Students say they struggle to access learning supports and that neurodiverse LGBTQ+ students face even greater challenges.
By Adir Blüm
This spring, Paul Idiaghe is set to graduate from Whitworth University’s six-year-old engineering program. As a writer of poetry, an international student from Nigeria and a self-identified “unconventional person,” Idiaghe has struggled to fit into the private, predominantly white, Christian university.
Idiaghe has faced challenges navigating identity and academics at Whitworth. “I’m the only Black person in my year in engineering,” he said, and he has also been frustrated by the rigidity of the American college experience. Idiaghe recently received an official diagnosis for his ADHD, which wasn’t as big of an issue in the more free-flowing educational system of his home country, but became one at Whitworth. “It’s been a big shift for me, especially coming from a Nigerian system of education that had a lot of space for spontaneity,” Idiaghe said. “The openness to learn was so much more of a priority.”
In theory, the ADHD diagnosis allows Idiaghe to access federally mandated learning accommodations, but he and other neurodivergent Whitworth University students say they’ve struggled to access those accommodations. Their experiences expose gaps at Whitworth that exist across higher education, and highlight the need for flexible solutions to keep students from being left behind.
Challenges accessing learning support
After working to obtain an official diagnosis, Idiaghe was given several accommodations from the Whitworth Educational Support Services office. Some of his accommodations included attendance policy forgiveness, smaller penalties for late homework and lengthier exam times. While those accommodations have been useful for him to an extent, he said, “People like me don’t work linearly, and so if you have a linear accommodation, it’s not necessarily going to be a solution.”
Idiaghe’s experience has ranged from frustrating to downright disheartening. Idiaghe explained that some professors in his department don’t believe that his creativity and unconventional ways of thinking will benefit him in the engineering field. He said that one professor told him, “If I want to be an engineer, I need to get rid of those things and change the way I think. That what I need to do is be more logical, more rational, more hard-working.”
“I thought that was very heartbreaking,” Idiaghe said.
Idiaghe isn’t alone in his difficulties. Neurodivergent students often struggle in higher education. While statistical information about neurodivergent students remains limited, data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that an average of 19% of undergraduate students report a disability.
Nationwide, these students with disabilities have a low rate of access to college accommodations. The NCES reports that 24% of students with disabilities receive officially sanctioned accommodations.
A 2009 study by Wessel et. al. showed that the four-year graduation rate for neurodiverse and cognitively/psychologically disabled students specifically, is 11.96%. Studies from the National Center for Special Education Research have shown that only 29% of students with disabilities are able to complete an undergraduate degree. In comparison, Best Colleges reports that the national four-year graduation rate is 46.6% and the six-year graduation rate is 64%.
At Whitworth, barriers to accessing accommodations vary between students, and many Whitworth students said they struggled with the formality of the accommodation process itself.
Senior Rachel Wilson is currently studying English and theater at Whitworth and is aiming to graduate this spring. She was able to get accommodations for her autism and ADHD but described it as a “gruesome, gruesome process.”
“I felt every redundancy of the administrative chain of command,” she said. “The official channels are confusing and impossible to use, especially for people with disabilities.”
And even after being granted accommodations, Wilson said she recently had to appeal an academic suspension decision for failing a class when she was already working on a reduced course load. “It seemed as though the disabled kid gets the short end of the stick,” Wilson said. “The person who needs a lighter load is hurt worse when they struggle.”
Whitworth acknowledges that accommodations won’t always allow all students to succeed. On the Educational Support Services site, it states, “Students should keep in mind that accommodations are intended to provide equal access; they do not always result in equal outcomes. Students with disabilities should design their class schedules and workloads with the understanding that, even with accommodations, they might spend more time and effort than other students spend in order to achieve the same level of success.”
Other students have had to make do without any access to accommodations at all.
Floyd Wilcox, a non-binary transfeminine person with ADHD, graduated in 2020 with a degree in English. Wilcox said the professors in her department were accepting and willing to accommodate her, but official accommodations were unattainable.
“Every single time I was given an accommodation by a professor, it was not sanctioned by the university,” Wilcox said. “I tried to go through the process but I was never actually able to get over the hurdles. There would just be hoop after hoop after hoop.”
And while Wilcox was able to graduate, her GPA was low enough to create a significant roadblock in her goal of entering graduate school, an experience she shares with many other students with ADHD.
“What’s most frustrating to me is that the GPA is supposed to be one of the things that reflects how much you learned, and I don’t think it reflected how much I learned,” Wilcox said. “I think it reflected the system’s inability to accommodate someone like me. That’s going to be a reflection on me personally, perhaps unjustly, forever.”
Accommodations especially difficult for LGBTQ+ students
Another 2020 alum, former Pride Club President and English major Chandler Wheeler, was diagnosed with dyscalculia and autism when they were young. “But then my mom and I ended up housing unstable for a while,” they explained. “And because of that I lost access to my diagnostic paperwork and any of the pieces that I would need to pursue accommodations.”
“Because I was a queer young person who was coming from a background that was very low income, full of housing and food insecurity, I did not have the resources I needed in college to go to a professional and get that documentation again,” Wheeler said.
In addition to often lacking family support, queer students with disabilities at Whitworth also can’t be supported by openly queer faculty at the school. According to a profile piece by The New Yorker, former professor Kathy Lee was the first LGBTQ+ professor to come out on campus, and she has since retired.
English professor Thom Caraway explained that Whitworth students struggling with issues of sexuality and gender identity are left asking, “Who do I talk to?” and are answered with, “No one. None of your advisors will be able to relate to you.”
In her time at Whitworth, Wilcox felt too afraid to fully come out as transgender. “One of the things that made me comfortable enough to come out as a trans person,” she said, “was graduating and no longer being in that system.”
Wheeler both experienced and observed their fellow students “dealing with things like institutional racism at Whitworth, or institutional homophobia and transphobia.”
Individual professors offer ad hoc solutions
All of the students and alumni interviewed reported that, in cases where accommodations were insufficient or inaccessible, some professors were willing and equipped to fill in the gaps. Students specifically mentioned that professors in Whitworth’s English department were more willing to be flexible and offer unofficial accommodations.
Caraway said he purposefully introduces flexibility into his assignments and grades, using a “narrative self evaluation” technique where he and his students collaborate on the grading process. “It takes the reflective essay and makes it a conversation. It treats the class as a total experience rather than a sequence of assignments,” he said. His hope is that a personalized grading process “allows some of those neurodivergent students to kind of relax a little bit and not feel as much of that pressure.”
The narrative self-evaluation is an idea Caraway took upon himself to implement, and he said that there is generally a lack of faculty training, administrative flexibility, and access to accommodations. “There’s not a lot of variety in the accommodations strategy that I’ve noticed,” said Caraway. “I’ve seen some amazing students have to drop out because the system did not have any mechanisms by which they could flourish.”
John Pell, the Dean of the College of Arts and Science, said there are ongoing efforts to increase faculty and staff awareness regarding different learning styles. Pell believes Whitworth has a good “range of solutions” for educating neurodivergent students.
Despite efforts by the administration, Caraway said the faculty training doesn’t delve into neurodivergence itself. “I am not aware of specific resources that exist to aid professors in supporting or interacting with neurodivergent students,” said Caraway. He and other professors, however, are committed to expanding classroom accessibility.
“Faculty are excited to learn more,” said Pell. “I think that’s the key really. If people are curious and want to be able to support their students better, I think that’s moving in the right direction.”
Pell listed a few of the solutions Whitworth administration has implemented, including faculty workshops about “learning science” and the Student Success Department. He also explained that professors are trained on using the Universal Design for Learning, which is a mode of pedagogy meant “to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on scientific insights into how humans learn.”
During their sophomore year, Wheeler worked in the Student Success office as a tutor. They said Student Success staff want to help, but aren’t trained or equipped to provide services to neurodivergent students.
“It very much felt like students were going to the academic accommodations office and when accommodations wouldn’t, couldn’t or just refused to help people, they were shuttling them to Student Success,” said Wheeler. “Which was very frustrating because that was not a problem we could address, that was a problem accommodations should have addressed, and failed to do.”
The ESS office is limited in their ability to help students. Katie McCray, the Disability Support Services Manager, and Program Coordinator Mandolyn Hume are the sole ESS staff members listed on the ESS website.
Pell, the Arts and Sciences Dean, said that limited financial resources impact funding for student programs and teacher development. “Like any business, that’s the challenge. How do you resource all the good stuff that we need in order to do our jobs better?”
When students were able to work with the Educational Support Services office, they spoke highly of the ESS staff.
“I think Katie McCray did a really good job listening to me,” said Idiaghe. “Katie really made that process really smooth.”
McCray declined a full interview with RANGE, but in a brief email comment, she said her office aims to “provide best practices, policies, and procedures that support both the letter and the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.”
“The accommodations in higher education are also quite standard across the board, again with some uniqueness to the school, and of course the individual student,” McCray said.
Whitworth President Scott McQuilkin’s office declined an interview request from RANGE.
A learning community
The interviewees from Whitworth believe changes could be made to make higher education more accessible for all students. Wilcox said that she needed a signed diagnosis letter from a psychiatrist with a Ph.D to prove her disability, which was financially unfeasible for her. She noted that she would have been able to gain accommodations if a letter from a therapist with a master’s degree would have sufficed as proof.
When it comes to either not getting access to resources or dropping out, the decisions are about more than education, they’re about self-expression and personal evolution. “Whitworth students aren’t going to end up on the streets, Whitworth students are going to end up back home,” said Wilcox. “I remember thinking about dropping out, about what I would have to do. I was terrified. I knew my parents would be willing to support me if I needed it, but not if I continued identifying as trans — not if I continued being me.”
A 2017 study by Showers & Kinsman showed that 50.6% of students with disabilities drop out by their third year of undergraduate school.
With the stakes so high, Caraway thinks more individualized programs, like student-faculty mentorship programs, could benefit students. “Having an individualized success plan for each student would be difficult and inefficient, but also awesome.”
Wilson thinks the accommodations process should be more transparent and better-advertised around campus.
“I think that it’s not right to say ‘if you can, you must, without any help,’” said Wilson. “Instead, I think we oughta live in community, live our values that we claim to adhere to, and bring people into community rather than trying to exclude people.”
Adir Blüm (he/they) is a freelance writer originally from Santa Cruz, California who moved to Spokane in 2017 to attend Whitworth University, where he graduated in 2020. In their free time, they enjoy volunteering with a local mutual aid group, writing poetry and spending time with their large, black cat.