Skip to content

More Than Any Label

By JahB Prescott, English Professor at MiraCosta College

I vividly remember crying at my kitchen table at night. I loved school and I hated math. When my parents would offer the opportunity to my siblings to stay home for a day, I would always elect to go to school. However, math class gave me so much anxiety. My father would accuse me of being distracted or force my older brother to “help” me, but it never ended with me understanding what I was supposed to do. I finished most of my homework on the bus ride home from school, but I spent nights at that kitchen table agonizing over 1 or 2 simple math problems wiping tears.

I muddled through math class. My homework was incomplete. I wondered, “How did everyone else finish twenty problems?”

The day I thought about my college major; I chose to escape the constant calculations forever. I placed ENGLISH on the line next to Major. However, I looked at my course outline and was dismayed to find I had to take one math course. I was heartbroken, “Why does an English Major need math?”.

I enrolled in my first semester. I wanted to finish it while all the math I “learned” in high school was still fresh. I struggled. I swallowed my pride, walked into tutoring, and asked my peers for assistance. I passed, barely, with the first C I had received in math since 10th grade and never looked back.  

Years later, I discovered a learning disability called dyscalculia which affects math skills. Finally, it all made sense.

I am an English educator and from the start of my teaching career I have worked with co-teachers in high school and middle school Inclusion classrooms. Former students had Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) which provided accommodations for my English class; however, upon the completion of their Senior Year their final transition meeting for college did not always prepare them with a direct map to DSPS. I have sat in plenty of meetings and watched my students misunderstand the process. Students did not recognize they would be solely responsible for providing any institution with the necessary information to receive accommodations in higher education.

Based on my experience, it is in my estimation that at least 10% of all community college students have untested DSPS needs. The impact of this percentage is rarely discovered in transfer level courses because many of these students will receive an “F” at the pre-transfer level and decide to drop out of school. This means in a pre-transfer level class of 25, 2-3 students may require accommodations from Disability Support Programs and Services.

Student Confusion

Students who may benefit from DSPS are not always adequately prepared to advocate for themselves. Many parents deny services during initial eligibility meetings for elementary and secondary school students for fear of attaching a label or stigma to their child.  Much worse, some school districts lack the structure to provide sustainable eligibility processes that support students with accommodations. Inaction can have a significant impact on the student in their higher education journey if they are unaware of any disabilities they may have. Students may be confused and think “I’m just not a good reader…” or “Maybe, college isn’t for me?”  It is important to remind students that these parent/teacher meetings may have occurred for them in the past. Describe what these meetings may have looked and sounded like. The pivotal piece is offering guidance to the DSPS office for testing to any student that wonders if this may be them.

Student Fears

There is a fear of repeating experiences from high school: stigmas/labels, secluded classrooms, or even specialized degrees. There can be a level of embarrassment which can make it harder for a student to take the initial step of getting tested on their own. Offering to walk with students to the DSPS office can be a start, but it may also require multiple student conferences to eliminate stigmas and misconceptions about DSPS.

Professor Confusion

I utilize my experience from the high school classroom in my pre-transfer college courses. High school students’ IEPs provided insight, but usually the information presented referred to a middle school experience. Special Education co-teachers and case managers provided additional assistance and accommodations to support students in the secondary school framework. College professors do not have the luxury of a co-teacher or an individual with specialized skills within their classroom. As a Professor, I attempt to recognize the behaviors a student in need of access to resources from DSPS might exhibit. The same behaviors I observed in high school:

  • Chronic Absenteeism
  • Not turning in/finishing assignments
  •  Witnessing the student working on the assignment in class; after multiple attempts of requesting submission, the student never turns it in
  • Leaving class early when information appears complex

Students that have trouble reading or processing may skip class because they do not have an answer for why they could not complete an assignment that involves reading comprehension. It is important to ask students questions and request conferences often. Questions like: “Do you find yourself reading the same page over and over again?” Or “did you have any services in high school?” lead to a discussion of receiving needed services through DSPS and extra time on assignments.


A student focus group composed of DSPS students could be organized around developing ideas for advertising campaigns designed to welcome current and incoming students. Furthermore, additional groups could focus on destigmatizing the existing myths behind being a college student with a disability.

Broader Implications

In addition, a DSPS college/high school liaison might help with the transition from high school to college. They could lead presentations at high schools, and generate voluntary groups of high school students and parents to tour the college and highlight DSPS services. Furthermore, providing literature on the steps students can take to receive services should be given not only to these groups, but to any high school student receiving services that is preparing to graduate.

All educators should be on alert for signs and symptoms of DSPS needs early on in the semester. Present this topic to students often, destigmatize DSPS, develop your own class diagnostic such as a reading/writing comprehension prompt, and encourage students to advocate for their needs.