Developmental language disorder (DLD) is often diagnosed in the late preschool or early primary school years, so we often think of it as something that affects children only. But, for most people, DLD is a life-long condition. This does not mean that their language skills never improve. People with DLD certainly get better at talking, listening, reading, and writing as they grow up, just as all people do. It does, however, mean that people with DLD may continue to have more difficulty with communication and learning than other people even as adults, especially when faced with new challenges.
Post-secondary education—studying to earn a degree at a college or university—can be a particularly challenging setting. The courses are demanding, and they don’t have the same structure and supports often available in high school courses. As well, students are often away from family, which can be challenging. However, many students with DLD can and do pursue higher education.
Most colleges or universities classify DLD as a learning disability. (So, we will use the term ‘learning disability’ below but remember that this broad category includes DLD.)
Learning disability is the most common disability reported by students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.
Students with learning disabilities are more likely than their peers to enroll in community colleges or vocational schools and less likely to enroll in four-year colleges and universities. Many students with learning disabilities start a two-year program at a community college and then transfer to a university.
College students with learning disabilities cannot receive special education services but they can receive accommodations. Accommodations are ways of changing the environment around the student so that they can learn and perform at their best. The right to accommodations is covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act or “ADA.”
Frequent accommodations for students with learning disabilities include:
- access to the professor’s slides before the lecture
- a note-taker who writes notes during the lecture so that the student can listen
- access to technology such as smart pens
- extended time for taking exams
Students with accommodations report having less difficulty with assignments and more contact with faculty.
At the primary and secondary levels, schools are required to identify students who need language intervention. This is not the case at U.S. colleges and universities. Only students who self-disclose their disability and ask for help will receive help.
Only 1/3 of college students with learning disabilities receive accommodations.
Many college students with learning disabilities do not choose to disclose their disability. Why? There are many possibilities:
- Having done well in high school, they think they won’t need help.
- They don’t want peers to know that they have a disability.
- They worry that professors will not be empathetic.
- They think that the accommodations that are available will not be helpful.
- They can’t afford it.
This last reason may surprise you. Accommodations are FREE, so everyone should be able to access them. The problem is that colleges and universities do not always accept records from primary and secondary levels, so the student must undergo a series of tests to prove that they have a disability. Most often, the cost of being tested falls on the student, not the college or university.
If your child still has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) at the age of 16, the educational team at the high school will implement a transition plan to help your child prepare for trade school, college, or university.
Most U.S. colleges and universities require SAT or ACT scores as part of the application process. Both of these tests can be taken with accommodations. To obtain accommodations, apply at these websites: The SAT and ACT websites.
Some colleges go beyond what is required by law by offering extensive supports for students with learning disabilities. You will find a list of these colleges here.
To receive accommodations, students must register at the Office for Students with Disabilities on their campus. This office will be staffed with people who can explain the process and present options that are specific to your college or university.
The U.S. Department of Education hosts the National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities. At this on-line center, organizations can apply for grants to support programs for students with disabilities. Families can find relevant laws, guidelines, and resources. Legislation -- National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities (ed.gov)
Understood.org (Understood - For learning and thinking differences) offers numerous resources for students who are planning for or enrolled in higher education. Visit the site and search ‘college’ to see a list.
Durkin, K., Simkin, Z., Knox, E., & Conti‐Ramsden, G. (2009). Specific language impairment and school outcomes. II: Educational context, student satisfaction, and post‐compulsory progress. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 44(1), 36-55.
McGregor, K. K., Langenfeld, N., Van Horne, S., Oleson, J., Anson, M., & Jacobson, W. (2016). The university experiences of students with learning disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 31(2), 90-102.
Perelmutter, B., McGregor, K. K., & Gordon, K. R. (2017). Assistive technology interventions for adolescents and adults with learning disabilities: An evidence-based systematic review and meta-analysis. Computers & education, 114, 139-163.
Pierce, K. (2018). Perplexed in Translation: Bringing a Language Disorder to College. In Promoting Safe and Effective Transitions to College for Youth with Mental Health Conditions (pp. 73-81). Springer, Cham.