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Students With Disabilities Aim For A College Degree, But Often Get Stuck

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TOM HARKIN
Sen. Tom Harkin said, "We need to understand the barriers students with disabilities face." | MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

When he was a kid, Will Farrior was "just like your average child and student making A's and B's while participating in extracurricular activities," the 26-year-old told a Senate committee on Thursday.

Farrior started struggling in fifth grade, he said, but it took doctors a full three years to diagnose him with Asperger syndrome -- and it took him until his late teens to understand what that meant. He tried college, but after his father's death, he had trouble and dropped out. He finally regained his academic footing in the College of Charleston's REACH program. Today, with the aid of inspiring professors and several internships, he's planning a career in communications.

Farrior went to Washington to share his story because many students with physical, psychiatric or intellectual disabilities face major difficulties when they enroll in college. Few universities offer REACH's accommodations or are accessible to all students.

"The simple fact is that I have been able to grasp my uniqueness while teaching and learning from others around me," said Farrior. Helping students like him is a process that should really start in elementary school, he said, "when you're trying to figure out where you fit and where you belong, what is your voice ... the earlier the better."

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, convened the hearing as one of several framed around the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. If the U.S. is to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 -- as President Barack Obama has proposed -- students with disabilities must be part of the plan, Harkin said.

“As this committee examines how to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all Americans, we must remember to include our fellow citizens with disabilities to ensure they have access to post-secondary education and to succeed once enrolled in those programs," Harkin, an author of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said in his opening remarks. "To provide those opportunities, we need to understand the barriers students with disabilities face, and the services and supports that facilitate their success."

Harkin noted that more than 80 percent of high school students with disabilities list post-secondary education as a goal, but only 60 percent of them enroll, compared to 67 percent of their peers. Fewer students with disabilities complete college once they start -- 41 percent compared to 52 percent of the general population.

Students with disabilities may need accommodations such as extended testing time, confidential counseling and transition programs. Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office, testified that individuals with disabilities face particular challenges transitioning to college. In K-12 education, they benefit from Individualized Education Plans and entire teams that help them learn, but in college, the approach is more hands-off: Students must identify themselves as having disabilities and speak up if they need help.

"This transition can be overwhelming and difficult for students to understand," Emrey-Arras said. It can also be "problematic" when they move to request accommodations only after classes have begun.

Some universities require updated disability evaluations that are costly and often have long waiting lists. And students with intellectual disabilities such as autism -- a growing population -- might need special services that schools "typically lack experience in providing," Emrey-Arras said.

She added that students with disabilities are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Some of the hearing witnesses warned that the programs that are available to help with college adjustment often conflict with each other. Katherine Myers, associate director at Wright State University's Office of Disability Services, said that students with disabilities are encouraged to take internships, but if their wages exceed a certain threshold, they risk losing benefits like Medicaid and Social Security disability insurance. A vocational rehabilitation program cuts students off if their grade point average dips below a certain level.

"To have this one-strike ruling that I'm not going to support you in college really needs to be changed," Myers said.

Laysha Ostrow is a Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and co-founded a national support group for graduate students with psychiatric disabilities like herself. She said that more and better government resources would be helpful, but they're not sufficient.

"In many domains of life, there are some things that money can't buy, like compassion," Ostrow said, adding, "Sometimes it's the informal accommodations ... that are more helpful to students than the formal ones."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) noted that she had worked as a special-needs teacher before winding up in law school -- "a long time ago." She asked why colleges are "failing to offer accessible materials, even though this is what the law requires."

Myers replied that colleges are moving toward digital textbooks, which are sometimes harder to make accessible than traditional texts.

Warren said she and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) are introducing legislation known as the TEACH Act that would create guidance to help universities come into compliance with non-discrimination laws requiring accessible materials.

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