Should We Tell Admission Committees About Son’s Dyslexia?

Question: My son has a learning disability in reading and writing–dyslexia. Should he disclose this to colleges when he applies?

Some students who apply to college choose not to reveal their learning disabilities to admission officials. We feel that this is an appropriate decision only if there is nothing in the application or high school record that reflects the disability and needs to be justified or explained. Moreover, students who apply to college without reporting their disability run the risk of ending up in a place where their individual needs cannot be properly met.

However, although they are reluctant to admit it, some admission officials can be prejudiced against “LD” candidates, especially those from well-heeled families. This is because, some years back, there seemed to be a big scramble for extended-time testing on SATs. A growing number of parents of means were hiring specialists to ferret out learning disabilities that subsequently led to special testing accommodations and, perhaps, to higher scores. The result of this stampede is that, today, it is much harder to get extended time on tests than it was a decade or so ago. In addition, some admission folks are regarding claims of disabilities with raised eyebrows–whether they’re legitimate or not.

You don’t say how severe your son’s dyslexia is nor what sort of special accommodations he may require, so it is hard to advise you responsibly without more information. But, in any case, admission officers will certainly give your son’s application special consideration in light of any information he presents about his disabilities. For instance, if he was not diagnosed and treated until, say, 10th grade, then they might be likely to forgive a weak freshman transcript, as long as his grades in subsequent years are strong.

If, due to his disability, your son’s transcript is significantly skewed (for example, awful grades in English and history, great ones in math and science), the information he provides about his disability will help put those discrepancies in perspective. Keep in mind, however, that at the more selective colleges, he will be “competing” against LD applicants who, despite their disabilities, have compiled near-perfect records nonetheless. While there are laws that prevent institutions from discriminating against students with disabilities, if your son’s record is not as strong as that of other candidates, it is not considered discriminatory to deny him admission.

If your son’s disabilities are severe, and his transcript has been significantly affected by his disability (e.g., either his grades are erratic or skewed OR he his course selection has been impacted) feel free to ask admission officials directly about their policies regarding LD candidates. While most will speak guardedly (i.e., they’re unlikely to say something like, “He hasn’t got a prayer here!”), try to read between the lines and look for discouraging phrases like, “We rarely admit students who do not take a full course load in high school.” Ask them also about flexibility in core curriculum requirements, should his dyslexia make it too difficult for him to study certain mandatory subjects.

At the same time that you are asking admission officers about their policies towards students with learning disabilities, you should also be investigating what services will be available to your son once enrolled. Every college on your list will probably have a disabilities coordinator on staff whom you should contact, even in the early stages of your exploration, if you expect assistance after he matriculates. The college, assuming it receives any sort of federal funds, is required by law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to students with disabilities. Just what “reasonable” means at each institution on your list should be a topic of discussion with the disabilities coordinator.

You will most likely have to provide specific documentation to receive certain services. This sort of documentation can be very expensive, and colleges are not required to provide or pay for testing (though they often demand documentation that is not more than two years old). If you feel your son requires additional paperwork beyond what you have already, you may be eligible for a free evaluation through your public school system, regardless of the school your son currently attends.

So, bottom line: If your son’s disabilities have had no significant impact on his transcript and if you will not be seeking special services once he has matriculated, then there is no need to disclose disabilities. If, however, you feel that this background information will help admission committees to better understand and evaluate your son, or if you realize that he will make sounder college matches with all his cards on the table, then you should definitely disclose his dyslexia.