Communication disorders affect approximately 8% of the U.S. population and 19% of learners ages 3-21. A communication disorder falls into one of two categories: speech or language. Speech disorders refer to problems articulating sound, maintaining a speech rhythm, and controlling pitch. Individuals with a language disorder may experience difficulty understanding words’ meanings and forming sentences.
Language and speech disorders prevent many college students from achieving their full academic potential. Fortunately, federal law mandates academic accommodations, such as assistive technology and a notetaker. Learners can attain these and other accommodations by working with their school’s advisors and professors.
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Understanding Speech and Language Disorders and Their Impact on Learning
The following two sections describe the differences between speech and language disorders, including the disorders’ effects on the learning process.
Language refers to the mental activity that turns thoughts into written or spoken language. All language disorders stem from an impairment in this area.
- Auditory Processing Disorder College students with an auditory processing disorder struggle to comprehend language, especially in a crowded environment. This disorder affects their ability to learn in a lecture hall.
- Dyscalculia Learners with dyscalculia struggle with learning math concepts. Typical symptoms include trouble counting and understanding equations. College degree-seekers with this condition may also struggle with time management.
- Dysgraphia Dysgraphia appears in early childhood and affects the writing process. College students with dysgraphia struggle to form letters correctly and organize their thoughts in writing.
- Dyslexia People with dyslexia struggle to identify written text's speech sounds and decode written language. This disorder affects many aspects of the learning process.
- Expressive Language Expressive language communication disorders prevent individuals from vocalizing their ideas. Symptoms include mixing up or leaving out words. College students with this condition may struggle to express their needs to professors, counselors, and peers.
- Receptive Language Someone with a receptive language disorder struggles to comprehend the meaning behind spoken language. Students with this disorder may struggle to follow a professor's lecture or directions.
Unlike language disorders, speech disorders primarily affect physical processes. They may prompt degree-seekers to seek accommodations or other help.
- Aphasia A stroke or other traumatic brain injury can cause aphasia. Symptoms include incomprehensible speech and an inability to understand what others say. The disease may affect all day-to-day activities.
- Apraxia Apraxia describes several related conditions preventing people from completing tasks requiring fine motor skills. College students with apraxia often cannot take notes or complete assessments without assistance.
- Dysarthria Dysarthria occurs due to paralyzed or damaged facial muscles. Symptoms present as slurred speech. Learners with dysarthria may struggle to express themselves to professors and peers.
- Dysphagia Dysphagia affects swallowing, leading to uncontrollable drooling and a higher risk of choking while eating. These symptoms may make college students feel self-conscious around peers.
- Stuttering People who stutter may struggle to start a sentence or repeat specific sounds. These and other symptoms may lower self-esteem and lead to negative academic outcomes.
- Voice Voice disorders impair the ability to control loudness, speech quality, and pitch. This disorder can impair communication, potentially alienating degree-seekers from their peers.
The Effects of Speech and Language Problems on Learning
Communication disorders may negatively affect learning in several ways. For instance, students with communication disorders may feel isolated from their peers and the campus community. The following list outlines several challenges potentially faced by students with communication disorders.
Most language disorders and some speech disorders make note-taking difficult. Avoiding note-taking may reduce retention and prevent degree-seekers from preparing for exams and assessments. Fortunately, many assistive technologies help learners of varying abilities take effective notes.
Communication disorders may lower self-esteem and the ability to communicate, causing students to feel isolated from their peers. This isolation may lead to depression and other negative psychological side effects.
Many communication disorders affect students’ grades and test scores. Low test scores may lead to negative feelings and scrutiny from professors. These outcomes can lead to academic probation or expulsion.
Negative academic and social experiences can raise learners’ stress levels considerably. Stress can cause problems like frustration, an upset stomach, and insomnia. Potential long-term consequences of stress include depression and cardiovascular disease.
Academic Adjustments for Students with Speech and Language Disorders
Academic adjustments refer to modifications to instructions and assessments. Students with a disability can incorporate them to perform to their potential. These modifications do not modify academic expectations.
Colleges and universities must provide these services due to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Congress passed the ADA in 1990 to prevent discrimination against individuals with a mental or physical disability. Prospective college students should research schools’ ADA policies to understand how professors provide proper accommodations.
Accommodations in College
Federal law mandates proper accommodations for degree-seekers with a disability. Learners can meet with their school’s accommodations office to discuss their disability and explore options. The following list outlines several accommodations that colleges and universities provide to help students achieve their academic potential.
- 1. Altered Tests or Assignments
- Potential modifications to tests or assignments depend on the disorder. For instance, learners with a speech disorder, such as stuttering, may feel more comfortable giving oral presentations in private rather than in front of the class.
- 2. Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Technology
- AAC technologies include recorded speech devices and computer apps. The appropriate AAC technology depends on the specific disability. These services help people with communication disorders express themselves.
- 3. Speech-to-Text
- Speech-to-text devices assist degree-seekers with auditory processing disorders and dysgraphia. This passive technology does not disrupt the classroom environment and provides learners with custom notes they can review later.
- 4. Text-to-Speech
- College degree-seekers with dyslexia often turn to text-to-speech technology. Many companies offer free apps with this technology. Students can often use their smartphone camera to take a picture of classroom information, which certain apps can then read back to them.
- 5. Extended Scheduling
- Extended scheduling involves providing additional time to complete an assignment. Professors may supplement this accommodation with scheduled breaks and more than one assessment session. Other options include subdividing the assignment into smaller parts.
- 6. Note Takers
- Many communication disorders affect learners’ ability to take effective notes. Professors typically assign students a notetaker, usually a classroom peer. The peer provides copies of notes after class.
- 7. Proofreaders
- Proofreaders work with degree-seekers to point out writing flaws and provide other assistance. Learners can receive this help from a peer in the same class or at their school’s writing center.
- 8. Speech and Language Clinics
- Speech and language clinics work one on one with learners to address their specific speech or language needs. On-campus clinics may also employ physicians or graduate students to assist people with improving their communication skills.
- 9. Verbal Tests
- Standardized verbal tests help learners understand their disability’s severity. These tests often begin in early childhood. At the college level, results of the test may determine available accommodations.
How to Request Academic Accommodations
College students needing accommodations should advocate for themselves. They can start the process by locating the accommodations office and meeting with a coordinator. Other steps include providing past medical and school documentation describing the disability. This documentation should also detail prior accommodations and their effect on learning.
Other requirements may apply, depending on the school. A school’s website may provide information regarding how to request academic accommodations. Students can also contact the accommodations office directly.
- 1. Locate the Accommodations Office
- Colleges and universities usually host an accommodations office on campus. A school’s website may provide directions, contact information, and a list of services.
- 2. Meet with a Coordinator
- Learners with one or more communication disorders should meet with a coordinator. This meeting helps school officials understand students’ disabilities. During this meeting, students can discuss potential accommodations and how they may affect the college experience.
- 3. Submit Documentation
- Degree-seekers meeting with a coordinator should bring documentation, such as medical records or a high school Individualized Education Plan (IEP). An IEP describes past special education services and influences the accommodations office’s decision.
- 4. Receive the Decision
- The accommodations office uses learners’ interview documentation to make a determination. Accommodations may include technology support, deadline extensions, and peer assistance. In some cases, the office denies the accommodations request based on a lack of evidence.
- 5. Share the Decision
- Degree-seekers should share their eligibility determination with professors, discussing ideas and concerns moving forward. Doing so helps professors ensure learners receive the help they need.
Jules Csillag, MS
As a licensed speech-language pathologist, a teacher of students with speech and language disabilities, an adjunct professor, and a consultant in New York City, she presents regularly at conferences and is the author of Differentiated Reading Instruction: Strategies and Technology Tools to Help All Students Improve (Routledge, 2016).
How Colleges Can Support Students with Speech and Language Disorders
Q: Are there any specific actions schools can take to support students with speech and/or language disorders?
Colleges and high schools are different in their structure, purpose, and governing laws. One thing that high schools can do is be really clear about these differences. For example, while in high school, students are covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, but in college the American Disabilities Act takes over as the legal support for services.
From the college side, many professors are unlikely to have training in teaching students with learning differences. Therefore, colleges could make more of an effort to train professors in learning differences. Finally, while college is a time for greater independence, finding the disability services office should not be a scavenger hunt! Active outreach from disability services staff and volunteers, mentorship pairings with older students, and regular events can help students benefit from the services available.
Q: Are there any schools going above and beyond to support their students with speech and/or language disorders?
There are several schools that recognize the benefit of neurodiversity. Some of these schools include Landmark College, Beacon College, and Manhattanville College. Some larger schools with additional support services include American University, DePaul University, and Northeastern University. Although not all support services are free, these schools all provide support services to students with disabilities.
Q: What sorts of accommodations are commonly offered to students with speech and/or language disabilities?
Most college courses require decoding, comprehension, note-taking, and writing skills, as well as strong executive functioning skills. Each of these skills correlates with different types of accommodations. The most common accommodations include classroom note-takers and scribes. Other common accommodations include written notes from a faculty member; extended time on tests or assignments; audiobooks or digital textbooks; and readers for those with dyslexia, attentional issues, or language processing challenges.
Q: Any additional tips for students with speech and/or language disorders to succeed in college?
There are several skills that correlate with college and life success. Whatever strategies and supports helped students in high school are likely to help them in college as well. Related to this idea is the understanding of why something helps you (e.g., dictation software because of dysgraphia), which supports self-advocacy and self-awareness. This Self-Advocacy and Self-Assessment Guide can help students understand their strengths and make an action plan with clear, attainable goals.
Why is self-awareness so important? It correlates with success in college and beyond. It has been cited as a “protective factor against depression and anxiety” and as a “coping strategy,” so students are encouraged to think deeply about what they like, what they are good at, and how these things could correlate with a career or a hobby that can add enjoyment to their life.
Apps to Help Students Improve Communication
The following table highlights seven apps that can help mitigate college students’ communication disorders. Learners can check the app’s website to learn the latest information regarding pricing details and whether additional functionality exists.
|Explain Everything||$0-$24.99 per year||This app was originally intended to support collaborative digital projects, but students with language, speech, and/or learning disorders will find an extensive toolkit for organizing and expressing ideas and concepts visually.|
|Ghotit Software||$49.99-$299||Ghotit’s apps and software, such as the Ghotit Dyslexia Keyboard, are created specifically for people with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia.|
|Ginger||$0-$3.99||This spell checker works with programs and apps such as email and social media|
|Mercury Reader||Free||This Google Chrome extension lets users declutter webpages by silencing or freezing advertisements and videos.|
|ModMath||Free||ModMath helps make math easier for users with dyslexia and dysgraphia.|
|MyVoice||$129-$159||In collaboration with the University of Toronto, MyVoice built apps for individuals who need communication assistance.|
|Voice Dream||$5.99-$19.99||This extensive text-to-speech app can be used with many text sources, such as Google Drive, DropBox, and Gutenberg.|
Find a Speech and Language Support Team
The internet provides many resources on speech and language support teams. Students can explore the links below to research local physicians, audiologists, and speech-language pathologists.
Additional Speech and Language Disorder Resources
The following section introduces additional resources for people with speech and language disorders. Students can use the embedded links to learn more about these organizations and how they help learners of all ages succeed.
- American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.
ASHA trains educators on speech disorders, language disorders, and hearing disorders. The organization presents certifications to qualified professionals and offers numerous continuing education courses.
- International Dyslexia Association.
IDA helps students and their families navigate dyslexia resources. Members receive access to discounts on educational materials, networking opportunities, and free publications detailing the latest research.
- National Aphasia Association
NAA advocates for individuals who developed aphasia due to a physical injury or disease. The organization provides information on the condition’s different forms and free resources in various languages.
- National Center for College Students with Disabilities.
NCCSD’s extensive resources prepare learners with a disability to transition to college. The organization’s database details over 500 college and university disability resources. Other services include free peer-reviewed research.
- National Stuttering Association.
NSA offers teens and adults who stutter access to speech-language pathologists and support groups. The organization’s website also features a section for parents who need help supporting their child.
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