How students with disabilities navigate college and beyond

Before he could take the LSAT exam required for law school applications, Donald Campbell had to prove he was disabled enough to be granted extra time and assistance with writing.

They needed my life history,” said Campbell, 26, who has cerebral palsy. “I used to make fun of my mom for saving every piece of paper. But I needed it all. I kept thinking, if I could just send a video, it would be obvious.”

It took two tries, but Campbell hit the LSAT score he needed and was accepted into Widener University Delaware Law School, where he graduated in May. He is studying for the bar exam this month, which will also require accommodations.

Campbell, who attended Egg Harbor Township schools, Atlantic Cape Community College and Stockton University, has spent his entire education with accommodations. But he considers himself lucky that he lives in an era when people with disabilities can aspire to college and a career.

I am so glad I was born when I was,” he said. “There are laws now like the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and the technology to help.”

About 11 percent of college undergraduates reported having a disability in 2011-12, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. But the types of disabilities are changing, and colleges are adapting to accommodate them.

In 2000, the most common type of disability was an orthopedic or mobility impairment such as Campbell’s, which made up about 30 percent of all students with disabilities, according to a 2009 U.S. General Accounting Office report. By 2008, mental, emotional or psychiatric conditions/depression were the most common disabilities, making up 24 percent of students up from 17 percent in 2000.

Students with attention deficit disorder were just 7 percent of all students with disabilities in 2000, but that number jumped to 19 percent by 2008.

The shift has presented challenges to universities and to students, who discover that the level of accommodation they received in the K-12 system changes once they get to college.

Self-advocacy is so important,” said Bob Ross, coordinator of services for students with disabilities at Stockton University. “In the K-12 system, the school identifies the disability. In higher education, the laws change. The student must self-disclose.”

At Stockton, the number of students identifying with a disability has risen from just less than 300 in 2008-09 to just more than 700 in 2014-15. Ross said the most common disability now is mental health, which represents about 24 percent of Stockton’s disabled students.

Ross said stress had been the No. 1 problem nationally, but that has been replaced by anxiety, especially in high-stakes programs like nursing or physical therapy that require a standardized test for licensure.

Stockton has a Learning Access Program and five licensed mental health professionals on campus. The university has support groups for test anxiety.

Working with an issue like anxiety can be challenging. Susan Goldberg, associate dean for student academic affairs at Delaware Law School, said pretty much every law student is anxious at some point.

But most may not meet the ADA standards to qualify for accommodations,” she said. “And then we have to determine if the disability is accommodable for someone in law school. They still have to be able to complete the program.”

At Stockton, most requests are for more time for tests or to complete assignments, as well as for note-taking or sharing. More than 50 students received housing accommodations.

Some students may not have a diagnosed disability until they arrive at college or law school and find they suddenly can’t keep up.

It’s something they always kind of knew, but they had developed strategies to cope,” Ross said. “Then they get here and realize they need help.”

Colleges typically will not pay for evaluations, and not all accommodations are free, though students may be eligible for some government funding assistance.

Campbell said every level of education has required new adaptations. In high school, he had an aide, but over time she let him do as much as he could on his own. In college, he had student note-takers, and he uses a voice-activated computer program called Dragon to help him write papers. The program gave him more independence but was too slow for tests, so he had a scribe write his test answers.

Amy Loeffler, an administrative secretary at the law school, helped Campbell write his tests. She said she was probably more nervous than he was at first, but they became a good team.

I was terrified at first,” she said. “There was the pressure of it being a final and I worried about messing up. But Don’s done this his whole life.”

He can’t drive. He tried, but he decided he was a hazard to himself and others. Since 2011, an uncle has driven him as needed and shopped for the microwaveable meals Campbell lived on in law school since cooking is a challenge.

He can microwave with the best of them,” said uncle Chris Schanz, who described himself as Alfred to Campbell’s Batman.

Campbell has a sense of humor about his disability and almost downplays the challenges he has faced to graduate from law school. He jokes that when he needed a note taker in class, he would announce “who wants to help the disabled person and get some good karma?”

He viewed videos of lectures for reinforcement and got double time for tests, which typically meant a four-hour law school exam could take as long as eight hours to complete.

Sometimes we took a lunch break,” Loeffler said. “But usually he just wanted to get it done and not lose his train of thought.”

Campbell credits a Stockton professor, Linda Wharton, with encouraging him to apply to law school. Ross said they are developing a “universal design for learning” on campus that encourages everyone to recognize that students who learn differently can succeed.

Campbell said students must speak up to get what they need but be willing to work harder on their own. He said time management was crucial for him to finish law school.<

You can’t just expect people to know what you need,” he said. “You’re not the only disabled student on campus. You have to work with people. I’m good at speaking my mind, but disabled people have to learn in a nice way to articulate what they need.”

Campbell won’t get his bar exam results until late fall, at which time he’ll begin looking for a job — ideally in disability and special education law, a field he’s been studying all his life