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Finding Success While Learning Differently: Navigating Learning Disabilities in College

Finding Success While Learning Differently: Navigating Learning Disabilities in College

Navigate college life confidently with our comprehensive guide for students with learning disabilities and differences. Uncover practical tips, support services, and a roadmap to academic success.

If you have a learning disability, there have likely been times in your life when you felt isolated. During school, your brain may have taken you along the circuitous scenic route, while everyone else seemed to have a secret shortcut. But you’ve persevered, and your road ultimately brought you here — all the way to college. Now what? How can you navigate this completely new fork in the road with the confidence to forge ahead?

That’s where we can help. We’ve created this guide to clarify your rights so that you can boldly advocate for yourself. But that’s not all: In addition to breaking down the legal nuances, we’ll discuss some common learning disorders, explain possible accommodations, outline helpful resources, provide you with insight from an expert interview, and more. All of this can make your academic life much more successful (and less lonely). So don’t hesitate — step on the gas and zoom ahead on this new college path. We’ll show you where to go and how to get there.   

Learning Disorders Explained

According to Johns Hopkins, learning disorders cause affected individuals to receive, process, or communicate information in an atypical manner. They result from a problem in the nervous system, such as abnormal brain structure or an issue with the brain’s chemistry. And as the Mayo Clinic notes, most people who have a learning disorder possess average or above-average intelligence. These two things paired together — a learning disorder and average to above-average intelligence — cause a gap between expected skill and actual academic achievement.

With these facts in mind, let’s take a closer look at a variety of specific conditions to discover more about them and the difficulties they may present for students. 

  • Dyslexia: The International Dyslexia Association explains that dyslexia is a language-based learning disability that primarily causes difficulty with reading. However, it can also cause issues with spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. These challenges can present significant difficulty when it comes to tasks such as comprehending complex reading material or writing essays.
  • Dyscalculia: Individuals with dyscalculia struggle to understand number-based information and mathematical concepts. Although dyscalculia usually appears in childhood, it can also arise in adulthood due to certain medical conditions. Dyscalculia can cause difficulty with a variety of tasks, including basic arithmetic, mental math, memorizing math facts, and estimating quantities or time.
  • Dysgraphia: Dysgraphia is a disorder that affects a person’s ability to write. The condition encompasses two separate sides — motor and cognitive. The motor side makes it difficult to physically manipulate a writing instrument to form letters, and the cognitive side causes issues with spelling, grammar, and organizing ideas on paper.
  • Auditory Processing Disorder (APD): Sometimes called central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), APD is a type of hearing loss caused by a malfunction in the part of the brain responsible for processing auditory input. APD can make it difficult to understand spoken language, follow oral directions, identify sound origins, or distinguish between similar sounds.
  • Visual Processing Disorder: Similar to APD, a visual processing disorder is caused by a problem with how the brain processes the visual input it receives. There are eight types of this disorder, but in general, affected individuals struggle with tasks such as reading, writing, perceiving whole/part relationships, and recognizing shapes or objects.
  • Non-Verbal Learning Disability (NVLD or NLD): According to the NVLD Project, a non-verbal learning disability can cause deficits in a wide range of areas, including social and spatial abilities. Individuals who have NVLD possess strong verbal skills, but they struggle in many other areas, including interpreting non-verbal cues and social interactions, processing visual-spatial information, and multitasking.
  • Executive Functioning Disorder: Executive function is often described as the “management system of the brain” because it comprises a set of mental skills essential for accomplishing tasks and interacting with others. Because of this, executive functioning disorder can impact one’s ability to initiate tasks, multitask, plan and organize, and manage emotions, behavior, and time.
  • Language Processing Disorder: Language processing disorder (LPD) impairs a person’s ability to understand, express, and process language, even in the absence of auditory deficiencies or speech problems. Affected individuals may struggle with verbal self-expression, and they find it difficult to comprehend complex sentences as well as any other form of spoken or written language.
  • Memory Disorders: Memory disorders involve issues with working memory, which temporarily holds new information in place so that it can be connected to other information, or long-term memory, which consists of both procedural and declarative memories that are stored indefinitely. Those who struggle with memory loss may find it difficult to retain and recall important information.
  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD): Although ADHD is not exclusively defined as a learning disability, its symptoms — which include lack of focus, low frustration tolerance, impulsiveness, and poor planning and time management skills — can seriously impact academic performance. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. And, although ADHD symptoms begin in childhood, many adults are undiagnosed.

Legal Rights and Protections for Students with Learning Disabilities

Before 1973, protections for students with disabilities were vague enough to be considered nonexistent. The only applicable law on the books was the Fourteenth Amendment, and it did not specifically address the issues faced by individuals with disability. But now, thanks to laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, people with disabilities are guaranteed provisions that allow them equitable participation in all public spheres, including educational institutions. Knowing exactly what your rights are under these laws is a crucial step in advocating for yourself and ensuring that you receive the accommodations you need for success. Continue reading to learn more about the legal protections to which students with learning disabilities are entitled.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) provides broad protections against discrimination to anyone with a physical or mental condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” including learning. In addition to this protection, the ADA mandates the right to reasonable accommodations that remove barriers to full and fair participation in the educational experience. For example, a student with dyslexia might receive note-taking assistance or extended time on exams and assignments. The protections outlined in the ADA apply to both public and private postsecondary schoolsTitle II covers publicly funded schools, and Title III addresses privately funded institutions.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act

In terms of its definitions and the protections it extends, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 can be considered the precursor to the ADA. And in fact, these two pieces of legislation share many similarities. However, they differ in one important way: Whereas the ADA’s protections extend to all educational institutions, Section 504 is strictly applicable to those that receive federal financial assistance. But, very much like the ADA, Section 504 guarantees students with learning disabilities access to any reasonable accommodations that will allow them to fully participate in the mainstream educational experience.

Accommodations for Online Students with Learning Disabilities

To arrange accommodations in college, you must register with your school’s disability services office and provide any required documentation. From there, a coordinator will work with you to develop a plan and write an accommodation letter. Although there are a wide variety of possible accommodations you may need, here are some of the most common ones.

Extended Test-Taking Time

Generally, extended test-taking time allows students to receive anywhere from one-and-a-half to two times the amount of time allotted to other students for exams. This accommodation reduces students’ anxiety by lowering the pressure of time constraints so that they can more carefully process and respond to questions. Extended time also benefits students who struggle with focus, frustration, time management, and dexterity because they can take breaks, double-check their work, and truly demonstrate their learning.

Note-Taking Assistance

Note-taking assistance is a beneficial accommodation for students with hearing, visual, motor, or cognitive difficulties that interfere with their ability to take notes. Students can use assistive technology, or they can access lecture notes through various methods, including note-taking services or peer note-takers. Although students may be expected to attempt taking notes if they are physically able, the reassurance of receiving full and complete notes cuts down on their anxiety and allows them to focus during class.

Accessible Course Materials

Schools provide course materials — such as textbooks and articles — in alternate formats to make them more accessible for students who struggle with the standard options. These alternate formats include electronic text, audio versions, large print, and Braille. Without access to these other formats, students with certain learning disabilities are unable to effectively engage with the content. These accessible materials options are crucial for giving all students the chance to read, study, absorb, and respond to course content.

Use of Assistive Technology

Permission to use assistive technology in class can benefit students with a variety of learning disabilities that cause them to struggle with reading and writing tasks. This technology includes screen readers, speech-to-text software, and text-to-speech tools. In particular, these tools are helpful for tasks like reading and comprehending dense texts, taking notes, and writing, reviewing, and revising compositions. Being permitted to use these tools cuts down on students’ frustration and anxiety and allows them to achieve greater success.

Flexible Deadlines

A flexible assignment deadline accommodation allows students to manage their workload by turning work in later or negotiating extensions based on their specific pacing needs. Most schools require students to complete a form to arrange this ahead of time with instructors, and the amount of extra time permitted must be agreed upon as reasonable. This accommodation is designed to help students whose disabilities — such as executive functioning issues or reading challenges — might cause them to complete assignments at a slower pace.

Tutoring and Study Support

Although specific cases may vary, colleges are generally not required to provide tutoring as an accommodation. However, many colleges do have tutoring services and study support available for the entire student population. In such cases, students with learning disabilities can still take advantage of these campus-wide tutoring services to help them grasp concepts and reinforce course content. And some colleges — like American University and Adelphi University — do offer excellent learning services programs for students with learning disabilities.

Other Support for Online Students with Learning Disabilities

While you’re securing the academic accommodations you need, you should also investigate other supportive services to pave the road to success in college. For example, resources such as peer support groups and mental health support can go a long way toward helping you find your footing. Keep reading to learn more about these and other resources.

Mental Health Support

Mental illness is not uncommon in individuals who also struggle with learning disabilities. In fact, some common mental health issues that affect students with learning disabilities include feelings of isolation and loneliness, persistent frustration, low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. And unsurprisingly, leaving these issues unaddressed can negatively impact academic performance. Fortunately, due to rising awareness of the importance of students’ mental well-being, colleges are increasingly offering supportive services such as mental health screenings, counseling services, group therapy, and campus-wide courses, programs, and initiatives. These services are usually free for full-time students, so seeking help doesn’t come with financial baggage.

Peer Support Groups

Rather than seeking help from a counselor or other authority figure, some students may find it easier to open up to a peer when they are experiencing adversity or challenges. For such students, peer support groups are a great option. Although they are not designed to provide clinical advice, they do give students the opportunity to connect with other individuals who are affected by similar conditions or circumstances. And through organized meetings where members discuss the issues they are facing, attendees get guidance, feel less isolated, and become empowered to solve their own problems.

Assistive Technology

When it comes to assistive technology, there is a virtual avalanche of options available to students. Although it can be difficult to know where to start, the LD Resources Foundation recommends that students consider which strategies (high-tech, low-tech, or no-tech) they have been successful with in the past. Furthermore, students might find it helpful to brainstorm a list of anticipated problems that assistive technology could help them resolve. Many schools maintain programs that allow students to borrow the assistive technology they need for success. For example, Indiana University’s program allows students to borrow items on a semester-by-semester basis at no cost.

Advocacy Support

Advocacy groups support, defend, and speak up for the rights of individuals affected by specific circumstances, conditions, or issues. College students who want to take action can get directly involved with school-specific organizations, such as the ones that exist at the University of Texas, for example. Groups like these work directly on campus to promote awareness and education about disability and to improve the college experience for students who face such challenges. Getting involved with an on-campus group can be quite empowering for students with learning disabilities, and they often learn critical self-advocacy skills along the way.

Additional Resources for Online Students with Learning Disabilities

If you know where to look, a massive amount of quality resources are available for students with learning disabilities. To give you an idea of what you might find, we’ve collected some of the best websites, podcasts, forums, and more. Give them a look, and if they leave you wanting more, check out our comprehensive resource guide for college students with disabilities and our guide to scholarships for students with disabilities.

ADDA Resources for College Students with ADHD

This is an extensive list of linked resources from the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, covering a wide range of topics — including college success, study skills, and colleges that focus on students with learning disabilities, among others.

Assistive Technology from LD Resources Foundation

At this website, you’ll find links to technology tools helpful for students with learning disabilities. Resources are categorized by type — text-to-speech, digital books/articles, speech-to-text, and organizational and study tools.

LDA Podcast

Subscribe to this podcast from the Learning Disabilities Association of America to learn about the latest information, real-life experiences, practical solutions, and helpful tips for individuals with learning disabilities. 

LD Online

This website features articles, expert interviews, videos, essays, resources, and more for individuals with learning disabilities. Content is searchable and features filters to narrow results. 

List of Free Assistive Tech Tools

Here you’ll find a list of resources from Edutopia featuring preinstalled apps, online applications, and browser extensions. Each resource is linked and accompanied by a thorough explanation of its features. 

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

This advocacy organization promotes research and programs for effective learning. At this website, you’ll find resources, information, and scholarships for individuals with learning disabilities.

“Normal Sucks: How to Live, Learn, and Thrive Outside the Lines”

This book by Jonathan Mooney is based on personal experience, anecdote, and expertise that urges people with learning disabilities to break free from their labels and empower themselves to succeed.


This is a peer support subreddit for individuals with ADHD that emphasizes sharing science-backed information. Members also discuss personal experiences and struggles and seek advice and community.


Similar to the resource above, this subreddit is specifically geared toward people with learning disabilities who want to discuss experiences, struggles, and issues. The focus is on navigating obstacles encountered by people with learning disabilities.

Scholarships for Students with Learning Disabilities

Here’s a list from the University of Michigan encompassing 20 scholarships for people with learning disabilities. Each one is linked and accompanied by a description.

Interview with a Learning Disability Expert

Dr. Wendy Harbour

Dr. Wendy Harbour, is the director of the federally funded National Center for College Students with Disabilities (NCCSD) at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on Community Integration, which collaborates with the Association on Higher Education where she is employed. Wendy advises the NCCSD’s national Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring (DREAM) student organization and publishes a weekly newsletter about disability and higher education.

Dr. Harbour served as an Obama appointee to the National Council on Disability. She is the coordinator of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Disability Consortium, a co-founder of La Coalición Nacional para Latinx con Discapacidades/National Coalition for Latinxs with Disabilities, and an inductee into the National Disability Mentoring Coalition’s Hall of Fame. She currently serves on the editorial board for the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education and was an editor of the Harvard Educational Review. She holds a bachelor’s and Master’s degree from the University of Minnesota, and a Master’s degree and doctorate from Harvard University. She is proud of her membership and activism in d/Deaf and disability communities, and lives with her wife, son, and niece in Minnesota.

  • 1. What is the best way for students to get clear on their rights, and where should they go for assistance if their needs are not being met?

    To begin, students can learn more about their rights through our Disability Services and Law page. And if their needs are not being met, they should file a grievance about the issues. The problem with grievances, though, is that many are overseen by disability services providers, so there’s a direct conflict of interest. If that seems to be the case, the issue should be escalated to whoever oversees disability services (usually a dean or VP of academic affairs/student affairs). Students should also see if their campus has an ombudsman—their job is to work on problems students are having and mediate a resolution.

    I encourage students to seek out allies for support. Disability studies, special education, and rehabilitation profs may be good contacts, but students should read their bios online to be sure their work fits what the student needs. They can also pursue community resources, like the local Independent Living Center, or contact the National Disability Rights Network, which has offices in every state. Additional resources include national groups and state-specific organizations focused on learning disabilities. Also, students who need immediate help with a crisis can refer to our crisis resources page.

    If all else fails, the student can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights through the U.S. Department of Education. And, as a very last resort, I encourage students to consider transferring. I myself have transferred before due to extremely poor services—but at another university, I decided to stay and fight through the problems. Ultimately, it’s a personal decision only the student can make, but sometimes it’s not worth the time and energy it takes to get services in a place that doesn’t want to provide them.

  • 2. Are there any hallmarks that students can look for to determine whether a prospective college prioritizes an inclusive, supportive environment for students with learning disabilities?

    Here are some important strategies that can help you assess the climate of a prospective school:

    • Contact whoever provides disability services—you can find them at our CEDAR Database. Ask them about their experience with your specific disability (or disabilities) and your specific accommodations. Ask what kind of documentation they need, how old it can be, and if they pay for you to get a new one (if applicable). Ask about accommodations for any online learning you may do.
    • Find out if there are any student disability organizations on campus and try to meet with the chair/co-chairs of the group(s). When you do, ask them what they know about the college and students with LD. We also have DREAM chapters for our national DREAM student group (Disability Rights, Education, Activism, and Mentoring). Some national LD groups (on our list of national organizations) also have campus chapters.
    • Look around to see if there are accommodations for professors, like ramps to stages, podiums that can move, buttons or controls that are low enough, accessible labs, and tables at the front of the classrooms that can move. If a campus is thinking widely about disability, they are also considering disabled faculty and staff.
    • See if there’s a writing lab, tutoring resource, or anything else you can use if you’re struggling academically, and ask if they know anything about students with LD.
    • If the school prides itself on services for students with learning disabilities, look at what they’re really offering. Are you required to meet weekly or monthly with someone? Do you stay in a different dorm away from everyone else? Are you still able to take courses you need, or are there a lot of required courses you’d have to take first to stay in the program?  
  • 3. What effective strategies can educators employ to identify and accommodate students with learning disabilities?

    We have helpful tips and resources for faculty and instructors. But overall, the biggest thing is universal design, which is designing new courses (or redesigning existing courses) to accommodate the maximum diversity of learners. This involves working flexibility, choices, supports, and different types of assessment into the course to make it more welcoming for all students and to minimize individual accommodations a student may need. Faculty should be sure texts, learning platforms like Blackboard, and PDFs are accessible—whether or not there’s a student with LD or blindness who needs those things. If they’re set up in advance, then it saves time and energy later, and students don’t pay the price when materials are not available for them or it takes ages to get anything converted to accessible formats.

    Another big thing is for educators to ask the disability rights professionals to explain anything that seems unreasonable or confusing—this helps them be more understanding about disabilities. Beyond this, they can actually provide accommodations. Many profs think they can just say no to accommodations, but that’s illegal, and the entire university can be held responsible. 

    And lastly, if instructors have a disability, they could be open about that on the first day so students realize they’re welcome and have an instructor who “gets it.” Many college students tell me they’ve never had a teacher or prof with a disability, but that’s impossible.  

  • 4. How can colleges foster self-advocacy skills in students with learning disabilities to help them navigate the academic environment?

    I prefer not to use this term because if you walk up to the average undergrad, they probably won’t be able to define it, or they’ll use words like “sticking up for yourself,” “knowing what you want and going for it,” “communicating well,” “being confident and direct,” or any number of other similar terms. Students with disabilities could also add “understanding my disability,” “knowing my rights,” and “accomplishing any goals I have.” I honestly think students can learn more about self-advocacy outside the disability services office by getting involved in internships, volunteering, or student clubs so they meet different people, enhance their communication, and learn leadership skills. They can also attend courses about these topics or talk to friends for advice about anything that’s a struggle—they can even find tips on TikTok or Instagram! We have to re-frame this concept because students with disabilities shouldn’t have to learn “self-advocacy” if everyone else is learning the same thing in different ways. 

    However, disability services can teach students how to understand their disability and accommodations, talk about it to others, and assert their needs as rights. They can also connect students to disability history and activism and teach them about ableism so they realize a lot of their barriers are in the environment—it isn’t necessarily that they’re a burden, a problem, or someone who needs help. In many situations, “asking for help” is actually just asking for the things they are entitled to under disability laws. 

  • 5. Are there technological tools or resources that can enhance the learning experience for students with learning disabilities?

    Absolutely; there are tons of things. Some are already built into computers, like text-to-speech. Others are readily available, like Grammarly. Phones can be an important resource, with things like calendars, alarms so students remember to go somewhere, or even apps that transcribe speech to text for meetings, etc. There are national organizations that provide digitized texts, and e-books are popular. If students need more ideas, they should contact their IT or disability services department. Software and technology are also available in numerous places online—DO-IT at the University of Washington has lists of ideas. And all those national organizations can help, too.

  • 6. How can colleges collaborate with high schools and transition programs to better prepare students with learning disabilities for the college environment?

    The first thing colleges should do is find out what college is actually like for students with learning disabilities so that they can understand students’ potential needs. It is also helpful if they provide assessments of some kind so students have recent documentation of their learning disabilities. In addition to that, high schools can be sure students with LD receive testing accommodations because accommodations for ACT or SAT or even college may be unavailable if the student hasn’t needed them in the past. And they should also allow students to lead IEP or 504 meetings so they learn how to talk about their disability, needs, and accommodations. 

    Additionally, colleges and high schools can inform students about the CEDAR Database so they can find the information they need to make decisions about colleges. Furthermore, they can have high expectations that there is probably a version of postsecondary education out there for every student with a disability, even if that’s not college, per se.

  • 7. Are there specific considerations for students with learning disabilities in online or remote learning environments?

    Definitely. Accommodations are likely to be different for online learning environments, and some resources like tutoring may be hard to get for online courses or programs. Computers and the campus online learning platforms (like Blackboard) need to be up to date whenever possible. If students are not using their own computer, they should figure out how to turn on access features as needed. We have more tips available on our information for online students page.

  • 8. What resources are available for parents of college students with learning disabilities to support their children’s success?

    They can contact national organizations on our list. Additionally, they can contact the Center for Parent Information and Resources (CPIR) to get resources or find their state or local parent information center. Parents can also work on getting their kids ready to go to college and be independent. Examples include making them responsible for getting themselves up for school, letting them deal with the consequences of their actions, and being sure they know how to use technology to help themselves. After all, once students get to college, they should know how to do all those things for themselves.

    I always say that when a student goes to college, parents should just think of themselves as “on call,” rather than as a regular support person. And if possible, they should encourage their kids to stay in dorms the first year—research has shown it helps students academically and socially. It enables them to learn a lot about problem solving and getting along with students who are radically different from them.