Did you know that Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, and Steven Spielberg had learning disabilities? They didn’t allow their challenges to hold them back from making history, and neither should you. If earning a master’s degree is your goal, there is no reason you shouldn’t pursue it.
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 1 in 5 students in the United States has a learning disability or attention disorder that disrupts learning. While many of these students are just as smart and capable as their peers they attend college at half the rate, and those who go to college are less likely to complete their degrees. As a result, this impacts the number of students with learning disabilities who go on to pursue a master’s degree.
But why is this the case? A study in Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability suggests that the reason may lie in lack of awareness of available resources, fear of judgment, or inability to advocate for the accommodations needed. But if you have your sights set on graduate school, don’t be discouraged. The resources and support in this guide can help you understand your rights, navigate learning challenges in grad school, and access the accommodations you need to pursue a master’s with confidence.
Defining the Different Types of Learning Disabilities
All learning disabilities are unique and present different degrees of challenge. It’s important to understand your condition(s) to be able to advocate for yourself and request the proper accommodations. Keep reading below to learn about some of the most common learning disabilities and how they might impact your experience as a graduate student.
Auditory Processing Disorder
The American Academy of Audiology notes that auditory processing disorder is actually an umbrella term for a variety of auditory challenges. In general, those affected by auditory processing disorders experience difficulty in sound interpretation and noise filtering. They may struggle with perceiving word nuances, distinguishing the order of sounds, or differentiating between background noise and a speaker’s voice. For graduate students, this makes gleaning information from oral lectures in crowded classrooms especially challenging.
As its name suggests, dyscalculia causes difficulty related to math calculations and other number processing or number recall tasks. Although the symptoms of dyscalculia are usually apparent in childhood, adults may also have it but be unaware due to a lack of diagnosis. According to the Cleveland Clinic, people with dyscalculia often experience anxiety and depression when faced with math assignments; this emotional hurdle can be trying for graduate students whose studies require math-based courses.
Those who have dysgraphia struggle with motor weaknesses that make it difficult to produce handwritten language. The Quick Guide to Dysgraphia from the Child Mind Institute explains that symptoms may include inaccurate letter formation, inconsistent or inappropriate letter spacing, and deficiencies in grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The International Dyslexia Association clarifies that, although dysgraphia can occur by itself, it sometimes occurs in conjunction with other common conditions such as dyslexia or attention-deficit disorder. Note-taking and essay tests are likely to be extremely challenging for graduate students who have this learning disability.
Dyslexia is a language-based disability that primarily causes slow or inaccurate reading but also presents as difficulties with spelling, writing, and pronouncing words. According to The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, it’s an extremely common diagnosis, with about 20% of the population affected. The copious reading assignments, research, and paper writing common to graduate studies are some of the most problematic areas for students with dyslexia to navigate.
The term “aphasia” is now used to refer to both dysphasia (partial loss of language) and aphasia (total loss of language). Per the National Aphasia Association, the most common cause of aphasia is stroke, but it can also result from head trauma, brain tumors, infections, or other neurological illnesses. Those affected struggle with reading, writing, verbal exchanges, and language recall. Although it’s possible for only a single facet of language expression to be affected, it’s more common for multiple aspects to be involved.
Dyspraxia is also known as developmental coordination disorder. The Dyspraxia Foundation notes that individuals who have this condition may experience difficulty in several areas: physical movement, organization and planning, and speech and language. Because the disorder affects fine motor skills, those who are affected struggle with tasks such as writing, typing, and drawing. Some individuals may also grapple with verbal dyspraxia, which is a condition that makes it difficult to coordinate mouth movements to produce clear speech. Additionally, many people with dyspraxia have issues with memory, attention span, and time management—significant challenges for graduate students.
Language processing disorder
A language processing disorder can affect both expressive and receptive language skills. In other words, someone with this condition may struggle with producing verbal language as well as understanding it. A description of the condition in ADDitude Magazine reveals that sufferers have difficulty following oral instructions, keeping up with conversations, and answering questions about things that have just been discussed moments before. Students with language processing disorder may find it hard to follow class lectures, participate in open discussions, or give presentations.
Nonverbal learning disabilities
A nonverbal learning disability isn’t necessarily what it sounds like since those who have this condition have no difficulties with language-based skills such as reading and writing. Instead, as explained in an article from the Child Mind Institute, they struggle to understand patterns (visual and social) and language and math concepts. Although they’re very good at memorization, they’re unable to see relationships between ideas and they have trouble with organizing information. Because of this, digesting the complex content of graduate-level courses is likely to present a serious challenge for those affected by this condition.
Visual perceptual/visual motor deficit
The St. Louis Learning Disabilities Association notes that differences in the way a person’s eyes move can cause visual perceptual or visual motor deficits. These visual differences affect the way in which information is understood. Unsurprisingly, those who have this condition struggle with any task that requires hand-eye coordination or visual information intake, such as reading, writing, typing, or drawing. Specifically for graduate students, this condition is a hurdle to completing reading assignments, writing papers, and memorizing information that is obtained visually.
Challenges & Solutions for Students with Learning Disabilities
Although students with learning disabilities face extra challenges when it comes to education, those who are persistent, creative, and resilient find ways to overcome them. In the section below, you will find a list of some common challenges that many students with learning disabilities experience and possible solutions to tackle each one.
Challenge #1: Time Management and Organization
Break big projects into smaller, more manageable steps and estimate how long each one might take you. Then, with that in mind, make a day-by-day plan to get your project finished on time, building in a little wiggle room for unexpected challenges. If you struggle with making accurate time estimates, practice by timing yourself doing similar tasks when you aren’t under the pressure of a deadline. Also, remember that extended time for exams and assignments is a common accommodation; use it if you’re entitled to it. For better organization, keep all of your assignments, due dates, and other obligations in one location, like a paper planner or planning app. Daily to-do lists should contain no more than three to five items; prioritize so that the most crucial tasks are at the top.
Challenge #2: Reading Comprehension & Processing Information
The best way to increase your comprehension is to be an active reader who engages with the text. Know what to do at each stage of reading—before, during, and after—to help yourself think about the content. As you read, constantly monitor your understanding through annotations or by using an appropriate graphic organizer. Always try to relate new information to things you already know. Other great tools for reading include audiobooks and text-to-speech readers such as Speechify or the free online TTSReader.
Challenge #3: Writing and Communicating Effectively
Rely on the writing process when composing papers and speeches. In the prewriting phase (brainstorming and research), creating an outline or using a graphic organizer will be extremely helpful in structuring your composition. Many colleges, such as the University of Texas at Austin, have writing centers to assist students. Take advantage of this resource if you have access to it. If not, referring to examples of outstanding work can help clarify your own task.
Challenge #4: Attention and Concentration
Ensure that your environment is quiet and free of distractions. Don’t multitask—try techniques like time blocking or time boxing to isolate each task. Before you begin, set a visual timer to pace yourself and maintain focus. If you struggle with motivation or stamina, virtual or in-person body doubling may be helpful. Studies also show that sufficient sleep, exercise, and a quality diet low in refined sugars are crucial for concentration and brain function. And, if you get frustrated, take a coffee break—research reveals that a little caffeine boosts your focus.
Challenge #5: Memory and Problem-solving
When it comes to making content memorable, strive to engage as many learning modes as possible—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Read the text, paraphrase in writing, discuss aloud with a peer, draw a concept map, flip through flashcards, or watch a video about the topic. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity. When you need to think through a problem, try jotting down your thoughts in a reflection journal. Using prompts for problem solving can focus your journaling practice.
Challenge #6: Following Complex Instructions or Directions
Digest complex instructions by breaking them down into smaller steps. Read them aloud, then use these manageable steps to create a checklist. If instructions are given orally, ask your instructor for a written copy or consider recording them to review at your own pace. Check your understanding of the assignment by paraphrasing the steps to a peer or your instructor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions for clarification.
Challenge #7: Adapting to New Environments and Routines
Do your best to familiarize yourself with new routines and environments ahead of time. Review the course syllabus prior to the start of class. Remember, the purpose of this document is to provide information about the content and learning goals of the course as well as the instructor’s various policies and expectations. Taking a campus tour, whether in person or virtual, can help you rehearse your schedule. Referring to campus maps and making friends with someone who is familiar with the campus are also extremely helpful.
Rights and Accommodations for Students with Learning Disabilities
As a student with a learning disability, understanding your rights is critical. If you know exactly what legal protection you’re entitled to, it’s much easier to stand up for yourself and obtain the tools you need for success. This section outlines your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and explains possible accommodations that you might find beneficial.
Know Your Rights
Accommodations You Might Need to Succeed
FAQs for Students with Learning Disabilities
Although we’ve covered many of the basics, you may still have questions. Questions are powerful learning tools. This list of FAQs contains answers that further arm you with the knowledge to advocate for your needs, get an overall sense of what support is available to you, and much more.
Q. Is earning a master's degree realistic for someone with a learning disability?
According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, there are three main things that stand in the way of student success in college: stigma and lack of self-advocacy, lack of resilience and persistence, and difficulty in obtaining information about available accommodations. However, if you’re willing to seek out the available resources, stand up for your rights, and maintain a positive mindset, a graduate degree is certainly an attainable goal. You know yourself best, but if you had the stamina to make it through a four-year degree, you can most likely persevere through a graduate program.
Q. What are the most common types of learning disabilities seen in graduate students?
The Learning Disabilities Resources Foundation reports that the five most common learning disabilities are dyslexia, ADHD, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia. However, the prevalence of specific learning disabilities at the graduate level is difficult to determine since students may be reluctant to disclose their conditions. In fact, in a study of 23,000 undergraduate students, the National Center for Education Statistics found that only a third disclosed their disability.
Q. How can I advocate for my needs related to my learning disability with professors and peers?
Advice from the Learning Disabilities Association of America includes several steps you can take to be a strong self-advocate. For example, research your specific disability or disabilities and arm yourself with this knowledge when discussing your needs with others. Additionally, aim for a thorough understanding of your specific strengths and weaknesses as identified through diagnostic testing. Ensure that you speak with your school’s disability services office and clearly express the accommodations you need. Remember that you are legally entitled to any reasonable measures that you require for success.
Q. What strategies can I use to manage my time and stay organized in graduate school?
Prioritize crucial tasks so that they are accomplished first. Always break down assignments or other tasks into smaller steps, and stick to a schedule for getting each one done on time. Keep all of your deadlines, appointments, and other time-sensitive information in one place, such as a paper planner or planning app. Use electronic reminders and timers to keep yourself on track.
Q. Are there any academic support programs or tutoring services available to graduate students with learning disabilities?
Yes, in fact, there are many campus-specific programs and tutoring services that are specifically geared toward students who have learning disabilities. For example, Northeastern University in Boston has a Learning Disabilities Program that enables students to meet with a learning disabilities specialist twice a week to address their specific struggles and needs. Another great example is the Bridges to Adelphi program at Adelphi University in New York that provides academic, social, and vocational support to neurodiverse learners.
Q. How can I ensure that I receive the accommodations I need during exams or assignments?
First and foremost, ensure that you have disclosed your disability and outlined your needs through the proper channels. Once you have officially done this, your instructors are obligated to provide you with the accommodations that you require. According to LD Online, if your instructor refuses to provide your accommodations, you should file a complaint with your college or through the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. Remember, you are your own best advocate. You can’t receive any of these accommodations if you don’t ask for them.
Q. Are there any support groups or peer mentorship programs available for graduate students with learning disabilities?
There are many support groups and peer mentorship programs out there for graduate students with learning disabilities. For example, Smith College in Massachusetts has several programs available, such as the ASSETS Program and the Disabled Student Alliance. Arizona State University’s I AM Mentor Program is another great example of a program designed to support students with learning disabilities. Programs such as these offer guidance on acclimating to the campus, locating services, navigating daily life as a graduate student, and much more.
Resources for Graduate Students with Learning Disabilities
The number of resources and support networks available to students with learning disabilities can actually be quite overwhelming. However, we have whittled down that list to collect some excellent examples below. You will find websites, podcasts, organizations, and more. You could also use this list to brainstorm even more resources that suit your specific needs.
- ADA National Network—Provides comprehensive information, training, and guidance on the Americans with Disabilities Act. Resources include publications, videos, and contact information so that you can ask questions.
- Different and Able—Inspirational stories, helpful resources, and supportive community for people with learning, speech, emotional, and medical differences. Interviews are searchable by specific condition.
- Dyslexia is our Superpower Podcast—Host Gibby Booth Jasper interviews individuals with dyslexia who share their inspirational stories and provide practical tips. A new episode comes out every Tuesday.
- Graphic Organizers from Creately—Nineteen ready-to-use graphic organizer templates accompanied by explanations and instructions for use. Applicable to both reading and writing.
- I Have ADHD Podcast—Host Kristen Carder specializes in mindset coaching for adults with ADHD. Her podcast is a mixture of interviews and clear, practical advice from the host herself. Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
- LD Online—Provides accurate information and helpful advice for individuals with learning disabilities. Resources featured include articles, expert interviews, and essays.
- Learning Disabilities Association of America—Provides support, opportunities, and resources. The organization’s goals include fostering best research practices, encouraging identification of disabilities, and protecting the rights of individuals with learning disabilities.
- National Center for Learning Disabilities—Programs, research, and advocacy to support individuals with learning disabilities. This organization also provides scholarships and awards to learning disability advocates and leaders.
- r/Dyslexia Subreddit—Online forum that provides discussion, help, tips, and support for individuals with dyslexia. Search the posts to find relevant content or ask your own questions.
- r/LearningDisabilities Subreddit—Online forum for discussing how to navigate obstacles and issues surrounding learning disabilities. Share your experience, read others’ experiences, and find support.
- Rewordify—A free online assistive technology that instantly simplifies difficult English for better comprehension. Copy and paste passages or URLs into the rephrasing box.
- Scrible—PDF viewer and annotator in the form of a browser extension. Annotate and comment directly on web pages and articles, save and store files, and build a file library.
Interview with a Learning Disability Expert
Born and raised in Longview, Texas, Elizabeth attended the University of Texas at Tyler and earned a bachelor of science in history with a minor in social studies and a teaching certification. She worked for eight years as a special education inclusion teacher in the Longview Independent School District (ISD) before going back to school to earn a master of education in special education with an educational diagnostician certification. Currently, she works for Longview ISD as an educational diagnostician.
Q. 1. How can a prospective grad student determine if graduate school is the right fit given their learning disability?
I think many factors play into whether or not a graduate program is a “right fit” for a prospective student. First, the student should really do the research about the program/college. Questions I would want answered might include: What kind of supports are in place for a student with needs? Does the college have a place a student can go to get additional help/support if needed? Are there any groups for students with learning disabilities? How heavy is the workload of the program compared to the undergraduate program the student previously completed? With that in mind, is the program something the prospective student feels is realistic for him/her to complete?
Also, I think an important part of the decision is to consider what kind of personal support system the student relies on now and the proximity of that support system to the potential graduate school. Each student’s needs are different. Some may need constant family/friend support in the form of face-to-face interaction, while others may find phone calls and FaceTime sufficient. And some students require minimal to no support from family/friends. So, I really believe the prospective student must dig deep to determine his/her level of personal support need and decide whether the location of the graduate program is conducive to that need.
Q. 2. What should students with a learning disability expect in terms of workload and academic rigor in graduate school?
Just as each student with a learning disability is unique, so is his/her perception of academic rigor and workload. For one student, the program may be the perfect fit and seem easy. But another student may find that same program overwhelming and far too rigorous. I think this brings us back to considering how much the prospective student knows about the graduate program prior to starting it. It might be beneficial for the student to locate the syllabus from a previous semester. This will provide some kind of picture as to the workload and pace of the program. It will also provide the prospective student with crucial information such as grading policies, expectations, and how the final grade for a particular class is determined. I think this comes down to the individual and his/her strengths and weaknesses and how those line up with the program expectations and requirements.
Q. 3. Are there any specific challenges or barriers that students with learning disabilities often face in graduate school?
Absolutely, there are specific challenges or barriers for students with learning disabilities. I think one of the biggest is the fact that the student has a learning disability. A disability varies in severity for each person, but regardless of severity, it interferes with a person’s ability to learn and complete tasks. Also, other people may hold the idea that the student with a learning disability is using or will attempt to use the disability to get special treatment or to reduce the workload/rigor of the program. Although there is a possibility that may be the case, most are not attempting this. They are simply trying to find a way to complete the graduate program while struggling with a disability. I think some people—students without disabilities and educators—find it hard to understand the idea of an “unseen” disability. If a young adult “looks normal,” why do they need certain things/accommodations? This is a difficult mindset to move past. Also, some graduate programs may not work for particular students no matter how much time and effort went into the selection. This may result in the student with a learning disability dropping out and giving up. But, in reality, this was simply not the right program for him/her. Unfortunately, many students who have learning disabilities judge their perceived failure very harshly and tend to conclude that the failure is a result of being less than other students who do not have a disability.
Q. 4. How can students identify and communicate their needs to professors and colleagues in graduate school?
There are many available options for communicating needs to professors and colleagues. I think one of the best ways is for parents of students with learning disabilities to allow their child to attend their annual IEP/ARD meetings as far back as middle school and/or high school. This allows the student to learn about his/her disabilities and particular needs, as well as how to self-advocate for those needs. By allowing for participation and having a voice at an early age, parents are helping their child to build those strong self-advocacy abilities that will serve them well throughout their education and into the work place. Another great way for students with learning disabilities to communicate their needs to professors and colleagues in graduate school is to work directly with the college and the particular program at the college that provides supports for students with learning disabilities. It may also be beneficial to set brief one-on-one meetings with individual professors to discuss particular needs and difficulties associated with one’s learning disabilities. Setting a meeting (rather than trying to talk prior to or after class when stress may be high) shows the intended party respect for their valuable time and that the student with disabilities is willing to do what is needed to be successful in the program.
Q. 5. Are there any strategies or resources that can help students with a learning disability manage their time and stay organized in graduate school?
Time management and organizational skills are vital to all students—not just those with learning disabilities. Upon receiving the syllabus for each class at the beginning of the semester, I would recommend making a tentative plan for completing all assignments. A planner, whether digital or paper/pencil, is a great tool. If there is a large project or paper due for a class, I would divide that project/paper into smaller pieces and set my own personal due dates for when I intended to have a particular piece completed. I would also make sure to plan for time to use the college writing lab, have quiet time to work daily, and participate in peer study groups and/or use college tutoring services. A great strategy is to always plan like you will get the flu right before an assignment due date or a big exam—complete things early and study/review regularly because cramming on the day of the test is risky.
Q. 6. How can students advocate for themselves and ensure that they receive the accommodations they need in graduate school?
Advocating starts prior to the first day of class or due date for the first major assignment. A student with learning disabilities should share information related to his or her needs/accommodations prior to the semester even starting. College campuses usually have an office that works to ensure those needed supports/accommodations are provided. However, it takes time to make arrangements to provide accommodations for some students with learning disabilities; therefore, early and clear communication with the college and professors is the most effective way for students to advocate for themselves.
Q. 7. What can a student do if they feel overwhelmed or need additional support during their graduate studies?
When a student feels overwhelmed or like they are in need of additional support, the best thing to do is reach out and voice that need. This may be to a trusted friend or professor, family members, or student services at the college. There is so much help available, but once again, students have to be willing and able to advocate for themselves.
Q. 8. Do you have any additional words of advice for prospective graduate students who are managing a learning disability?
I would tell any student—regardless of whether or not they have a disability—to go for it. It may be a terrifying leap, but it is one you would always regret not taking. Regardless of the result of that leap, hold your head up with pride because you were brave enough to dive in!