You may have noticed a shift in one key characteristic of your institution’s student body. More adult students are now attending college. And experts predict that this trend will only continue to increase in the coming years.
One notable difference between traditional and more seasoned students is that adult learners may have a higher incidence of disabilities and medical conditions by sheer virtue of their age and life experiences. Yet they may be more hesitant than traditional students to seek accommodations and services from your unit.
So while all students with disabilities may experience more obstacles than their nondisabled peers, for adult learners, those obstacles may look more like walls than speed bumps. However, working collaboratively with these students can help them overcome those obstacles and ensure they receive the support they need.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges when it comes to serving adult learners with disabilities is that they may never have learned to self-advocate. While they may come with a wealth of life experiences, they may never have self-identified in the workplace. And depending on how long they’ve been out of school and on the onset and severity of their conditions, they may never have received accommodations in previous school settings.
To support these students, start by sharing as much information as you can about your unit’s services and your policies and procedures for securing accommodations. Consider doing brief presentations during all new-student orientation sessions, including those for students in adult-focused programs.
Next, check that your unit’s Web presence is easy to find and navigate. Many adult learners choose distance learning because of the flexibility it offers, so they need to be able to find you online with as much ease as students in traditional programs can locate your office on campus.
Encourage faculty members to post contact information about your office and its services in their syllabi. But don’t stop there. Send information to all new students so they’re exposed to it more than once or twice.
Be aware that many adult learners with disabilities may lack appropriate disability documentation. Some may have documentation, but it may be very dated. And others may never have been formally diagnosed.
You can help by providing suggestions of where to go to obtain needed documentation if they don’t have their own medical providers. Don’t just give them names of providers such as the local Office for Rehabilitation, but also their contact information. But remember to inform students that there may be a cost involved.
Adult students with disabilities may also have many outside responsibilities, such as jobs and families. They may spend time caring for their children or elderly parents. Your office schedule may not be accommodating to these students. To help, make sure they can contact your office throughout different times of the day and evening, when many of them come to campus for classes.
Given their very busy lives, these students will likely also appreciate some basic time management strategies in addition to your disability services.
It’s also important to understand that adults learn differently, and content may be intrinsically motivating when it can be readily applied to their immediate world. On the other hand, if the content they are learning doesn’t have obvious real-world application, they may lose interest. Address this key issue by encouraging faculty members to adopt problem-solving teaching methods and allow for some self-directed learning in their courses.
In addition, adult students with disabilities may have some trepidation about working with technology. Listen to them as they talk about their technology use, and try to meet them where they are in their skill levels. Empathize with them and perhaps even share some of your own technology concerns to ease their fears about being somehow more technologically inadequate than everyone else.
And finally, understand that older learners may have some concerns about learning from as well as learning with younger people. Again, empathize but remind them how their breadth of experiences and wisdom can be very valuable and may offer opportunities for everyone to learn.
Despite the growing number of mature learners on college campuses, they can sometimes be a largely invisible, underserved group. By understanding the needs of adults with disabilities and extending your services to them, you can help put them on more even footing with other students and increase their chances of meeting their academic goals.