Learning Disabilities Questions and Answers

I. 1. What is a learning disability?

A learning disability (LD) is a permanent condition which affects the manner in which individuals with at least average intelligence receive, retain and express information. Deficits in reading comprehension, spelling, written expression, math computation and problem solving are commonly exhibited. Less frequent are problems in organizational skills, time management and social skills. A learning disability is inconsistent and may manifest itself in one specific academic area, such as a foreign language. It may also be frustrating, since it is an invisible or hidden disability.

For further information, stop by ODS to obtain a copy of an excellent brochure, "College Students with Learning Disabilities," originally produced by the McBurney Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin/Madison. The brochure is available at nominal cost from AHEAD (the Association on Higher Education and Disability).

I. 2. What is ADD?

ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) are neurological conditions which affect learning and behavior. Symptoms may include attention deficits, impulsivity, hyperactivity, mood swings, low frustration tolerance and difficulty falling asleep. Some characteristics of ADD include:

  • being easily distracted
  • difficulty concentrating with background noise or other people around
  • getting tired or overloaded easily
  • difficulty focusing attention
  • inability to do two things at once
  • exhibiting unpredictable behavior
  • impatience, irritability
  • difficulty initiating and completing tasks
  • disorganization
  • depression

It is important to remember that not everyone has every symptom, but if you feel that many of these traits describe you, you may want to schedule a screening appointment with me. We also have a number of useful articles and handouts on ADD/ADHD in our Resource Collection.

I. 3. I'm a professor and one of my students has self-identified a learning disability to me. What should my expectations be for this student?

You should schedule an appointment with this student to review her or his Faculty Notification Letter to discuss the types of accommodations that will assist the student in your course. Please be aware that LD constitutes a broad spectrum of abilities and disabilities. Together, the two of you should determine what specific limitations this student might encounter in your course. A discussion of the syllabus and course-related requirements, as well as teaching style and the classroom environment will enable you (in consultation with ODS if necessary) to develop strategies which will "level out the playing field." Possible accommodations might include extra time on exams, use of a laptop computer for notetaking or test-taking, tape recording of lectures, use of calculators and electronic spellers, etc.

Students may wish to schedule a "three-way" brainstorming meeting with ODS and the instructor in order to discuss strategies which might be helpful to accommodate a student's disability-related needs. ODS also has many excellent handouts and articles in our resource collection, and we'd be happy to put together an LD information packet upon request.

I. 4. I find that as assignments and exam deadlines collide, I can't be as productive because I feel such stress.  Any suggestions?

Try to think of stress as an indicator that something needs to be done another way.  Have you put off all assignments until the last minute and now are working too hard to finish all your projects and studying for exams all within a few days time?  It may be too late to design a more manageable time frame for now.  Perhaps, taking a brief break using one of the following may help:

  1. Walk away for a few minutes from the task you are working on.  Even completing a mindless task such as putting away all the clothes on your bed may help you get “unstuck.”
  2. Close your eyes and escape.  Envision a scene from a relaxing vacation for several moments or anticipate seeing a beach you’re planning on visiting later in the year.
  3. Find solitude.  ODS is excited to announce our newest publication which will be available in FA’08: 50 Places to Find Peace and Quiet…in Morningside Heights.
  4. Go outside.  Breathe in some fresh NYC air.  People watch.  Help someone cross the street, chat with a store clerk, get a treat from an outdoor vendor…Note that you’re one of many and that people are living their lives all around you with more and less stress…
  5. Find some body of water.  The Hudson River is not far away.  Walk to the river; skip a few flat stones…  If that’s too far, how about a quick dip in the pool?
  6. Breathe deeply. Take conscious breaths until you feel yourself relax.
  7. Listen to music.  Decide if you want music that relaxes you or tunes that energize you.  I remember writing my dissertation to Springsteen’s ‘River of Dreams’, which seemed to get my brain revved up for the next session of writing.
  8. Connect with a friend.  Sharing your frustrations with a sympathetic friend is a fine antidote to stress.  You’ll find that you’re not the only one going through this “ICEIntense College Experience!”  Just don’t get carried away.  Put a time limit on your visit, get back to work, and get done.  Then pat yourself on the back!

II. 1. I’m ready to be evaluated for a possible LD.  How should I go about finding the right clinician for me?

Begin by logging on to the ODS website and looking at our referral list: “ODS Referrals List for LD/ADD Testing. This list includes testing sites visited by our office and private clinicians whose credentials have met our standards. Of course, there are many testing centers and private evaluators nationwide to choose from; just be certain that these alternative sites are able to comply with Barnard's testing standards as outlined in “Documentation of a Learning Disability/Attention Deficit Disorder.” 

Of course, cost is a primary consideration, and the range of fees is considerable. Be aware that “clinical sites” may be less expensive, but may require several visits to complete the evaluation, have rigid testing hours, and a somewhat sterile environment with a long wait for an initial appointment and final report. However, the cost will be lower than a private clinician, insurance plans may be accepted as payment, and a “sliding scale” (cost determined by ability to pay) might be negotiated. Clinics, which are affiliated with universities or teaching hospitals, will most probably use student interns who are closely supervised. Although the quality of these evaluations is acceptable, expect the testing and report writing of the process to be slower. Private clinicians, although having higher fees which range anywhere from $750 to $2000, will likely have the advantage of offering testing specifically tailored to your LD issues, flexible appointments, feedback and follow-up with respect to evaluation results, and information regarding remedial and medical referrals.

Another consideration should be the time frame within which you can get an appointment, the period in which the evaluation takes place, and the turn around time before receiving a written report. These variables often depend on seasonal demands for testing and are subject to holiday schedules and vacations.

Anticipate that each testing site and individual clinician allots a different amount of time for a complete psychoeducational evaluation. Expect the minimum time to be about four hours, equally divided between psychological and achievement testing.

Once you have selected a few options based on location, setting, and price, set up a telephone appointment. Convenience with respect to transportation (is the site located near a subway station or bus stop?) should be another consideration. Remember that you are the consumer. Being tested for a learning disability is a very personal experience. If for some reason, you feel uncomfortable speaking to the clinician or get “negative vibrations,” try someone else.

II. 2. It takes me twice as long to read assignments and I never have enough time to finish tests. Do you think I have a learning disability?

Maybe, but only an administration of psychoeducational tests such as the Woodcock-Johnson Psychoeducational Battery-III: Tests of Cognitive Ability and the Woodcock-Johnson Battery-III: Tests of Achievement in conjunction with the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-III) can answer this question conclusively.

These tests must be given and interpreted by either a certified learning disabilities specialist or by a licensed psychologist. The clinician will be looking for significant strengths and weaknesses in various processing areas. For example, auditory skills may be highly developed, but visual analytical skill may be impaired. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, but students with learning disabilities experience marked or significant discrepancies between their cognitive and achievement profiles. In addition to specific testing, a summary of additional information such as birth and family history, developmental milestones and academic experience should also be included as part of a complete assessment.

II. 3. What happens if I get tested and find out I don't have an LD?

I know that this can create stress with respect to not being able to "label" your academic problem/s. However, if your evaluation was conducted by an experienced clinician (hopefully someone on our clinic referral list) the testing should help you to better understand your strengths and weaknesses, individual learning preferences and perhaps clarify future educational goals.

II. 4. I'm a Writing Fellow and one of my clients has a problem with transitions and spelling. I think that she may have an undiagnosed LD. What should I do?

Congratulations on your good work as a Writing Fellow. One thing to remember is that you are not a diagnostician. As a Fellow, you most likely have a large repertoire of strategies and techniques, which will help any student with difficulties. Even experts in remediation agree that an eclectic approach which tries everything until something works is often the best strategy. Be creative and try to problem solve along with your client. What usually works best for her? Does she enjoy learning in a visual or an auditory manner better (what is her learning preference)? Would it be helpful to read aloud what has been written? Would color coding sentences help in the organization of paragraphs? Would talking aloud (stream of consciousness) help to develop some thesis ideas? Remember, good teaching for those with disabilities is good teaching for everyone! Please feel free to schedule a meeting with me for some more specific techniques. Most likely, you are not the only Fellow experiencing this frustration or lack of success, and it may be useful to schedule a group workshop where common problems can be discussed and mutually helpful strategies shared.

II. 5. I'm a current Barnard student and would like to have an evaluation for a possible learning disability (LD) or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). It's so expensive. Who is responsible for paying for the evaluation?

An evaluation provides great insight into your learning strengths and weaknesses.  You are right, the cost is expensive.  Our website provides a few referrals with associated costs.  Please note that some university-affiliated centers provide a sliding scale.  You may check referral information on our website.

1. For most students, the cost of the evaluation is the responsibility of the student. 

2. HEOP Scholars are eligible for funding of the evaluation up to $500.00.  Students should contact the HEOP Office at 111 Hewitt, 212/854-3583 for payment procedures.

3. In some circumstances, the Financial Aid Office has been able to include the cost of an evaluation in a student's financial aid package. 

III. 1. If I have an LD, what kinds of support does ODS offer?

Stop by Milbank 008 or call us at 212-854-4634 to inquire about registering for services.  You will need to come in for an intake meeting where we can review your documentation to create an accommodation plan with you!  We encourage all LD students at Barnard to register with ODS if there may be a need for either classroom and/or test accommodations.

III. 2. I know that ODS has an Early Self-Identification Policy, but shouldn't I wait until after midterms to see if I need accommodations?

At ODS we feel that it is preferable to self-identify to professors during the first 2-3 weeks of the semester to get accommodations set up early. This way, professors are aware that you are registered with ODS, and that you may need test accommodations such as time-plus-one-half. With this policy, you are not waiting until you perform at a disappointing level on an exam, but are being proactive and using your diagnosis as a safety net. An added benefit to the ODS Early Self-Identification Policy is that it opens up the lines of communication with your professor and encourages analysis of your disability profile with respect to each individual course. For example, you may only require accommodations in specific courses, i.e. if you have a math-based disability, time-plus-one-half on a statistics exam may be beneficial, but not needed for a history test. Test format should likewise be considered. For example, essays may be problematic; however, multiple choice questions may pose no difficulty.

III. 3. Help! Half of the semester is finished and I'm feeling overwhelmed about what I have to accomplish before finals. What should I do?

Take a deep breath. You can do it, but planning is the key. Start by sitting down and making a course-by-course list of all the remaining assignments, tests and papers. Next to each item on your list, write down a realistic amount of time you will need to complete each task. This may involve previewing the reading assignments in order to assess how much time to allot based on the complexity of the material, your familiarity of the material, and your motivation with respect to the course. Regarding papers, break down the assignment into smaller sections, which include research, organization writing, and re-writing. As for studying, be sure to allow time for study group participation; reviewing classes and outlining or re-copying of notes.

Once you have determined what has to be accomplished, set up a daily schedule grid. Cross out time which has to be spent in class and time for recreation. Again, be realistic concerning your schedule! If you sleep in on weekends, don't pencil in 2 hours at the library on Sunday morning. Now, you can take each item on your assignment list and put it on your schedule grid. Remember that it might be best to vary courses so that you don't get weary of one project, or you might work better if you attack specific projects using large chunks of time. Have confidence that you know yourself best.

III. 4. I've just been accepted to Barnard, and I have a disability.  What's the procedure for receiving accommodations for my disability?

  1. The first step is to call our office and ask to be put on our Incoming Students List for the upcoming academic school year!  Forward us a copy of your psychoeducational evaluation to our office at ods@barnard.edu.  Guidelines for documentation can be found here http://barnard.edu/disabilityservices/resources/manual-forms
  2. Prior to coming to Barnard College, during the summer before if you're visiting or local, please schedule your intake meeting with ODS staff by calling 212-854-4634!  It's best to take care of scheduling this meeting as soon as possible during the summer before you enter Barnard College OR at the very beginning of the semester if you live far away and won't be coming to campus prior to school beginning! 
  3. Within the first two weeks of your first semester, make an appointment for your intake if you have not already done so AND your check-in meeting if you have already had your intake meeting so we can set up accommodations for your current classes.  The meeting will include discussion of your needs, review of recommendations, and accommodations that you will need for your classes.  Bring copies of your program with your call numbers for your classes and your schedule for review! 
  4. Once registered, the student is encouraged to communicate with ODS.  Check-ins at the beginning of each semester allow for continuation of accommodations, as needed, and are required each semester in order to set up accommodations for the subsequent semester!


IV. Grab Bag: an ODS Assortment of Miscellaneous Questions

IV. 1. I seem to procrastinate with all written work.  What can I do about it?

You've probably tried a variety of ways to plan your activities so that deadlines can be met promptly and efficiently.  Many students procrastinate tasks.  Are you a productive procrastinator?  If you complete your assignments on time, all the time, and have a satisfactory piece of work each time, you should consider yourself a productive procrastinator.  Rather than considering procrastination a problem, consider it your work style.

However, if you procrastinate and are not able to meet deadlines with a satisfactory quality assignment, here's a different way of looking at things.

Work backwards:

On each calendar month, record all deadlines: projects, papers, mid-terms, finals.  Block out time for family events, appointments, jobs, extra-curricular activities, social/leisure time, and, of course, classes.

Develop interim deadlines:

Ask yourself, "To submit my work on time, where do I need to be a week ahead, a month ahead?" and "What resources must I have to accomplish these tasks?"  Then, put in the interim deadlines on your calendar and make time to get all the resources you need to get your assignment done.

Develop ways to acknowledge your accomplishments:

Are you the kind who gets a good feeling from just getting the job done or do you need a tangible reward?  If you need more than a pat on the back, develop a system where you reward yourself when a task is finished.  It may be as simple as a half-hour walk or a chat with a friend.  Decide what works for you...

The greatest benefit will be a sense of satisfaction as you meet your interim deadlines and your new ability to enjoy your leisure/social times without that nagging feeling that you should be doing a school assignment.

Barnard Writing Center, Project OWL, WFIR

Contacts: Pam Cobrin, Director or Judith Vick, Senior Writing Fellow
Location: 18 Milbank
Email: pcobrin@barnard.edu, jv2118@barnard.edu
Phone: 212/854-2724 (PC), 212/854-8941 (JV)

The Writing Fellows are specially trained peer tutors who work with writers across all disciplines. Writing Fellows are available Sun-Fri from 10am-6pm and reservations can be made online by visiting https://barnard.mywconline.com/.

Project OWL (Options in Writing and Learning) is a collaboration between ODS and the Writing Center. Launched in 1995 when the first (self-identified) LD Writing Fellow was selected-Project OWL includes a six-session mini-course offered each semester to interested Writing Fellows.  Added in 2006, WFIR (Writing Fellows In Residence) offers 1-1 writing support in our office to ODS-registered students.  Please contact us at ods@banard.edu to sign up!