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Academic Accommodations for Adults - What You Need to Get Started

Published: 08-12-2016

By Molly Pachan, Ph.D.

With the improved diagnosis of ADHD, learning disabilities, anxiety, and other emotional issues in the 1980s and 90s, more and more individuals are reaching adulthood with a so-called “childhood” diagnosis. We used to believe that people grew out of ADD/ADHD or other issues. In reality, these disorders usually have a basis in genetic factors that create a lifelong impact on functioning.
While psychologists and other mental health professionals have long recognized ADHD and learning disabilities in adults, public awareness has lagged behind. This is especially true for adults pursuing higher education. In fact, most people don’t know that adults with ADHD can get testing accommodations for the SAT, ACT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT. Even state bar associations accept requests for testing accommodations!

Part of the reason for this misconception is that most people assumed that the rigorous graduate school process is not open to people with ADHD or learning disabilities. There is a common belief that the hallowed halls of higher ed are off limits to people with “learning issues.”

Fortunately, science and the law disagree. Diverse learners (those who have significant differences in learning style) may need some reasonable accommodations to perform at their best. With the right supports in place, adults with ADHD and learning issues can learn up to their full potential. The long list of famous persons with dyslexia is a testament to the fact that diverse learners can be highly successful. Higher education and standardized tests should not be a hurdle.

The first step in obtaining academic or testing accommodations is understanding your rights. If you suspect you have a learning issue or ADHD, or if you have been diagnosed as a child, you may be eligible for extended time on tests, a low-distraction testing room, auditory explanation of instructions, or other accommodations. Some tests also provide accommodations for anxiety disorders.

Next, you will need documentation of your diverse learner status. If you were diagnosed as a child (under 18 years old), that is a helpful start. Contact your high school or middle school (yes, you can go back that far!) and find out if they have any documentation in your files as having academic accommodations, a learning disorder diagnosis, psychological testing, or any other information about special education related to your time as a student. A paper trail definitely helps.

If you have never been diagnosed before, it’s not too late. In my practice, we often see adults who were never formally diagnosed as children. Sometimes their parents objected to diagnosis, or sometimes their school didn’t realize they needed accommodations. A lot of smart adults have pulled themselves through school by working around their ADHD, learning issue, or emotional issue. But like everyone, we eventually hit a wall. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a boost over that wall? Getting tested and obtaining documentation of your diverse learner status can do that.

Even if you’ve been tested before, you may need to be tested again as an adult. Most colleges, grad school admissions tests, and licensure exams require a psychological evaluation that was completed within the past three years. Psychological testing focused on neurocognitive functioning is required to obtain accommodations. A licensed clinical psychologist (PhD or PsyD degree) or an educational psychologist at the doctoral level (EdD) who specializes in psychological assessment can provide the appropriate tests. (Counselors, social workers, and physicians do not conduct these tests, but they can help you find a psychologist in your area.)

If you need testing for academic accommodations, be sure to tell your psychologist the reason you are coming in. The reason for testing matters! Each testing company, licensure agency, and university has different requirements for academic “disabilities” (aka diverse learning styles). For example, if you are taking an SAT subject test, the requirements are vastly different than if you are preparing for the MCAT. Make sure your psychologist knows why you are coming in.

Also, give yourself extra time to obtain a psychological evaluation. If you are taking the LSAT, you will need to send in a special application with documentation of your diagnosis and requested accommodations. It will take some extra weeks or even months to get this approved. You’ll need this approval to obtain extended time or other accommodations during your exam.

Remember, it’s all worth it. Don’t let a test stand between you and your dream job. With the right tools, you can take charge of your career.

For further reading, check out the following websites for adults with ADHD and learning disorders:

Editor: Kevin Sprenkle

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