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Leslie L. Hemphill, Cloud County Community College 

Advising students with disabilities presents many challenges to the college advisor. However, skilled advising can go a long way towards ensuring the success of a student with a disability. To effectively advise a student with a disability requires a thorough understanding of the student’s goals as well as the student’s disability, the barriers the institution may have inadvertently created, and the resources the college provides that can be used to assist the student in pursuing his or her educational aspirations.

Advisors who become familiar with the difficulties imposed by a particular disability can logically deduce the importance of some advising practices. For example, if the student is taking medication, are there certain times of the day when the student is less alert? This could have important implications when developing a class schedule. In a similar fashion, students experiencing clinical depression often have more difficulty in the morning.

Information concerning the impact of various disabilities is particularly important in attempting to determine if the college poses structural, educational or bureaucratic barriers for a student. Many colleges have buildings that were constructed before federal laws regarding accessibility were implemented. Awareness of the campus could prevent enrolling a student who uses a wheel chair in a class that can only be accessed by a stairway. Depending upon the amount of time allowed to pass from one class to another, any student with a mobility issue might have difficulty with classes scheduled back to back in different buildings.

Educational barriers are less visible but no less demanding for students with disabilities. Students with learning disabilities often have difficulty with structure and organization. Instructors who break material down into small sequences and then present it in a logical step-by-step fashion serve them well. Advisors should attempt to learn something about the teaching style of various instructors and enroll students with disabilities accordingly.

It is also important for advisors to know the rules and regulations of their institution. Only if you know the rules are you in a position to take advantage of them for the benefit of the students with whom you are working. Financial aid and course substitutions are two obvious examples of areas that can be used to a student’s advantage. A student with a disability can receive a full Pell Grant even though the student is enrolled in less than twelve hours, if their disability warrants it. Other students may qualify for a course substitution. Advisors need to know the procedures on their campus for such things as obtaining a course substitution if they hope to assist students who qualify.

Finally, when working with a student who has a disability, an advisor would be wise to develop collaborative relationships with faculty, financial aid, counseling and other organizations within the college. This can be one of the most important tasks an advisor can undertake. Earlier it was suggested that a knowledge of the campus could prevent enrolling a student in a class they could not physically access. A working relationship with those in the college who schedule classes can preempt such a problem by insuring that additional sections of the course are available in classrooms that are accessible. In the unlikely event that only one section of a required course is being offered and the classroom is not accessible, strong allies can help to persuade the administration to move the course to an accessible classroom or create an additional accessible section.

There are two important allies an advisor should network with for assistance with such problems. The first is the individual designated by the college to enforce compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The second ally is the person or persons at the college responsible for establishing eligibility for accommodations, determining the nature of the accommodations needed by a particular student and helping to insure that the student receives the accommodations for which they are eligible. While the titles for these two potential allies may vary from one campus to another, federal law requires that they exist and that they be readily identifiable on any campus.

Advising students with disabilities may present many challenges, but meeting these challenges can provide long term rewards for you and the students you serve.

Leslie L. Hemphill
Cloud County Community College

Cite this article using APA style as: Hemphill, L. (2002, September). Advising students with disabilities. Academic Advising Today, 25(3). [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.