I’ve worked with a number of wonderful disability professionals and colleagues to help college students. We’ve realized that many students with disabilities need help when making the transition from the high school to the college system. Too often they are not informed of what to expect, let alone how to gain accommodations in college. A key part of this process is the interview or meeting with disability staff or the director of the department.
What I’ve seen many times is that even with the presence of strong documentation, most students have great difficulty articulating what they really need. In the case of college freshmen, they may not understand fully what they will need since they have never taken college courses. It is our job as the professionals to understand and anticipate a student’s needs, even in the absence of their ability to state them. Below are a few questions and issues for the disability services interview to help identify and define what a student may need to succeed academically in college. Most of these are questions to ask yourself as the interviewer and professional, but can be also asked of the student.
What type of documentation do they have?
The students I’ve worked with have had a wide variety of “documentation” of their disability. This has ranged from high-quality neuropsychological or psychoeducational evaluations to psychiatric or psychological assessments. However, there have been other students and families who asked me if a medication prescription was documentation, and in once case a diagnosis was written on a prescription pad by a physician. I always encourage families to obtain good documentation- in the least a psychiatric or psychological evaluation. Hopefully the interviewer has had the opportunity to discuss with the student in advance the types of documentation needed to meet their school’s guidelines. No disability staff or director wants to tell a student that they can’t receive accommodations until they update or otherwise provide better documentation of their condition.
What are their current challenges aside from the disability?
The overall context of the student’s life will be key factors regarding how the disability will manifest in college or even be exacerbated. For example, some high school students become extremely dependent on having a daily regimen laid out for them. High school is a highly structured time, and I’ve worked with many college freshmen who essentially became structure-dependent in high school. When they went to college, they needed to structure their own lives and couldn’t do it. Also, I’ve worked with extremely shy high school students that chose a large public college. What they found was a sense of alienation, essentially being “alone in a crowd,” and they never left their dorm room. These secondary factors can affect how the disability will impact their studies and need to be considered during the interview.
What is the impact of their disability?
It’s the job of the professional doing the disability interview to be “better than the documentation.” He or she needs to understand not only how the student’s condition has affected them in the past, but also to anticipate how it will affect them in the near future. Reviewing the recommendations in the student’s documentation is one way to gain clues to what they will need, but many evaluating practitioners have little experience with making academic recommendations or make none at all. Being able to “decode” or discern what campus disability services will be helpful to the student will be based on the anticipated functional impact of their disability. For example, a student with slower than normal executive functioning may need extra time for exams especially in classes with difficult tests. Or, extended project deadlines may be helpful with writing intensive classes. As the college disability professional, the interviewer may see the need for these types of accommodations while the student’s evaluating practitioner may not.
Ask the student “how can we help you?”
It’s always a good idea to ask any student how you can help, and I’ve found that the answers they give may be something that were not considered or even missed during an evaluation. Asking open-ended questions can encourage the student to describe the challenges they face while studying, taking tests, writing papers, and other areas that can illuminate effective ways that college disability services can help them. Student problems can be very heterogeneous across the same topic. For example, many students I work with have problems with writing. Some have problems translating their thoughts in to words and get stuck on the actual composition of written material. What was surprising to me was that other students get stuck on conceptualizing the flow of the written paper or project. Once we work on that, they can do the rest, and in some cases are extremely well written individuals.
How can we help them?
Once the interviewer has gathered enough information and determined what the student’s anticipated needs are, then the identification of specific services can begin. It’s impossible for all colleges to offer the same services, but even the smallest colleges typically offer supports like tutoring, extended time for examinations, or even specialized dorm assignments. The interviewing professional should review what services are available on campus, and if allowed by policy, augment these with referrals to local private providers. For example, if a college does not offer psychiatric or psychotherapy services, there may be some providers in the local community that they can refer the student. Developing a quality plan to help a student doesn’t mean that the college has to do everything.
College disability professionals conducting interviews with students should understand that most students coming to campus do not understand the system for gaining accommodations in college. It is the role of the professionals to help the students by eliciting the right information, which is often done through a disability services interview. Reviewing their documentation, asking the right questions, and identifying what accommodations or services the student will need all serve as important functions to help a student have a positive college experience.