Educators say self advocacy is a key for success

A lifelong disability isn’t enough to stop Samantha Wierney’s college dreams. But like any special education student, she faces additional hurdles.

Wierney, 18, remains enthusiastic about attending Delaware Technical Community College in the fall. But the Dover High School senior wasn’t always this confident about furthering her education.

“My freshman year I didn’t really think I was going to go to college,” Wierney said. “I was like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I knew my grades weren’t that good.”

Since she was an infant, Wierney has been living with the debilitating effects of a brain injury.

Because of her disability she often struggles to keep the same walking pace as her peers and struggles to write for long periods of time. At one point in her life she would lose weeks of memory following a seizure.

Despite the challenges, she was determined to get a college education.

“People said that if you actually go to college you can make more money,” she said. “I had my mom pushing me towards going to college, and by the end of my sophomore year I thought I could handle college.”

The Delaware Department of Education recognizes her disability, a mild form of cerebral palsy, as a health impairment.

Students categorized as special education can include those with autism, emotional disturbances, intellectual disabilities and hearing impairments.

Basic college requirements – such as submitting grade point averages, college applications and scores on college entrance exams like the SAT – are the same for special education and general students.

Wierney’s path, however, contains additional steps. All Delaware special education students follow academic roadmaps called Individual Education Programs.

This state mandated program involves educators, parents and the scholar meeting on a regular basis to determine a student’s needs. At age 14 they are switched from a regular IEP to a transitional one, meant to help a student plan for life after high school.

The IEPs are aligned with the student’s specific condition and will list appropriate accommodations for them in class. In Wierney’s case, she may need extended time on exams.

But the IEPs are only applicable while the student is using public education. Once students move on to college, the responsibility shifts from the school to the student.

Cassandra Green, Vice President of University College and Interim Student Accessibilities Coordinator at Delaware State University, said this sort of self-advocacy can be difficult. 

“Once they register and send in their documentation sometimes the challenge is following through. During K through 12 they pretty much were hand held,” she said. “Everybody knew about their disability all the way up to the principal.”

She recommends students and future students reach out to Student Accessibility Services. Once their condition is on file, a counselor will help with accommodations. Certain students with learning disabilities may need extended time on exams; the visually impaired may need braille while students with sleeping disorders may need excused absences because.

At University of Delaware, an estimated 1,200 students identified themselves as having a disability during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to Anne Jannarone, director of the school’s Office of Disability Support Services. This marks an 18 percent growth over ten years.

“I believe that students and their families are more aware of their rights in seeking academic accommodations at the postsecondary level now,” she said. “Many of our students select their college in part based on the support offered through the disability services office.”

The college environment is a determining factor. Wierney had been considering Delaware State University, but a visit made her decide it was too fast-paced for her to focus. She instead opted for the smaller Delaware Tech.

Despite her ambitious nature, she’s still nervous about new, unfamiliar territory.

“It’s kind of in the middle because I know I can handle it,” she said. “But I’m also kind of nervous because I’m not sure who I will meet at Del Tech.”

Students with disabilities may have that extra layer of responsibilities in preparing for college, but DSU’s Green has seen some impressive feats.

“They are the hardest workers, because they have to accommodate for their disability,” she said. “If it’s not accommodated it could get in the way of their learning. Once the accommodations are in place their intelligence can take off because they’re not getting hindered.”