This is a speech Patty wrote for the 2003 MAAP conference in Indianapolis. The speech was written by Patty, with help from Jared.

Testing and Disability in College

I decided to make a second attempt at college when I was about 45 years old. I had some testing done for possible disabilities, because my work experiences had been bumpy – I succeeded well at some things but then had trouble with seemingly simple tasks.

In the United States, public colleges have to provide services for students with disabilities. A “Disabled Students’ Office” usually coordinates these. Each learning disability is different, and accommodations are offered to suit each student's individual needs.

After testing and evaluation at the college, I had a list of my best learning strategies, and a list of the “accommodations” I could receive. I was also told that people with my disabilities do not finish high school and do not ever work for pay. That was quite a surprise to me after 25 years of working, and ten of supporting myself and two children alone.

College help for disabilities

Several types of accommodations can be made for DOCUMENTED learning disabilities. This is not to modify or reduce the content of courses. Instead, accommodations set up doable ways for students to show they have knowledge of course material.

Types of accommodations can include the following:

For test taking: extended time, quiet rooms, enlarged tests, taped tests, or use of a word processor. Scribes and readers may be available. Time-and–a-half is the usual amount of extended time that is allowed.

Accessible parking can make or break a college experience for a person who has anxiety over fear of parking problems or of getting lost, facing crowds, and similar challenges of campus life.

Taped textbooks are available by enrolling in Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Notetakers can be recruited by the student or through the instructor.

Instructors can be asked to allow students to tape record lectures.

If you request, the Disabled Students’ Office will contact your instructors to verify your disability and outline which accommodations you need and request. The office cannot request accommodations from your instructors without disclosing to them that you have a disability.

Some technological helpers should be available. These might include computer labs, CCTV, reading machines, variable speed tape recorders, and voice recognition software.

Students with documented disabilities can usually get free tutoring services.  In some colleges, the English department offers writing labs with volunteer instructors.


Weekly meetings in a support group with other people who have problems like yours can give you a comforting feeling that you are not alone in your struggle. Other people in the group often have ideas that help you solve your problems. You may even find friendship among the students in a support group of this type. I did.


People on the autism spectrum often feel lost and upset when faced with group work, a favorite assignment for many instructors.

You need to understand both your own role in the group AND the dynamics of a successful group.

The best reasons for using study groups as a teaching tool are:

Each group needs a facilitator and a notetaker and a strategy.

The facilitator organizes work according to the time available, and helps smooth disagreements in the group.

The notetaker tracks how the group is moving forward.

The group needs to work out a strategy. For example, they might need to brainstorm about which questions need to be asked about the texts to be studied. They can work through the assignment in one large group, or divide into two or more sections and parcel out different tasks. Results can include presentations, poster sessions, individual assignments, or sections of a whole. Try to present your part by the medium that shows you off to the best advantage.

If you feel your opinion is not being heard, or if you disagree strongly with some aspect of the group process, it is your responsibility to say something. Listen to what others have to say, and be willing to consider their point from their perspective. When consensus is not possible, the group needs to use another method to steer itself, such as a majority rule vote. Also, a minority opinion can be fitted into the presentation.

One thing to watch out for in group work is Social Loafing. That is, others taking credit for group work without contributing. Ways to counter Social Loafing by others:

Build in regular - weekly - accountability checks.

Reduce anonymity by having the work contributed by each student attributed to that student.


Right after a lecture or lab class is dismissed, hang around and listen to groupings of students just long enough to see if they are talking about studying together. Sometimes a study group is announced to the class, but it might just drift into being, so you have to be alert. Study groups are usually glad to have more help, and will let you join if you ask. Sometimes they canvas the class looking for members. It’s best to say yes and see if you can benefit from the group.

What a study group usually does is split up the material to be learned. Each person studies a section in depth and then teaches it to the group. They drill the group with questions. Even if you find you can’t teach out loud, a group will usually let you hang around and learn from the process with the others. I never could do my share of the teaching, but the others didn’t seem to mind. People would cheerfully answer any questions I asked. Study groups often form spontaneously, or you might be assigned to a study or focus group led by a graduate student.

A study group is separate from a support group, although both may be supportive as one of their functions. A support group usually has students at varying levels of experience and with a variety of different fields of study.

Taking responsibility for your learning experience

If you talk to two students, one may say the instructor is boring, the material is pointless and they are not learning anything. Another may feel connected to the instructor, find ways to apply lessons to new areas of their life, and feel that the course is a major growth experience. The difference results from taking responsibility for their own learning experience.

In the classroom, nodding to the teacher and saying “Hi” before class and “Thanks” after class creates a bond. Doing it can become a routine that feels OK to you.

Try to get there a minute early to find a good seat, relax, and clear your mind to prepare yourself to learn. Let the information flow into you. You can decide later what your opinion of the presentation is.

Sitting near the front causes fewer distractions and makes listening easier. It feels less crowded there, too, because space is always left open at the front of the room. I get a feeling of connectedness with the instructor by being at dinner-table distance instead of 30 feet away.

Take the time to ask questions if allowed. If you seem stiff or socially awkward, at least you are getting information. Instructors feel you are serious about learning their field if you linger for after-class discussions. This is important in later stages of education, where recommendations by faculty can make or break your chances for certain programs.

If you get thoughts about the presentation, jot them down in the margins of your notes, or take separate notes on them. You can mentally process these thoughts later.

Don’t skip classes. “Being there” is one of the main ways to keep momentum going. If you haven’t seen the instructor in a while, have no connection with anyone in the class (even just staring at people curiously), you lose your feeling of connectedness. You also don’t get all the information you might need or could benefit from. Many times special hints are dropped in class that relate to how best to study or pass the tests. Additional assignments might be made also, without your knowledge.

Try to make time to rework your class notes soon, as you review them. I find I can’t process what I hear right away, but the notes remind me of what happened in class. However, I have to see them right away or I lose details or get the facts confused. Scrambled notes don’t make very good study guides six weeks later.

I find I can’t take the “full-time” 15-unit course load because it takes me so long to organize my materials and get the facts straight. I was able to get financial aid based on a technically full-time courseload of 12 units. When I had to go down to 9 units at a later stage, I was still able to get financial aid for for tuition and half of my living expenses. Further, I was never forced to take out a loan because I attended public colleges and universities that kept the costs minimal.

Most people should let their career field grow on them as they learn from their college experience. A friend thought that optometry would be a great career -- clean, indoor work, name your own hours, plenty of income, and the feeling of helping people. We reminded him that he would need to “sell” himself so clients would first show up and then return, run a business, supervise workers, and collect on unpaid bills. He decided to take some basic courses first and look for a career in a more technical area.

Do volunteer work or internships. When I was in college I tried both. First, I organized a student club to help students get HazMat certifications at the lowest possible cost. I went from place to place on campus, finding out how to set up an official club that could get financial backing. Later I worked for no salary at a biochemical research laboratory. It’s a good thing I did. I learned that I cannot tolerate the least bit of exposure to many or most chemical agents, and that they simply make me nonfunctional. I stopped taking courses in that area at once, knowing I had no future there. Also, I got very good references from my supervisor and coworkers who saw how I struggled to do the work in spite of my problems.

The more separate things you try to do, the more you will know about your abilities and aptitudes. Better to waste three months on a volunteer job that doesn’t work out than to begin a career in a highly specialized area you can’t actually stick to for long.

Take advantage of services (testing, career, counseling, study skills, whatever is offered at your college) to prevent needless struggle to do things you are simply not wired to do successfully. I was outraged to find that memorization was my best tactic for learning (I find it tedious and don’t “LIKE” to do it). But I found it was true, and learned to use it to huge advantage.

If you are going to work five days a week for the next 40 years, choose to study something that interests you and that you can enjoy doing. Take different kinds of survey courses at the beginning, and research the kinds of actual daily JOBS that go with those areas of interest.

I like to do counseling and coaching, but I don’t have the stamina to work. So I find my happiness coaching people on the internet, and giving information and advice to groups.

Copyright © 2003 Patty Clark and Jared Radin