The independent news organization of Duke University

Learning to cope

At Duke, the classes are tough, the professors seldom slow down, and the students are as competitive as they come--for some students, this pressure is compounded by the fact that they have a learning disability.

But with the help of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities, these students are finding it easier and easier to keep up.

"Once you get [into Duke], there are a lot of resources available for you," said Suzy McManmon, a sophomore who was diagnosed with dyslexia in the first grade.

"I got the chance to build in a lot of internal systems [to combat dyslexia], but it takes me a little longer to do things. That's the residual effect," McManmon said. "I need double the time, and they've been accommodating with that."

Students with learning disabilities must try to find the niche that helps them get their work done best. "If you have a learning disorder, you have some type of perception problem," said Emma Swain, director of the Academic Resource Center. "It is something you are born with and die with, and you just compensate for that."

To help students compensate, the center provides several tools and what they term "reasonable accommodations" to help learning-disabled students stay at the academic level of their peers. Such resources include extended time during tests, areas with reduced distractions, scribes, readers, large-print texts, spelling aids, tape recorders, note-takers and books on tape. About 125 students with physical or learning disabilities use OSSD.

"The professors are all very accommodating," Swain said, noting that students can use the resources with few problems. "We help these students adjust and learn to deal with the very difficult Duke curriculum, as all students must."

Not only does the office offer resources for the student to use in the classroom, but it also has a learning skills specialist and an attention deficit hyperactive disorder coach to help students learn how to manage their lives on the whole.

"ADHD coaching is... a dynamic process which is designed to support the student in achieving what he or she wants to achieve here," said Russell Colver, the University's ADHD coach. "The difference between coaching and teaching is that in coaching, it's what the student wants to do that determines what we work on," Colver said.

For students with learning disabilities, an important part of college is adjusting to the transition from a structured high school life to a less rigid college atmosphere.

"College can be a real minefield for students with [attention deficit disorder] because it's filled with distractions, assignments can be long term and there are lots of chances for procrastination," Colver said. She explained that OSSD can help learning-disabled students set up a more structured lifestyle.

According to specific documentation and a voluntary disclosure form, Swain determines what services students are eligible to receive. The student then fills out the appropriate paperwork and meets with the disability services liaison. The process has strict rules and usually requires students to speak in advance with professors about the accommodations they will need.

"An important part of the service is to provide for eligible students the resources they are legally eligible for," said Donna Hall, learning skills specialist and assistant director of the Academic Resource Center. "We have procedures and policies that are in line with national and other post-secondary institutions' [standards]."

Swain said the department has grown slowly here and has recently become more formalized-especially with its handbook, which went online this summer. She also said the classroom accommodation used most often by learning disabled students is extended time for exams.

McManmon said many of these students have overcome a great deal to get here, and OSSD serves to help them continue their accomplishments. "The biggest hurdle of the school was getting in," she said. "They offer you a lot of resources if you get here-it's just getting here that's so hard."


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