February 3, 2012

Helping Students with Disabilities Reach Their Educational Goals: Reflections and Lessons Learned

By: in Philosophy of Teaching

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There has long been the debate as to whether college is right for everyone. I follow the school of thought that college should be open to everyone and they may decide if it is the right fit for them. The educational realm has evolved so well that many students who could not even fathom college in the past are now attending and flourishing.

Today, students with disabilities, particularly a learning disability, are increasingly common on college campuses. Both the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and its Amendments of 2008 require colleges to provide reasonable accommodations. As a professor at a community college, I have worked with many students with learning disabilities of some form. Some of these students have openly communicated their issues to me on the first day and others have come to me when their grades started slipping. I, however, recently learned a valuable lesson on separating the heart and mind in the classroom when it comes to helping students with disabilities reach their educational goals.

As the mother of a child with special needs, I do not have lower expectations for my child. Yet I understand that he may have to take some different paths, perhaps windier, to achieve the goals of other children his age. That being said, I have always prided my teaching philosophy for special needs students as being one of understanding and going the extra mile.

I recently had a student who was very bright. He presented me with a note on the first day of class describing his disability, but gave no specifications on learning or assessment. I found he was able to communicate the correct answers in class and participate in open discussions. In addition, he was always well prepared and timely with his assignments. He did, however, have some test-taking issues so we overcame these issues, at my suggestion, with oral tests before or after class. I also went over his homework with him and emailed him mid-week to be sure he was on task. One evening when I was entering the building, his father was waiting to speak with me. I expected that he was there to thank me for the extra attention I was giving his son. On the contrary, he was frustrated and felt that I was coddling his son. He explained that while his son did need some test-taking accommodations, he needed to learn what it was truly like to be a college student. I wasn’t doing him any favors making the experience “easier” for him, the father said.

Initially, I was shocked, then ashamed. Upon further reflection I believe that I was projecting my personal feelings of wanting my own child to succeed onto this student. I was coddling him, which is ironic because I push my son in all that he does. Isn’t that our purpose as parents and educators to push our children to move beyond their comfort zones so they can achieve more? I learned a valuable lesson: we are not doing our students any favors by helping them when they truly don’t need it. Certainly we need to provide reasonable accommodations to the students who need them, but perhaps we would better serve all of our students if we give them the opportunity to try, even struggle a bit, and figure things out on their own.

As the butterfly gains its strength from beating its wings against the chrysalis, some of our students may need to struggle in order to find their place in higher education. With nearly 170 college programs created for special needs students, their futures are looking much brighter (Shah, 2011).

Shah, N. (2011). Postsecondary options expanding. Education Week. 31 (14), 14-15. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2011/12/14/14disabled_ep.h31.html

Melissa Street-Caulder is an adjunct professor at Delaware County Community College.

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