Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
9th May 2014

Strategies for working with students with disabilities

Today we present a guest post from Rob Crawford, co-founder and CEO of the Life Development Institute (LDI) on the challenges educators face in helping students with disabilities to succeed. The post provides background on the topic and strategies for agents, educational institutions, and service providers interested in sourcing, recruiting, and placing students with hidden disabilities.

Hidden disabilities abound

Agents know most countries have some level of special education needs provision at the primary and secondary levels for students deemed to have disabilities, differences, or disadvantages, as well as anti-discrimination laws to ensure ongoing social inclusion. What they might not know is that there is a large, untapped, and underserved population of bright, college-capable students with non-apparent or hidden conditions such as dyslexia; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD); autism spectrum disorders (ASD); other similar mental health conditions. Learning disabilities are more widespread than people may realise. Recent research from the University College London indicates that up to 10% of the population are affected by specific learning disabilities, which translates to two or three pupils in every classroom. Not all students with a learning disability have been diagnosed, which means that exact figures are likely under-reported. However, UK-based Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) has stated that 6.5% of students in higher education received Disabled Students' Allowance in 2012/3 (vs. 5.9% the year before and 2.6% in 2002/3). Meanwhile in the US, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reported that public school enrolments of children ages 3-21 who are served by federally supported special education programmes was 13% in 2010/11. The percentage of children with specific learning disabilities was 4.8% of the total public school enrolment during this period. Of all students with hidden disabilities, by far the largest proportion has learning disabilities (also known as learning differences). Learning-disabled students represent nearly half of the more than 700,000 undergraduate students with some type of disability enrolled in US colleges and universities. Yet appropriate supports for such students are not yet sufficient - institutions haven't yet caught up to the exploding demand for placements from this student segment.

What is a learning disability?

There are a number of definitions in use, but the following is widely used:

“A learning disability is a neurological disorder that affects one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language. The disability may manifest itself in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations.”

Every individual with a learning disability is unique and shows a different combination and degree of difficulties. Indeed, a common characteristic among people with learning disabilities is uneven areas of ability, “a weakness within a sea of strengths.” For instance, a person with dyslexia who struggles with reading, writing, and spelling may be very capable in maths and science. Learning disabilities should not be confused with learning problems which are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor handicaps; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural or economic disadvantages. Generally speaking, people with learning disabilities are of average or above average intelligence, but there often appears to be a gap between the individual’s potential and actual achievement. This is why learning disabilities are referred to as “hidden disabilities”: the person looks perfectly “normal” and seems to be a very bright and intelligent, yet they may be unable to demonstrate the skill level expected from someone of a similar age.

The benefits of disclosure

Learning disabilities show up in vastly different sets of personal circumstances, depending on the environment or setting, the support provided, and the developmental stage of the person. Some individuals with learning disabilities may do well in elementary school, only to struggle in secondary or post-secondary schools, the workplace, or in interpersonal relationships. The majority of all people with diagnosed learning disabilities have difficulties in the area of reading and two-thirds of secondary students with learning disabilities are reading three or more grade levels behind. Education and recruitment professionals working with a learning-disabled student who is considering a traditional college or university should find out if the student is willing to disclose the condition and to provide necessary documentation to prove it. They should be persistent in helping such willing students to access and leverage the supports and assistance available at the school (and the surrounding community). They should also be prepared to talk to students who are hesitant about disclosing their learning difference about the advantages of such a disclosure. The fact is, many students with learning disabilities will choose to “go it alone” – not disclose their condition – because of reasons ranging from stigma, desire to make an “independent choice,” and not knowing the requirements to apply for and obtain appropriate adjustments. As a result, the number of students with learning disabilities in college classrooms is presumed to be under-reported. The costs for maintaining personal privacy or stubborn pride can be very high; indeed students with learning disabilities are far more likely than others to drop out of four-year colleges. A meaty report from the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) sheds some light on enrolment and completion data:

  • "Young adults with disabilities were less likely to have enrolled in postsecondary programmes than were their peers in the general population (60% vs. 67%).
  • Young adults with disabilities were more likely to have attended a 2-year college (44%) or a postsecondary vocational, technical, or business school (32%) than their peers in the general population (21% and 20%, respectively).
  • In contrast, those with disabilities were less likely than their peers in the general population to have attended a 4-year university (19% vs. 40%).
  • Postsecondary completion rates of students with disabilities were lower than those of similar-aged students in the general population (41% vs. 52%).
  • Young adults with disabilities who had attended 2-year colleges were more likely to have completed their 2-year college programmes than were those in the general population (41% vs. 22%); however, they were less likely than their general population peers to have completed their 4-year college programmes (34% vs. 51%)."

Because of the time required to catch up academically with peers in primary and secondary school (US students with learning disabilities are educated more than three-quarters of the time in inclusive classrooms), 63% of college students with identified learning disabilities at the community college level and 40% of those entering universities have been shown to need remedial coursework. Many learning-disabled students require continued assistance throughout their post-secondary education, especially as it pertains to math subjects (followed by English). Indeed, remediation in these two areas is particularly important as many students with disabilities report career interests in business, engineering, elementary teaching, and computer programming. Education professionals working with these young adults need to know institutional eligibility for learning disabilities, academic requirements, and flexibility for specific majors, potential remedial needs, community/campus resources, and acceptable course substitutions where possible and logical. US eligibility requirements can be found in The Maricopa Community Colleges Online Policy Manual for students with disabilities. Two more useful resources include Disability Rights California (DRC) and The Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA).

Placing international students with learning differences

Foreign learning-disabled students stand a better chance of success at university or college if they have come from an inclusive, supportive academic environment. For this reason it is wise for institutions to find experienced quality partners in host countries with a legislative heritage, college culture, and financial commitment toward academic inclusion. These partners will be the most likely to yield successful post-secondary placements for college-bound and capable students with learning disabilities. Every country that is a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has anti-discrimination and inclusive education strategies for students with learning difficulties.

Language considerations

Both in the US and in countries where English is the standard first language, there are options for students to be excused from taking and passing a second language to graduate from secondary settings or gain entry to university - if the students are otherwise qualified for their programme of study. (However, there is no consistent research suggesting that a person with a learning disability in reading, speaking, or writing can’t acquire proficiency in other tongues.) Standard exemptions from second languages for students with reading disorders in English systems can be found here. In addition, DyslexiaHelp has a useful list of tools, and The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity has information on building language skills for dyslexics.

Tapping into resources

Many of the strategies mentioned next are based specifically on best practices and proven capacities that are well-established in the US high school special education and higher education systems. Because US civil rights laws guarantee equal access and reasonable provisions for all students attending colleges and universities (indeed, federal financial aid is contingent upon this), inbound international students with learning disabilities will also enjoy these freedoms and protections. However, a strictly minimalist approach to following the law will not be enough to improve the previously mentioned rates of academic failure among learning-disabled students. Finding the right college environment that is “learner disability user friendly” can therefore be even more critical than the other campus resources and academic credentials of a particular institution. To get started down the best path, there are numerous publications that profile academic support and resources for college students with learning disabilities. One of the most comprehensive, “The K&W Guide to College Programs for Students with Learning Disabilities or AD/HD,” now lists 362 college/university-based and private support programmes. If they disclose their condition and establish eligibility for reasonable adjustments to the US institution in advance as part of the admission process, an international student’s US civil rights in college become automatic. This creates potential options such as the ability to take less than a typical load of 12 semester credits or higher while maintaining full-time status. This is a reasonable option to consider when a student may need six or more years to successfully accomplish all academic undergraduate degree requirements. It also allows for a more conservative and manageable course load, which maximises the student’s abilities to gain passing marks without the added stress and risk of taking too many units. A lower course load might indeed be instrumental to the student’s being able to retain his/her visa status due to an increased ability to maintain the required GPA. Readers are invited to review a recently published article that outlines a typical interaction between a college student with a learning disability and an academic advisor, which also offers ten strategies to enhance success in college.

Additional strategies for placement considerations

  • Summer programmes - Consider summer programmes or academies that cater specifically to the college-capable, non-traditional learner with a learning disability. There are numerous options that are typically based on the university or college campus, and beyond building academic survival strategies, the value of developing social and cultural competencies for this type of student can’t be understated. Provided the student is not formally enrolling, but intends to explore the possibility of becoming a college student while travelling in the US, there is no student visa required. Summer options are good bridge experiences for these capable students whose skills would grow with timely concentration of language, culture, and developing personal leadership. They should especially seek programming that is academic and experientially based, as combining "learning to know" and "learning to do" helps ingrain new skill development;
  • Community colleges - Look into the community college system with its small class sizes and intensive English-language programmes. As statistics cited above indicate, students with learning disabilities are more likely to enrol in 2-year colleges and have higher graduation rates;
  • Student support - Locate established learning disability support programmes within traditional universities such as the SALT programme at the University of Arizona, Gannon University, Dean College, Eastern Michigan University, Stanford, or the Jones Learning Center at the University of the Ozarks. All of these campuses have Disability Student Services Offices (DSSOs) as well as dedicated, fee-based programming of high quality. Although provisions such as course substitutions, note taking, and extended time are to be found, students do not get a lesser load of course materials, and their output is expected to be at university levels. Graduation rates at these universities and colleges are substantially higher than at comparable institutions, with 75% of Dean College’s students persisting to a degree there or after transferring;
  • Customisation - Investigate purpose-built, fully accredited colleges that are exclusively for students with learning disabilities. Beacon College in Florida is an institution offering both associate and bachelor degrees; Landmark College in Vermont provides associate degree options. With this option, students are immersed into a total college experience that is focused on academic excellence and persistence. With this level of attention, fees to attend are among the highest in the US, but graduation rates are near 80% – substantially better than the national average for all students;
  • For-profits - Check for-profit programmes that support students while they are enrolled in nearby colleges and universities. These are comprehensive dual-track programmes offering inclusive adult living in private apartments. The classes, services, and supports can offer numerous benefits such as: build non-academic, behavioural soft skills; provide a career focus compatible with the student’s degree; and enhance adult social development through community involvement. The student in this setting has multiple opportunities in multiple environments to succeed in also learning how to live a meaningful life while earning a certification or degree. They also get the appropriate assistance that is simply not available at most colleges.


With American, British, and other English-language based systems of higher education seeing students with recognised learning disabilities/differences/difficulties composing approximately 5% of total student enrolment, there are more and more universities – as well as private, for-profit companies – stepping up to serve such students. All colleges and universities are not created equal, and neither are learning disability support programmes that declare they have available and appropriate programming; staffing; faculty acceptance; and administrative support. Great care must be exercised to ensure the student can access quality services and support that can make the difference to his or her academic success and general well-being. Students with a learning disability (and their agents) should seek colleges, universities or programmes that have experience and continued willingness in using such practices. It is up to the student and education professional to work together in finding the right setting to develop the work habits, personal resilience, and patience required for the journey to graduation.

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