this company was helping her train a dog so that when she got agitated and her voice started raising and she was starting to get herself in trouble, the dog would cue on the behavior of the student and just gently start pulling the student away. ... We have a lot of interesting stories like that where just one thing made all the difference for the student and allowed them to be in school."
Such stories illustrate an important fact: Time is often of the essence, as students may not know they need an accommodation until the semester's under way.
"There are often times students are in a class, and that's when they first realize that they might need assistance, is when they run into a particular situation," says Edwards. "Maybe they're running out of time on an exam or something like that."
At that point, Edwards, Dilwood and Nusen all advise students to contact their disability services office. It's not that these offices don't want to reach out to individual students — they can't. IDEA requires public education to find students who need accommodations, Nusen says, but higher education legally can't do the same with adult students.
"We try to get the word out there so that they're not left in this vacuum thinking somebody's going to call them and ask them, 'Do they need service?'"
From there, of course, next steps vary. In my case, I had documentation of my high school accommodations, so arranging for a reduced-distraction room and extended time proved quick and pretty hassle-free. I even aced my college algebra class.
The only obstacle I faced throughout the entire process was myself. As a freshman, I yearned to rewrite myself, erase my past shortcomings so I could fit my distorted idea of "normal." But if I've learned one lesson from this experience, it's that normal never means you can't ask for help.
Better than ever
While the Americans with Disabilities Act has been around since 1990, college students should be aware of amendments made nearly two decades later. According to Colorado College's Ida Dillwood, the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 didn't expand the definition per se, "but it did capture the essence of really what the law was intended to do — to help those individuals that do have difficulty with ... different things."
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission describes the amendments mostly as widening the ADA net: "The Act emphasizes that the definition of disability should be construed in favor of broad coverage of individuals to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of the ADA and generally shall not require extensive analysis."
Which, for one thing, means less paperwork: "We don't need as much documentation as we did in the past," says Michael Nusen at Pikes Peak Community College.
Nusen's office provides medical professionals short forms for diagnoses and recommendations, which Nusen says makes the accommodation process easier for everyone involved. For apparent disabilities, the college also offers one-semester provisional accommodations.
"That's the beauty of the updated ADA," Nusen says. "That more people not only qualify and have been qualifying for services, but the burden on being able to get the services has been reduced."