Coping with a learning disability at CC
by Anonymous; illustrations by Arielle Drisko
I have had a learning disability (LD) for as long as I can remember, and as a result I have always felt alienated. An LD is defined as “a condition giving rise to difficulties in acquiring knowledge and skills to the level expected of those of the same age, especially when not associated with a physical handicap.” Since attending Colorado College, I have found myself struggling to hide who I am and how I function in a classroom setting. The lifelong shame surrounding my LD has been exacerbated by my experiences here. Recently, I began to wonder if I was the only student with an LD feeling this way. I decided to research accessibility at CC to determine whether there were others who shared my experiences.
I began my investigation with the Technology Assistants for Accessibility Resources, Samantha Ellner ’16 and Jacob Jones ’17. They work at Accessibility Resources, located in the Learning Commons, just about every day, and both publicly identify as having been clinically diagnosed with learning disabilities. According to Ellner and Jones, accommodations vary greatly and depend on a student’s needs and learning preferences.
“I’ve had both positive and very negative experiences in terms of accessibility due to my learning preferences,” Ellner said. “There are times when I have felt unheard [...] and it’s really upsetting.” Jones added that just as accommodations vary, so do experiences regarding them: “For the most part, the professors I’ve encountered have been very understanding, but I have heard stories [about denied accommodations] that really scare me.” He continued, “It worries me that there may be professors at CC that will not give me an equal opportunity to learn and thrive in a classroom setting.”
Arielle Drisko ’16, had an important accommodation revoked her freshman year. After three days of class, she received an email notifying her that her accommodation was no longer reasonable. Drisko admitted that she “didn’t really understand why [her accommodation] was denied.” Although she thought that the accommodation was “necessary” for her success in the class, she did not question the administration. “I guess it didn’t feel like I had a say in it,” she said. “It didn’t feel like something I would be able to influence.”
One of the greatest fears of being an LD student is having our accommodations denied. Drisko recalled that her service was reinstated only after another LD student in the class complained to a dean. The accommodations we have are tools on which we actively rely to be successful college students; to be denied an accommodation is not inconvenient, it’s devastating. It is a frightening thought that a professor, or Accessibility Resources, could deny use of an accommodation for any reason.
“Students feel disempowered in not knowing how strongly they can advocate for themselves without risking [...] their standing with that faculty member,” professor Manya Whitaker said. This appears to have been the issue in Drisko’s case: She did not feel as though she had the power to stand up for herself or her needs.
“The [current CC] policy is that all accommodations have to be ‘reasonable,’” Whitaker said. “That’s the key word that faculty latch on to. You can understand that ‘reasonable’ means different things to different people.” Whitaker explained that currently there is no certainty in the way faculty and administration will interpret the LD policy. The policies have “gaping holes,” which cause confusion amongst the faculty and dissatisfaction amongst some students.
“My annoyance with the whole thing is that if there are other people in my class with the same accommodations, [professors] just put us together,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous. “When I’m in a ‘distraction reduced’ setting with four other people, there are still four people. It doesn’t matter if one person is erasing or 15, it’s still distracting.” When asked about issues like this, professor Tomi-Ann Roberts commented on the lack of “resources like space.” She then pointed out, “We’re all sitting in a classroom at the exact same time, every single day, so every space is in use.” She’s correct: the Accessibility Resources department currently has a single room, which is the Director’s office. According to the Technology Assistants, any work for the department is completed in the physical space of other departments. It appears as though the Accessibility Resources department has been overlooked, but maybe this is the result of an understaffed system.
According to the CC website, the Director of Accessibility Resources is responsible for every facet of the department. Whitaker said that because of the great deal of work the Director has to take care of alone, an emphasis has been placed on the “legalities of [disability].” Another student, who also chose to remain anonymous, said “it feels strange that the person handling legality is also […] the person who decides everything else.”
In an attempt to protect my anonymity, I decided not to interview the Director. The Director is the only person whose job it is to support me and my accommodations, and the only on-campus advocate I have. I deemed my anonymity more important than the Director’s interview. I instead went to the CC website to gain more knowledge about my rights. I felt unable to glean information from the long-winded explanations and I had a difficult time identifying my rights as a result. The word choice and organization appear to be an attempt to protect the school instead of offering me information. The current policy, for example, is highly inaccessible: I had to look under several tabs and it took me a long time. I contacted an administrator who has supported LD students in the past in order to add insight on inner workings of this issue. The administrator was not “able to accept [my] invitation to interview.”
So, I went to the President. “Like all kinds of inclusivity issues that we’re working on, we’ve made some great progress but we still have work to do,” President Jill Tiefenthaler said. She stated that “as an educational institution [...] we want to make sure students succeed,” suggesting that supporting LD students is important to the College’s success. The President also added that “diversity” in her Strategic Plan includes disability and accessibility. She made it clear that accessibility was a big issue for the College, but it seemed like it is up to Accessibility Resources to enact this change.
As I was looking through my notes in preparation for this article, I realized that things didn't add up. Everyone claims to care about accessibility, but there is still dissatisfaction among some LD students. Supporting the LD community is politically correct, but from a student perspective this is a guise. There has been a recent name and mission statement change at Accessibility Resources, but this feels inadequate in light of the issues I’ve uncovered during the process of writing this article.
After this realization, I became frustrated by what I was learning about accessibility on campus, so I returned to Ellner and Jones to ask if they saw any tangible progress being made. “We’re actually in the process of creating an LD support group through The Butler Center called DAWN,” Jones reported with a smile. They described it as “the LD equivalent group to EQUAL” (an anonymous support group for LGBTQ+ identified students). It will be student-run, confidential and a completely safe space.
“We need a space of our own outside of the general CC community before we can have allies,” Ellner said. “We want fellow LD students to feel safe with each other first, before bringing in the campus at large.” Jones added that DAWN was not only to be a place for support, but “a space for LD friendship, education, and outreach.” I later discussed this group with those who I already had an opportunity to interview. “I think [DAWN] is so important and so needed,” responded Roberts. “As you all grow up in this system, you’re going to be the best mentors and the best resources for young students coming in.”
I look forward to the development of DAWN. I believe this group will be a vital contribution to CC where LD community members can feel safe and supported. I’m not the only LD student who feels this way:“I think it’s a great idea,” Drisko said in her interview. “I often have a hard time finding people [like me] to be validated by.” An anonymous student added that they liked the idea that “[DAWN] is a resource in addition to being a support group because it offers education and mentoring.” This group has the potential to validate people who feel as Drisko and I do. It has the potential to create an outlet for the frustration surrounding accessibility on campus.
In her interview, Tiefenthaler stated, “If a student looks at CC and says, ‘that’s not a place I can thrive,’ because of their disability, then we’re missing out.” This issue needs to be addressed; we have been missing out.