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Despite recent advances in dyslexia-friendly policies and statements in K-12 and higher education, reports of dyslexia-unfriendly and discriminatory practices are more common than anyone would like to mention.

At the university level, rarely is there any education for faculty and staff about the the needs of dyslexic and LD students on campus, so it should not be surprising that many professors will not understand why accommodations are necessary for dyslexic students. They may actively discourage students obtaining such accommodations although it is against federal law.

As we have recently reported, US Department of Justice regulations require that private colleges give “Considerable weight to the documentation of past accommodations, modifications, or auxiliary aids or services received in similar situations” and not require additional burdensome re-testing. Nevertheless, formal pushback has begun in some quarters, so students best be aware that they may have to be strong self-advocates in order to ensure their rights are not being overrun.

In the current issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities, psychologists from Denison University (Granville, OH) wrote an unfortunate article titled “When Average is Not Good Enough: Students with Learning Disabilities at Selective, Private Colleges” arguing that there is a glut of students requesting accommodations who don’t need them. The article (in our opinion should not have been published by JLD) is wrong on many points, but we will just tackle a few:

First, the authors seem surprised that college students with LD are enrolled in selective private colleges at all (do they challenge the existence of gifted students with LDs?), implying that students with LDs instead should be found at 2-year colleges. Second, in what seems patently untrue, they refer to several publications associated with a single researcher (Elmira College) that claims that “most university students classified with learning disabilities have no history of learning problems prior to entering college, have never received special education services or accommodations in childhood or adolescence.”

These educational studies paint students with learning disability (including reading disabilities) with a single broad brush without any indication they are are familiar with any of the last decade of scientific research which has provided insights into what makes these students different.

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The authors furthermore dismiss the Nelson Denny Reading Test as ‘non-diagnostic’ although it remains the only reading test with complex reading passages comparable to what college students would actually encounter on tests such as the SAT or ACT tests or at university. The Nelson Denny Reading Test is of course one of the recommended tests of the College Board and it is the only standardized reading test normed for 2-year and 4-year college and graduate students.

The problem with the use of Wechsler or Woodcock Johnson reading passages alone in assessing college-bound students is that these reading passages are too simple (middle school rather than college-bound) – and would not identify the gifted dyslexic student who needs extra time to read through SAT, ACT, or AP reading passages.

p3The Nelson Denny is also one of the few tests which generated extended time norms for both LD and non-LD students which means it can demonstrate that a student is not getting preferential treatment by simply more time vs. receiving extended time because of LD to level the playing field. Dyslexic students need the extra time to re-read test questions so they make sure they haven’t skipped or subsituted words. A level playing field merely ensures that students have comprehended what is being asked of them accurately.

From reading the research paper by Weis and colleagues, there is no sense that the authors have any knowledge of the neuroscientific basis of the learning differences for which they are supposed to be making educational policies. The authors furthermore show their hand in their intent to offend by closing “These students are like average children in the fictional Lake Wobegon…” The Journal discredits itself by publishing the paper as a research article.

The bold ignorance of these authors’ report reminded us of the discriminatory Boston University Provost Jon Westling who made several speeches and interviews with the media complaining about a “Somnolent Samantha” who had auditory processing difficulties and so needed copies of notes, extra time on exams, and a seat in the front of the class although she might fall asleep – as an example of how unreasonable requests for accommodations could be. He later confessed that he made the story up and never had any training in the recognition of learning disabilities. He and Boston University were taken to court after he also abolished many students’ accommodations and requested that all students undergo retesting if they hadn’t had testing in the past 3 years. Westling ultimately lost that lawsuit and the judge Patti Saris soundly criticized him for attitudes motivated by “uninformed stereotypes.”

As a community, we should remember that the sad reality today is there are very few ‘experts’ who have joint expertise in both the educational and scientific aspects of dyslexia.  Much more work needs to be done if the next generation of students are able to freely advance to the level of their ability, and the best way to move forward is if everyone sees themselves as having a stake and being an advocate.