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Disabled students find college transition tough

More disabled Americans are studying at the college level, but the transition is often hard given that they don't always get the support available in grade school.
Mary Sparks, 17, reads text with the aid of a video magnifier at the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Va. Sparks, who is legally blind, was participating in a program for disabled students considering college, showing them how their disabilities can be overcome. Don Petersen / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The college classroom scene is a familiar one: young adults in flip-flops and baseball caps, some scribbling notes, others napping.

Evelyn Scruggs, a student sitting near the front, is among the more attentive, filling an entire page with notes. But, by the time she leaves, she won’t remember the lecture topic or one word she wrote.

Scruggs, 19, has attention deficit disorder and related short-term memory loss. Like everyone attending this mock class, she’s hoping it will give her tools to balance her disability with her dream of a college degree.

The students get pointers on navigating wheelchairs over hilly terrain, finding note takers and deciding whether to “come out” to peers about less-obvious disabilities — tips experts say are vital as administrators face swelling numbers of disabled students.

About 6 million Americans receive special education services, designated for students whose mental or physical limitation affects their learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Increasingly, such students are aiming for degrees: 11.3 percent of undergraduates nationwide reported a disability during the 2003-04 academic year, compared to 7.7 percent during the 1989-90 school year, according to the most recent department statistics.

Pushing boundaries
Special education has shifted over the past decade from getting students to functional levels on basics like reading in favor of encouraging them to move to advanced levels of study and tackle more complex subjects, said Lynda Van Kuren, a spokeswoman for the Council for Exceptional Children.

“With special education services and transition planning, they are succeeding at a higher level than ever before,” she said.

But college challenges remain, from living independently, to coping with the sudden loss of the family, teachers and specialists who have molded their educations.

Of disabled college students who began college during the 1995-96 school year, only 15 percent had obtained a bachelor’s degree by 2001, compared to 29.8 percent of their non-disabled peers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Nearly half of disabled students — 41.2 percent — dropped out by that year. The remainder attained lower degrees or continued their education.

Transition programs
While a successful student may balance schoolwork with things like cleaning an apartment, some disabled students find it difficult to multitask and excel academically at the same time, explained Jill Rickel, national director of admissions with the College Living Experience, among the most extensive transitional programs in the nation.

Based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the program provides full-time tutoring, social skills development and help with time management for disabled college students.

“People are failing out of school because of independent living skills — they aren’t taking care of themselves,” Rickel said. “People’s eyes are opening to that.”

Experts say the very support systems set up to help the disabled in grade school may also hurt them.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, disabled students from kindergarten through high school are entitled to an individualized education plan created by a pit crew of teachers and specialists.

It all stops in college, a surprise to students who may think administrators will know their needs, said Jane Warner, assistant director of services for disabled students at Virginia Tech and co-organizer of College Bound, a collaboration of the Blacksburg school, Radford University and New River Community College.

Team approach
College Bound, which Scruggs is part of, is open to high school juniors, seniors and entering college freshman with conditions ranging from speech impairment to cerebral palsy. The program was founded in 1999 after administrators at all three schools noticed students failing.

“Students were coming to college not prepared to be able to receive services,” Warner said. “They may not know that they have to be the ones to go to the disabilities service office and let the college know that they’re a student here.”

Still others discover tools that helped them learn in grade school don’t work in college.

Scruggs, for instance, often uses an audio recorder to tape instructors, later listening to the recordings over and over at home.

“What if you’re in a class with 500 people and that recorder can’t pick up because the professor is too far away?” Warner asked. “You have to work with disabilities services to find a solution.”