Coping in the Classroom: Students utilize unconventional accommodations to assist with learning disabilities

Thursday, February 22, 2018 - 7:29pm

When she was younger, LSA junior Felicity Harfield always took longer than her classmates to read and complete assignments in school. As a result, she was separated from the rest of the students in her high school and placed in the special needs department. Hartfield’s high school special education teacher told her she was crazy for applying to the University of Michigan since she has dyslexia. Harfield is now a member of the Services for Students with Disabilities Advisory Board.

Harfield said her disability is something she has learned to deal with on her own. Other than the additional time she receives on exams and the permission to use a laptop in the classroom, Harfield explained she just spends more time on her coursework than others might need to.

“My disorder, you can’t see it,” Harfield said. “You don’t even know unless you’ve read something I’ve written and even then I’ve edited it many times so nobody can ever tell.”

At the University, students with learning disabilities make up the largest portion of students with registered disabilities. According to the 2016-2017 Annual Report from Services for Students with Disabilities, 38 percent of the students registered with SSD are students with learning disabilities, about 1,021 students in total.

SSD Director Stuart Segal said the reason learning disabilities include the largest number of students is because the term “learning disabilities” encompasses a wide range of disorders and disabilities.

“We include students with ADHD and autism spectrum into the category of learning disabilities,” Segal said. “Even though it says LD (learning disorders), it includes a lot more than students with specific learning disabilities.”

Examples of SSD accommodations include extended time, a quiet location for testing, a laptop for in-class exams and more. However, the type of accommodation a student receives can be different for students who face the same disability. The accommodations are evaluated for each individual, according to Segal.

“(Accommodations are) made on the evidence of impairment,” Segal said. “Depending on the level of impairment, that would be related to what the accommodations are.”

LSA sophomore Lucie Rosenthal was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when she was in high school, and she currently receives extended time in a separate room for exams within the University.

“Michigan has been pretty accommodating with accommodations,” Rosenthal said. “Even in large lectures, professors have been helpful.”

Rosenthal said the process of getting additional time was not overly difficult. Once she had paperwork from her doctor processed by SSD, she was granted the accommodation she needed.

Harfield also said specific professors at the University have been especially accommodating for her including lecturer Brenda Gunderson from the Department of Statistics. For Harfield, common fonts like Times New Roman are difficult to read because the letters are very uniform. As a part of her accommodation, Gunderson purchased a special font for Hartfield’s exam so it would be easier for her to read.

In an email interview, Gunderson wrote that most of the accommodations in her class relate to the exams. Stats 250 has a separate email address for students to discuss conflicts and accommodations regarding exams. Gunderson also requests rooms specifically with tables instead of chairs with table arms to provide a good environment for students receiving extra time for their exams.

“I learn so much from our students,” Gunderson wrote. “It is from Felicity that I learned about how a cool special font can help people with dyslexia to read.”

Celina DeFigueiredo-Dusseau graduated the University last semester and will start graduate school the School of Public Health next fall. DeFigueiredo-Dusseau has ADHD and has a specific learning disability in reading, math, and writing. Her SLD surfaced during her freshman year when she experienced seizures and problems with her memory. According to DeFigueiredo-Dusseau, it’s possible her learning disabilities appeared from the effects of a traumatic brain injury in her childhood.

As an accommodation, SSD provided DeFigueiredo-Dusseau with a Livescribe pen, which is able to record what she’s hearing in class while she is writing it. The Livescribe pen allowed her to replay parts of lectures as she sometimes faces difficulty remembering what was said while she is writing.

As a graduate student, DeFigueiredo-Dusseau said all of her accommodations will carry over to graduate school, though she has noticed a smaller presence of students with disabilities heading to higher levels of academia.

“As I transition to graduate school, what I’m noticing is many students with disabilities don’t make it to graduate school,” DeFigueiredo-Dusseau said. “I’m finding that a lot of the leadership and the faculty don’t how to deal with (disabilities) quite as well, but they are very willing to help.”

In her four years at the University, DeFigueiredo-Dusseau explained she has seen improvement in how the University helps students with disabilities. She is currently a member of the SSD Student Advisory Board with Harfield.

For Rosenthal, sometimes she gets weird looks from her friends when she takes an exam in a different classroom. For Harfield, she has noted some students will joke about dyslexia when they make grammar or spelling mistakes.

“It’s a fact, it’s like saying I have a brother,” Hartfield said. “I have dyslexia.”

Segal said the accommodations from SSD can’t alter the coursework or requirements from the University, but they can help.

“We’re looking for equity of access,” Segal said. “That students should have the same access to course material as other students.”