PhDs with Learning Disabilities: Where Are They and How to Find Them.
By Sereen Suleiman
The term “disabled” is one that has been around for centuries and one that continues to be modified. At first, the term meant people who were on wheelchairs or canes. Now, according to the Association for Psychological Sciences (APS), the term includes people with mental illnesses, psychological impairments, medical conditions, and learning disabilities. Over the last decade, it appeared that the number of disabled students in academics increased in number. This group of students is commonly referred to as “LD students.” In fact, in 2006, the National Center for Learning Disabilities reported that almost 2.9 million children with learning disabilities are attending U.S. schools and receiving support, which is a significant amount of students. Additionally, the National Institute of Health (NIH) recently proposed that about 15-20% of the U.S. population has some type of learning disability. However, it seems that LD students obtain most of their support during their K-12 years in school rather than the time they would need it most, which is their college and postgraduate years. According to a National Longitudinal Transition Study posted by GradSchools.com, only 13% of students with learning disabilities attend a four-year college, and an even smaller percentage of those continue on to graduate school.
Low Self Esteem in Graduate LD Students
There could be a main reason why the percentage of graduate students with LDs is low: lack of confidence. As the APS states, the competitiveness of graduate school tends to make students with learning disabilities feel less confident in their abilities than do their non-LD counterparts. Often times, LD students are hesitant to share their disorders and struggles in a classroom setting. Furthermore, classrooms are not prepared with the necessary equipment or accommodations that LD students need, as reported by GradSchools.com. They would have to go to their campuses’ disability centers to get accommodations such as extra time for tests, recording pens, audio equipment, or requesting a note taker. Graduate programs, especially STEM related ones, require academic and time management skills that may be affected by learning disabilities. To earn a PhD, a student must devote himself or herself to years of intensive work and research projects, which often hinder students with an LD. LD graduate students don’t request for as many accommodations as they did in a four-year school because, according to the APS, “they can be seen as an admission of weakness, failure, or uncontrolled difficulty.”
Another reason is that these individuals tend to “think differently,” says LD scientist, Collin Diedrich, in a HuffPost blog. “Goal-orientation, perseverance and passion have consistently been shown as some of the most important attributes to success. In my biased opinion, individuals with LDs will have to have these personality traits, giving them a paradoxical ‘leg up’ in academia.” In other words, LD students need to be confident of themselves rather than doubting themselves. I know this because, like Collin, I am also a student with a learning disability and I’ve gone through periods of self-doubt. But you know what? If you have a passion, go for it, and don’t let your learning disability get in the way of that. After all, LD students are just like everyone else and pursuing a PhD in science is a challenge, but not impossible.
Disabled PhDs Struggle to Find Employment
Despite being incorporated in their respective graduate programs, wherever they may be, there doesn’t seem to be much advocacy for PhD students with disabilities. In other words, they are not well known by employers or even the public. Part of the reason is that graduate programs aren’t really making an effort to spread education and awareness about LD graduates. Adjustments, such as the possibility of flexible work hours and other accommodations, would be easier if both the academia and employers were more educated about LDs in the graduate student population. Fortunately, the APS says there are organizations available to offer helpful information on learning disabilities. These groups specialize in linking affiliates to promote a network of LD advocates through teachers, students, and professionals.
Organizations to Recruit with Disabilities
Every year at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), the Center of Disabilities hosts the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference. Through this conference, “researchers, practitioners, exhibitors, end users, speakers and other participants share [their] knowledge” with LD students. At the same time, the students are exposed “to cutting edge technology.” The CSUN Conference has one goal in mind: to remove the barriers that prevent LD students from participating in the work force. Currently, this conference is partnered with the Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe Conference (AAATE) and the International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP).
Another organization is the Job Accommodation Network, also known as JAN. JAN provides consulting services for individuals, including one-on-one consultation about job accommodations and rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Furthermore, they post descriptions of the most common disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and even Alzheimer’s disease. Sources and guidelines are provided to both employees and employers alike.