22 Mar 2012

Accommodating Specific Learning Difficulties in Third Level Education

Guest post by Carol Clifford

Lorraine Gallagher, Information & Training Officer for AHEAD, dropped in recently and offered an insight into the condition of students with disabilities in Higher Education in Ireland. The Association of Higher Education Access & Disability was founded in 1988 by a UCD student who was blind. Today it is an NGO and provides information, lobbies for change and operates a learning network.

Below is a summary of the day’s training session, written by Carol Clifford who also organised this event.

Lorraine talked about dyslexia and the challenges it brings to students. She outlined strategies for lecturers, exams staff, learning support and the disabilities support service to help remove any barriers to learning.

Students with Disabilities in Higher Education
The numbers of students with disabilities participating in Higher Education are growing dramatically. However, it is unclear whether this is due to increasing numbers of students accessing education programmes, or that disabilities and learning difficulties are diagnosed more often than previously:

1994 = 461 Students with Disabilities
1999 = 1,367 Students with Disabilities
2003 = 2000 Students with Disabilities
2010/2011 = 6,932 Students with Disabilities

The Types of Disability in Higher Education Institutions
Specific learning difficulty = 60%
Physical or mobility related disability = 7%
Blind or visually impaired = 2%
Deaf or hard of hearing = 3%
Mental health difficulty = 9%
Asperger’s Syndrome = 2%
ADHD or ADD = 2%
Significant ongoing illness = 10%
Other = 3%

The factors responsible for an increase in the number of students with disabilities accessing Higher Education are thought to be:
  • International and Government Policy
  • Legislation
  • Policy changes in colleges
  • Improved physical and learning access
  • Support infrastructures
  • Positive impact of the ESF Fund
  • People with disabilities- sense of profound injustice
  • Demographic trends
  • Word of mouth amongst students
AHEAD consider an accessible education environment to be one without barriers for people who want to use it. Potential barriers include the nature of the subject (abstract concepts for example), the nature of the teaching (all chalk and talk vs. interaction and group work), attitudes and expectations as well as the physical environment (lifts, disabled toilets etc.).

Professor Peter Pumfrey articulates the strategic challenge as follows:
‘We must re-examine the normal learning environments so that they do not exclude talented students who cannot learn the way we teach.  The challenge is to teach the way the student can learn.’

The legislation outlining HEIs obligations to students with disabilities is fairly vague. An educational establishment will discriminate against a student with disability if they do not do all that is reasonable to accommodate that student.  A needs assessment must be carried out. Then reasonable accommodation must be provided.

Students with Dyslexia
Dyslexia comes from the Greek meaning ‘difficulty with words’. It is an information-processing difficulty and a language difficulty in which tiny differences in brain organisation lead to problems in handling verbal codes or symbols. There is no doubt that dyslexia exists as the brain scans of people with dyslexia differ from brain scans of those without dyslexia. It is a permanent condition which needs continuous support.

A person with dyslexia struggles to translate written symbols into speech (reading), has difficulty in putting spoken words into written symbols (spelling). They have short term memory issues and may not be able to repeat back to you something that you have just told them. Musical notation and numeracy may also be affected.

Below is an example how a student with dyslexia reads:
Wreeding in this weigh menes yoo mussed lonsentrait on sownding out eech werd sow ot wood bb difecult too komprehende.

Dyslexia tends to run in families. A gene called DCDC2 “may disrupt the formal formation of brain circuits that are necessary for fluent reading, leading to dyslexia”. It affects about 3 times as many boys as girls and occurs at all levels of intellectual ability. Dyslexia is not the result of a lack of motivation, emotional disturbance, sensory impairment or meagre opportunities.

The type of dyslexia and the extent of the problem experienced by a student with dyslexia can vary greatly from person to person. The difficulties experienced may occur with reading, writing, spelling, writing numbers, short term memory, spoken language, personal organisation. The work of a student with dyslexia may have some of the following characteristics:
  • Spelling errors (despite using a spellchecker)
  • Sentences may be rambling and take a while to get to the point
  • Word endings may be omitted
  • Words like the, and, or may be omitted
  • Repetition of words and ideas
  • Lack a clear structure
  • Using the incorrect tense
  • Excessive or misplaced punctuation
  • Simplified vocabulary (in order to avoid spelling mistakes)
  • Unsophisticated language structures (to avoid grammar mistakes, this does not denote unsophisticated thinking)
Individuals with dyslexia may also exhibit some of the following strengths:
  • Creativity
  • Lateral thinking
  • Problem solving skills
  • Ability in art, design, architecture and computing
Teaching Strategies
No two students will present with the exact same learning difficulties. A needs assessment is necessary to gain an understanding of the student’s individual difficulties and learning style. Lecturers teaching students with dyslexia can help the student by:
  • Clearly structuring classes. Introduce the lecture with an outline and key points. This allows the student to see the whole picture before seeing the different parts.
  • Provide notes in advance.
  • Spell new words on the board.
  • Provide a list of technical terms
  • Prioritise reading lists. Tell students which books are the key texts and which chapters of books are the most relevant.
  • Use mind maps.
  • Provide models of work e.g. assignments, reports, templates.
  • Break projects down into manageable chunks.
  • Separate carrier language from technical content, ideas and language, mark both separately.
  • Provide constructive feedback.
  • Encourage use of spell checkers, tape recorders.
  • Minimise the number of key points a student has to remember, sequence the items clearly.
  • Work with students on finding memory strategies or triggers that are effective for them (e.g. visual cues).
  • Try teaching in chunks.
  • Encourage students to consider using cue cards, for example when they are giving presentations. (PowerPoint was invented by someone with dyslexia.)
  • Provide step-by-step instructions.
  • Emphasize over-learning to help get learning into long-term memory.
Multi-sensory approaches in teaching can make the classes more accessible to students with dyslexia. Visual images (colours and mind maps), sound, (music), performance (role play), games and activities and computers all play into this.

Exam supports for students with dyslexia can include:
  • Extra time
  • A user friendly exam paper – carrier language is clear in the exam questions
  • Use of a reader and / or scribe
  • A spelling & grammar waiver
  • A private room
  • Oral testing
  • Reduce copying tasks
Assistive Technology for individuals with dyslexia
  • Voice recognition software such as Dragon Naturally Speaking allows students to dictate their work while the software converts it to a written text.
  • Read aloud software such as Read and Write Gold reads on screen texts to the student.
  • The Life Scribe recording pen records a lecture and links the speech to the notes written with the pen. Point the pen at your note and the pen will replay what was spoken at this time.
  • Free Mind is mind mapping software.
Learning Support
  • Reading techniques
  • Literacy supports
  • Study skills
    • essay writing
    • examination  preparation
  • Note-taking
  • Memory techniques, roman room, mind-mapping
  • Essay writing
  • Time management
  • Examination provision
The aim in accommodating disability is to teach the student to become an independent learner. We don’t take away the challenge we support them through the challenges. Dyslexia shouldn’t hold people back as many high achievers with dyslexia demonstrate. Examples inlcude Leonardo da Vinci, John F. Kennedy, Walt Disney, Richard Branson, Tommy Hilfiger, Mohammad Ali...


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