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Peter Love, Ph.D.

What does “support” for college students with learning disabilities look like?

One of the most complicated parts of growing up with any kind of disability is the relationship that one develops with “support.” It can sometimes be like one of those friendships that we all have that fit into the newly popular category—“frenemy.” We know that we want these people around us but it is not always the most comfortable of relationships, and we find ourselves thinking, “Why is this person in my life?”

Part of the problem is that accessing support for a disability can be an uncomfortable reminder of the reason that the support is needed in the first place. And, for people growing up with hidden disabilities such as learning disabilities, there is often that sense of being “outed” in a support environment. In many instances of support, there is also the shadow of the meta-message—“I can’t do it”—lurking in the background.

Because of the complexity of this relationship, I encourage parents and students to spend some serious time talking with each other about what support is going to look like before the students show up on a college campus. I encourage people not only to think about what support is going to look like but also when and how it will be offered. For most of us, support comes into play when we have experienced some challenge or failure. The quality of the support that we receive after this occurrence can so often make the difference between the challenge or failure being an opportunity or a setback, which is why it is so important to get it as right as we can.

Most people think of support mostly in terms of “nice” things such as giving another person a pat on the back or a hug, or doing something for someone else to help out, or even listening uncritically. However, sometimes genuine support can feel not so nice or friendly. I like to break support down into three categories: the hug, the kick in the pants, and the walk beside.

For every family, these three types of support will look very different and that is why it is so important to sit and talk it through together.

Questions to ask include:

  • How do we see failure? Is it an opportunity for growth or for shame?

  • What does the “hug”, or the more traditional form of “nice” support, look like? When and how should it show up?

  • What does a “kick in the pants”, or more of that “tough love” kind of support, look like? When and how should it show up?

  • What does a “walking beside”, or the “partnering” form of support, look like? When and how should it show up?

  • When, and how, are we going to re-negotiate the terms of support?


Peter Love, Ph.D. is the Director of the Learning Resource Center at Mitchell College in New London, Connecticut.

Campus “Access-ability”