Feature Article

Debra G. Holzberg

Christine Gregoire, former governor of Washington said, “Education exposes young people to a broader world, a world full of opportunity and hope.” However, barriers to opportunities in education often preclude students with learning disabilities (LD) from achieving their educational goals and dreams. Since 1990, enrollment in postsecondary education has increased considerably. For example, in 1990, only 30% of students with LD were enrolled in postsecondary education of any type (e.g., vocational or technical school, 2-year college, 4-year college); in 2011, that number increased to 66.8%. In 1990, 5% of students with LD attended 4-year college and in 2011, that number increased to 21.2% (Newman, Wagner, Cameto, Knokey, & Shaver, 2010; Sanford et al., 2011). Much of the impetus to pursue postsecondary education is due to the positive correlation between earning level and level of education. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics individuals with a high school diploma earn an average of $35,256 per year while those with a bachelor’s degree earn $59,124 per year (http://www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm). Over an individual’s lifetime, that can equate to nearly $1million in additional earnings for college degree holders compared to their peers who did not graduate from college (Carnevale, Rose, & Cheah, 2011).

Data from the 2011 National Longitudinal Transition Study – 2 (NLTS-2) indicated 89.1% of students with LD reported working towards a postsecondary degree (i.e., technical school or 2-year or 4-year college program); yet, only 40.9% of students surveyed achieved their goal (Sanford et al., 2011). Failure to utilize available resources in postsecondary education may account for poor persistence rates for students with LD (Barnard-Brak, Lechtenberger & Lan, 2010; Sniatecki, Perry, & Snell, 2015). One reason for poor persistence rates may be due to students’ underutilization of academic accommodations. In order for students to utilize available resources such as academic accommodations, students must first disclose their disability to the institution.

Despite receiving accommodations in high school, only 17% of students with LD received accommodations in postsecondary education (Wagner, et al., 2011). For example, data from one university’s Office of Disability Services (ODS) Annual Report, indicated student registration for services increased with each academic year. For example, 7.9% of students registered were freshman, 18.6% were sophomores, 24.6% were juniors, and 39% were seniors (Fernald et al., 2014). These data indicate students are waiting longer to access accommodations. Reasons for non-disclosure include desire to shed the disability label (Barnard-Brak, Lechtenberger & Lan, 2010, Lightner, Kipps-Vaughn, Schulte, & Trice, 2012), the desire to be like other college students (Bernard-Brak et al., 2010; Kranke, Jackson, Taylor, Anderson-Fye, & Floersch, 2013), and the perception their disability is not significant enough to warrant accommodations (Barnard-Brak et al., 2010). Differences in the laws, policies, and available accommodations may also contribute to the reasons students with LD do not seek academic support in postsecondary educational settings (Cole & Cawthon, 2015; Summers, White, Zhang, & Gordon, 2014).

One major change that may influence how and why students receive services is the legal protections they receive at each level of education.  In high school, students are protected by the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA; 2004) or by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504; 1973). In college, however, students receive accommodations under Section 504 and the American with Disabilities Act (ADA). In addition to the changes in laws protecting students with disabilities in postsecondary education, the way in which students access accommodations changes. Students are required to submit documentation of a disability in order to qualify for accommodations in postsecondary placements whereas in K-12 settings teachers identify when and if accommodations are necessary based on the individualized education plan (IEP). Further, while institutions are required to provide reasonable accommodations, the extent to which those accommodations are offered is solely at the discretion of the institution (Cole & Cawthon, 2015). In other words, an institution is under no obligation to provide more than minimum accomodations necessary for the student to gain access to course content. Lastly, many students are unaware of their rights and are unsure how to go about accessing accommodations necessary to support their learning (Cole & Cawthon, 2015; Summers, White, Zhang, & Gordon, 2014).

Postsecondary education presents new challenges for students with LD (Janiga & Costenbader, 2002; Wood, Kelley, Test, & Fowler, 2010). Aside from the typical adjustment students must make when beginning college, students with LD must first decide to access their accommodations which requires acknowledging their disability and the way in which it impacts their learning. Then, they must understand the differences between IDEA and ADA and the way in which those differences impact students’ ability to access accommodations (Cole & Cawthon, 2015). Most often students require academic accommodations, which can be described as a practice, intervention, or procedure that provides equal access to instruction or assessment and whose purpose is to mitigate the impact of a student’s disability (McLaughlin, 2012). Essentially, accommodations are meant to level the playing field for students with disabilities. Examples of accommodations include note takers, extended time, separate testing setting, and instructor provided notes (Kim & Lee, 2015; Rao & Gartin, 2010).

The use of accommodations has been positively correlated with grade point average (GPA) and increased persistence rates (Kim & Lee, 2015; Mamiseishvili & Koch, 2011; Troiano, Liefeld, & Trachtenberg, 2010). Troiano, Liefeld, and Trachtenberg (2010) found students with disabilities who accessed academic support maintained higher GPAs and higher graduation rates. It is imperative students with LD understand the potential barriers to success in postsecondary education and learn behaviors demonstrated to facilitate success such as self-determination. Madaus (2011) characterized self-determination as “an essential component of successful transition to higher education and student success” (p. 10).

Rowe and colleagues (2014) operationally defined self-determination as “the ability to make choices, solve problems, set goals, evaluate options, take initiative to reach one’s goals, and accept consequences of one’s actions” (p. 116). Ancil, Ishikawa, and Scott (2008) identified three factors students with LD reported as improving their ability to access academic accommodations in postsecondary settings (a) knowledge of one’s disability, (b) self-advocacy skills, and (c) conflict resolution skills. In order for a student to effectively advocate for their needs, they must first, acknowledge and understand their disability and the way in which it affects their learning. Next, they must take the initiative to seek out their school’s disability support services (DSS) and arrange for their accommodations. Then, they must communicate with their instructors and provide them with supporting documentation from DSS. Finally, they must be prepared to manage conflict (i.e., pushback) with faculty, if necessary. Therefore, students planning to attend college must possess the necessary self-advocacy and conflict resolution skills to successfully access their academic accommodations.

Research has demonstrated the benefits of academic accommodations on the GPA and persistence rates of students with disabilities in postsecondary education (Kim & Lee, 2015; Mamiseishvili & Koch, 2011). However, often faculty’s reluctance to provide academic accommodations creates a barrier to students’ willingness to request accommodations. Lightner and colleagues (2012) found students who elect not to seek services from DSS express feelings of shame, fear, and concern that by accessing accommodations they will be perceived by instructors and peers as lazy or as gaining an unfair advantage. In addition, instructors articulate concerns about providing accommodations including concern over lowering the bar, added stress of additional responsibilities, maintaining academic integrity, and knowledge of the nature of the student’s disability (Hindes & Mather, 2007; Nelson,

Dodd, & Smith, 1990). This reluctance on the part of instructors to grant accommodations may lead to conflicts between students and instructors creating a barrier to student success.

Self-Advocacy and Conflict Resolution Training (SACR)

Harrison (2007) conducted a survey to evaluate conflict in postsecondary education and found the biggest issues included grievances about instructors.  Among these grievances included issues of unfair grading, poor teaching or classroom instruction, exam policies, and personality issues. Conflict with instructors can lead to increased stress for students, difficulty concentrating on other courses, dropping the course which was the source of the conflict, enmity towards the instructor, and negative perceptions of the university (Harrison, 2007).

Given some students’ reluctance to seek accommodations and some instructors’ resistance to accommodate students, it is imperative students acquire conflict resolution skills to handle potential conflicts and effectively advocate for their accommodations. One method shown to improve the self-advocacy and conflict resolution skills of students with LD is the implementation of the Self-Advocacy and Conflict Resolution Training (SACR; Rumrill, Palmer, Roessler, & Brown, 1999 [i.e., Bethune, 2015; Holzberg, Test, & Rusher, 2016; Palmer & Roessler, 2000]). The SACR intervention was developed to address not only the communication required for self-advocacy, but also to build the skill of negotiation, or conflict resolution.  SACR instruction is divided into two modules. Module 1 is comprised of seven self-advocacy lessons including: (a) Introduction, (b) Disclosure, (c) Solution, (d) Resources, (e) Agreement, (f) Summary, and (g) Closure. Each lesson has specific target behaviors; for example, Introduction includes teaching the student to greet the instructor, state his/her name, and state the course name and section. Module II includes seven self-advocacy lessons including: (a) Specifying, (b) Reflecting, (c) Mutualizing, (d) Collaborating, (e) Inventing, (f) Summarizing, and (g) Selecting. A complete listing of SACR target behaviors can be found in Table 1.

            Research demonstrates students with LD can be taught the steps of SACR instruction over four lessons using a model-lead-test approach with explicit instruction and/or scripted notecards (or notes in a smartphone) for role-play purposes (Holzberg, Test, & Rusher, 2016; Walker & Test, 2011). Together, the interventionist and the student select an accommodation to use in the role play (e.g., extended time). First, the interventionist (i.e., researcher or teacher) explains the objective of the lesson. Second, the interventionist models the target behaviors for the student. Next, the student practices the lesson using the scripted notecard. Finally, the interventionist role-plays (as the instructor) with the student (who is using the scripted notecard or smartphone for guided practice). Once the student has mastered one lesson (i.e., correctly demonstrated 85% of the target behaviors), the next lesson can be taught. Instruction takes place over four lessons; each session lasting 20 – 30 minutes for a total intervention time of approximately two hours. (See Figure 1 for a sample of the script.)

Teaching Students with Learning Disabilities the Steps of SACR

Lesson 1.As previously mentioned, SACR instruction can be broken into four lessons. Lesson 1 includes three target behaviors (i.e., greet the instructor, identify disability status, and explain the effects of the disability on the student’s learning). The goal of Lesson 1 is to establish a positive rapport with the instructor through a friendly introduction, state of the impact of the student’s disability (e.g., “I require extended time for tests”), and explain the effects of the disability. First, the interventionist will explain the objective of the lesson to the student (i.e., “Today you are going to learn how to introduce yourself and greet your professor. Remember to be relaxed and try not to say ‘uh’ or ‘um’ and remember to shake hands”). For example, “Hi, Professor Plum, I’m Anne Teak and I’m in your Monday/Wednesday History 1100 class.”  The second and third behaviors in Lesson 1, are identify disability status and explain the disability in functional terms. It is important to note, students are not required to disclose their exact disability, just that they qualify for the accommodation(s) they are requesting. The goal of the skill is to inform the instructor how the student’s disability impacts their learning. For example, the student might say “I wanted to discuss my accommodations from the Office of Disability Services. I have a hard time listening to class lectures and taking notes at the same time.” The student has told the instructor two things: the reason for their visit, and the nature of their disability and how it impacts their learning. Once the interventionist has modeled the skill, the student practices using the scripted notecard (guided practice). Next, the interventionist and the student role play the scenario of the first three target behaviors until the student demonstrates mastery (i.e., demonstrates 85% of the target behaviors).

Lesson 2. The second lesson includes six target behaviors (i.e., explain the benefits of previous accommodations, request the use of accommodations, identify resources, describe how they help, the student explains their role, ask the instructor for agreement). The objective of the lesson is to teach students to explain the benefits they used in the past, ask for specific accommodation(s), explain to the instructor how they will access accommodations (i.e., ODS), teach student to explain their role in obtaining and arranging for accommodations, and to learn how to ask the instructor for their agreement. The interventionist explains the objective of the lesson and models the target behavior beginning from the first step. For example, the interventionist will say, “Hi, Professor Plum, I’m Anne Teak and I’m in your Monday/Wednesday History 1100 class. I wanted to discuss my accommodations from the Office of Disability Services. I have a hard time listening to class lectures and taking notes at the same time. Last semester, I got a copy of my instructor’s notes which helped me fill in my notes if I missed important information. This enabled me to review for tests and to do better in my classes. Before the semester began, I met with the Office of Disability Services in order to get my accommodations. Here is the letter they gave me to give to my instructors; it has my approved accommodations listed. I’d like to let them know I have requested a copy of your class notes, is that ok with you?” The student has told the instructor the accommodation has been effective in the past, they have requested the accommodations, identified the resources (i.e., ODS), explained their responsibility in making arrangements for the accommodation, and asked the instructor for agreement. As in Lesson 1, after the interventionist has modeled the dialogue, the student practices using the scripted notecard (guided practice) with the interventionist until mastery is reached (i.e., demonstrates 85% of the target behaviors).

Lesson 3. The third lesson includes six target behaviors (i.e., specifying, reflecting, mutualizing, collaborating, inventing, and summarizing). At this time, the instructor has indicated their objections to the student’s request for accommodations. In other words, the instructor is pushing back and resisting the student’s request. For instance, when the student states their request and asks, “Is it ok with you?” the instructor may say, “You know, I’m not really comfortable with that.” The objective of Lesson Three is to clarify, with the instructor, their concerns, reflect the concerns back to the instructor to confirm understanding, explain the student believes they both want the student to succeed, attempt to work together to come up with some potential solutions to address the instructor’s concerns, and to summarize the solutions. Since, at this point, the instructor has expressed concern over granting the accommodation, the student must try to work with the instructor to reach a compromise (i.e., resolve the conflict).

The interventionist will demonstrate the conflict resolution target behaviors as follows, “I understand you may have some concerns about the accommodation, may I ask what bothers you?” The instructor will express concerns over providing class notes because it is “unfair” to the other students, or they may say the lectures are not on paper, they are in their head. The interventionist then reflects the instructor’s concern by saying, “I understand you do not have your lecture notes written down and it would be extra work to put them in writing.” [Instructor nods in agreement.] The interventionist continues by saying, “I understand your concerns. From what we discussed, I believe we both want me to succeed in your class, but we may be coming it from different perspectives. Maybe we can come up with some solutions that will work for both of us.” [Instructor affirms the statement.] “Having a copy of your notes would be very helpful in the past; but, it’s a lot of extra work for you. Maybe I could record class lectures. That way, if I miss something, I can go back and listen to the recording for what I missed. Or, maybe I could get a note taker for your class.” At this point, options have been presented to the instructor. In Lesson Three, the student has asked the instructor to specify the nature of his or her concerns, reflected those concerns back to the instructor, asked to collaborate in order to reach a compromise, worked with the instructor to reach a compromise, stated the options, and summarized the choices. The student will practice these target behaviors using the scripted notecard. Once the student has practiced, the interventionist and the student will role-play the dialogue until mastery is reached (i.e., 85% of the target behaviors).

Lesson Four. The final lesson consists of four target behaviors (i.e., selecting, restating the selected accommodation, the student clarifies their role, and closes with a positive statement). During this lesson, the student and instructor generate options (i.e., recording class lectures or getting a note taker). The interventionist will review the previously learned target behaviors and will add the target behaviors from Lesson Four. The interventionist will model the dialogue learned thus far. The interventionist will summarize, “Great, so I will let the Office of Disability Services know that you agreed on a note taker for your class. Thank you for working with me; I am looking forward to your class!” This final step requires the student and instructor to select a mutually acceptable accommodation, then the student restates the accommodation and clarifies his or her role, and closes with a positive statement. The student will practice the target behaviors using the scripted notecard (guided practice) and the interventionist and the student will role-play the entire dialogue. Once the student has reached mastery (i.e., 17 out of 19 target behaviors), the intervention is complete.


Education opens doors and creates opportunities; students with LD are pursuing postsecondary education at increased rates in the hopes of expanding their opportunities for success. Research demonstrates students who use academic accommodations have higher grade point averages and increased persistence rates (Kim & Lee, 2015; Mamiseishvili & Koch, 2011; Troiano, Liefeld, & Trachtenberg, 2010). However, frequently students with LD lack the necessary self-advocacy skills and are unprepared to advocate for their accommodations. It is, therefore, imperative these skills be taught to students as early as possible. SACR instruction teaches students with LD the skills necessary to effectively advocate for accommodations in postsecondary educational settings and in life.
































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