Journal on Postsecondary Education and Disability

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I didn’t like [the resource room] because I felt like I was being secluded. They would remove me from the classroom and put me into a smaller classroom. I didn’t like it because then everybody was like “Where’s she going?” and then I have to say “I [am] going to resource.” And then people would be like “What’s wrong with you?,” you know?

As the Life with AD/HD construct explained the intrusive nature of AD/HD on participants’ thinking about self, this construct informs the intent of this study through the examination of the students’ thoughts about the reaction of others to their symptoms. The fear of being treated differently by parents and teachers, being misunderstood, and isolation from peers during their pre-collegiate experience may help to explain the phenomenon of their collegiate experience. Thus, it is reasonable to suggest that these students carried those fears from high school to college, once again, diverting their attention from the demands of college. Because of the research design, all students interviewed were registered with the Office of Disability Support on their campus and were receiving support from that office. But what about those students diagnosed with AD/HD who were not registered? Is it possible that these fears kept them from approaching the support they needed? Did that fear intrude on their ability to seek help?

College and AD/HD

During adolescence, for many students, their parents’ encouragement heavily influenced their decision to attend college. As one student stated,

[My parents] told me I wasn’t going to sit at home and be a bum for a year … I wanted to do college and they thought I could. My dad . . . gave me . . . the confidence to go through it.

The students talked about the challenge of adapting to the advanced learning required in college. “It’s been tough and it’s tougher with ADD and [to] make the grades, to pay attention, regurgitate all that stuff back out. It really is pretty tough.” Connecting the college experience with their diagnosis, these students also talked about confidentiality and disclosure. Some students willingly shared their AD/HD diagnosis with their peers; others were more discrete.

The researcher asked participants to describe how they study given their individual symptoms and to make recommendations to students who are thinking about entering college. They stated that each person has to find their own study method. According to one student,

I just try and take good notes and try [to] pay attention in class. And then I go to my room and look over the notes and everything. And then like after I memorize it, I like to go and bounce it off someone else.

Another student commented,

I was [doing] a lot of math. I was just constantly working problems till you get [sic] the hang of it. But some of the classes that you read a lot and recite definitions, I [made] note cards ... I’ll write them out on a note card and do one side and do the other just like flash cards. I’ll just do that until I get them all right.

Most of all, students indicated that learning to self-accommodate and approaching professors for help were vital to remaining in college. One of the self-accommodation strategies shared by many students was to enroll in fewer classes. “I can’t take more than 12 hours and do what I love. I love to learn, and I love what I’m studying.” A student described his ability to organize by explaining, “I’m a Post-It notes person. I’ve got notes everywhere. I’ve got a calendar. I just tried [sic] to keep well organized.” “Plugging my ears help[s] tremendously” for a test or for study purposes, said another student. “I think that really helped me to be able to concentrate on the question [asked].”

Some of the accommodations students asked for included extended time to complete writing assignments and take exams, having a note-taker in class, and using a tutor. According to one male student, tutoring was an important strategy to ensure academic success. In selecting that all-important tutor, he had one pivotal criterion, “… I [sic] got to have somebody who’s able to tutor without getting mad at me. That’s sometimes a chore.”

In order to receive accommodations at the college level, a letter must be delivered to the instructor informing him or her of the type of accommodation needed. Students shared a dislike of personally submitting an accommodation letter to professors. These students talked about unpleasant previous experiences when submitting their letter, ranging from negative verbal feedback from a professor to a student perception of body language that communicated disapproval.

The students preferred to have the letter mailed to professors ensuring peer confidentiality. As one student stated,

One time I even got [my accommodation letter] out before class and three different people passed it around, and I was like, “Excuse me. Hello. That’s mine”. Yeah, they’re [sic] like, “Ooh, what’s this? Ooh, I need to get me one of these forms. Then I’ll be a good student.” I just felt like really small that day.

Some students decided not to ask for accommodations for different reasons. One student asserted, “My philosophy is that the world is not going to make all these accommodations just for me. And I best deal with [it] while I can learn to deal with [it] …”

In addition to problems with the accommodation letter, some students argued that too many professors were not sympathetic to their disability. One student felt that professors pressured them to conform to a “mold” of the perfect student.

They have this fit mold, like this cut gingerbread mold, and here’s me. I am Santa Claus and they want a Gingerbread Man, and I don’t fit in the Gingerbread Man cut out because I’m different. And they’re like, “Well I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is.”

On the other hand, many students had had several positive experiences with professors. One student told of a professor who allowed him to come to another class to take his exam.

Like I had a class at 10 o’clock, and I had a class at 11 o’clock, and so whenever I had to … take [a] test [in his class] … he would let me come at his 1 o’clock class because I could take the test in enough extended time.

Peer attitude also affected how college students with AD/HD felt about their disability. A student discussed times when peers would openly disclose her disability to other students,

“Especially, if it’s like out in public and people can hear that don’t know. That hurts. I just like-I want to tuck my head in my shell and crawl away and be like a turtle, you know?”

Students also discussed their attitudes about the effort they put forth just to remain in college. One student revealed his strategy as follows “Just keep encouraging, saying you can do it. I think one of the biggest things that ADD affects [is] confidence.” Another student stated that someone with AD/HD must have the desire to do well in college in order to succeed.

Yeah. It’s got to be a real desire . . . I know a lot of students here on campus kind of read the book. Kind of take the test and kind of do it. Kind of get a B, and no problem. And they get out of college, and it wasn’t anything. Someone with ADD has to be very deliberate.

Whereas the two previous constructs explain the connection between AD/HD and the college experience, this construct provides information on the strategies the students used to remain in college, including the importance of parental support, peer encouragement, and self-accommodation. Evidence provided in this construct suggests that the students who volunteered for this study were sensitive to the demands of college and to their own challenges related to those demands and the symptoms of AD/HD. They self-accommodated by learning study methods congruent with their symptoms, attempting to find the correct number of credits to take each semester, and staying organized. In addition, these students, who were registered with the Office of Disability Support, learned to accommodate by asking for help with note-taking or tutoring. Still, even with support, they talked of the challenges of managing the accommodation letter process by notifying each professor at the beginning of each new semester. The reaction of the professor, both positive and negative had left an indelible imprint on the minds and hearts of these students about their academic value.

Advice for Students, College Personnel, and Parents

Throughout the interview sessions, students shared their thoughts about the support structures they needed to remain in college. The majority of students interviewed stated that if they could give a gold star to their institution for helping them in their journey, they would give it to the Disability Support Center. One student disclosed he liked the way they tried to help keep in touch with him. Students felt appreciated and understood when Disability Support directors made sure they had useful accommodations, helped them learn how to prioritize and study, and called specialists to get more information on how to help them. Additionally, students shared tales about faculty members who had walked the extra mile to help students succeed.

These students also made suggestions for matriculating students with AD/HD, the Disability Support Center, professors, administrators, and family. One student advised high school students with AD/HD,

[To] learn how to study before you get [to college]. Take harder high school classes … My freshman year I didn’t do all that super which is common for college students, but if you’re already struggling, it blows people out of the water.

For those students who knew they had AD/HD before entering college, a student suggested “…to go ahead when they’re sending out applications to look into the disability programs and see what’s out there. See if that might help them make a better choice which college to attend.” While attending college, the participants in these research conversations talked of the need for support group sessions with other students diagnosed with AD/HD so they could talk to someone else “… cause we would all understand one another.”

Every student recommended that professors, administrators, and other students receive disability training. “Yeah, let them know what it’s like. Like, give them a scenario and let them, you know, put them in our shoes. And let them know how we feel.” For those who might refuse the training one student suggested, “I guess if you don’t understand it, you don’t believe you need to read up on it. And if you don’t, you sure don’t need to be teaching somebody with it.”

Participants had specific recommendations for professors. For example, one student recommended, “Just be patient. Cause we’re not trying to be a smart-ass or anything if we’re not getting it, but we ask you over and over … just to make sure that we got it. Go slow.” Another student recommended that professors try a variety of testing alternatives to allow students with disabilities options for demonstrating competency. One student said, “I’d rather apply it. Like … do a presentation and get up there and talk...”

Students also had advice for administrators, as well as parents. One student encouraged college administrators to search for alternatives to the traditional entrance exam, eliminating the one-size-fits-all method of evaluating student merit. As one student stated,

I had them before, the ACT and the SAT. I made a 1000 on the SAT, which really is barely enough to get into this school. I came here and I’ve been on the President’s List the last three years.

For parents, students talked about the importance of providing children with disabilities a supportive environment with a continuous flow of positive reinforcement. “It makes a big difference when [positive reinforcement] comes from your parents.”

For these students, college survival was a formula of recognizing their unique challenges due to the symptoms of AD/HD, coupling that recognition with strategies for remaining in college, and searching for support structures that make the extra effort bearable. These students diagnosed with AD/HD offered advice for retention that is solid advice for any college student, including finding support structures, working with caring and compassionate faculty members, learning how to study, and preparing for college in high school. Interesting, in all of their uniqueness the students may have found the norm.


It is reasonable to assume that adults with AD/HD try to live normal lives. A part of this normalcy is to attend college and receive specialized training in an occupation of one’s choice. However, many of these individuals never obtain the initial degree they set out to get due to their varied needs in a restricted higher education setting (Bramer, 1994). Those who do continue with collegiate studies learn to pour themselves into the perfect college student mold created by a culture that does not accept deviation from the norm. Understanding the ability of these students to fit, or not fit, in that mold may be the first step toward understanding how they remain in college.

The students talked about professors who were willing to provide the necessary accommodations. They discussed the unique situations that they dealt with in efforts to obtain academic accommodations from their professors because of their disability. For these students, college life was more than just getting up and attending class. For some, it was discovering they had a disability and deciding what they were going to do about it in terms of confidentiality, medication, and how to overcome to “become” (Fisher & Beckley, 1999).

Themes interwoven throughout these students’ experiences included those emotional feelings related to the unwillingness of people to understand them, participating in an environment laden with judgment or prejudice, and dealing with feelings of frustration with self (Bramer, 1994; Green & Chee, 1998; Slomkowski et al., 1995) and with others as a result of that prejudice. McCune (2001) reported similar findings of students feeling a stigma when they self-identified their disability to their institution. Some students related this emotional response to feeling like a student of color and the exclusion it brought in terms of being admitted into college. Congruent with research findings reported in the literature, these students talked about the importance of support networks on campus and beyond in giving them caring and compassionate guidance, and their concerns about the diminished nature of that support once they left high school for college (Hechtman et al., 1984 Malakpa, 1997).

The very definition of AD/HD, for these students, was formed by unknowing or uncaring high school teachers and peers who simply labeled students with AD/HD as “lazy.” These very labels influenced concepts of self-esteem and self-worth. Congruent with the extant literature postulating the low self-esteem of students diagnosed with AD/HD (Green & Chee, 1998), these students talked of situations that made them feel “like really small” or wanting “to tuck my head in my shell and crawl away and be like a turtle.”

The students in this study expressed concerns about an uninspiring college environment in terms of the internal college support structure that specifically dealt with accommodations, acceptance into the college life, and peer groups. Acceptance into college was a chore in itself because of the “student mold” created by administration and college faculty, and their unwillingness to look outside this segregating box. This opinion of an “undue burden” was also found by Williams and Ceci (1999), who asked professors their opinions about accommodating students with disabilities. Some professors felt that accommodating students with disabilities penalized those without disabilities. Many students in this study sensed that professors wished they could simply stuff the “disabled” into the “normal” box making them conform to the ideals of the perfect student, a perception that left many with feelings of inadequacy and weakened self-confidence.
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