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Resources for PhD Students with Learning Disabilities: Tools and Strategies for Success

Doctoral studies are rigorous and intense. For students with learning disabilities, the challenges may seem formidable. But PhD students can reach their academic goals with the right resources, support, and accommodations.

Written By

Bernard Grant, PhD

Meet the Expert

Alicia A. Broderick

Last updated

Jul 26, 2023

If you struggle with a learning disability, you may feel as though there’s something wrong with you. You may even battle with imposter syndrome or feelings of inadequacy, especially if you choose to pursue a PhD or other form of higher education. It is natural to feel this way, especially when traditional educational settings are designed for non-disabled, or “neurotypical,” students.

So, if you have a learning disability, it’s important to understand that there is nothing inherently wrong with your neurodivergence. Rather, the teaching methods used in schools do not match your cognitive or learning styles, thereby disabling your ability to learn (as represented by the term “learning disability”).

Despite these challenges, you can succeed as a PhD student. In fact, your unique neurological profile (or neurotype) can be advantageous for the highly specialized, intellectual work required to earn a PhD. This guide provides information to help you navigate challenges you may encounter while earning your PhD, as well as helpful advice and resources – including an interview with a disability studies scholar and professor. 

Challenges You Might Face in a PhD Program

For PhD students with learning disabilities, each neurotype comes with its own set of challenges. The most common types of learning disabilities – which are described in more detail later on – generally involve challenges with reading, writing, math, reasoning, listening, and speaking.

Executive functioning is another common obstacle for PhD students with learning disabilities. So, task initiation, time-management, organization, and test-taking may pose particular challenges. Students with learning disabilities also routinely face discrimination based on their differences.

Reading and Comprehension

Notoriously demanding, doctoral studies require students to invest significant time and effort towards reading and comprehension. These activities can be particularly challenging for students who struggle to process written information or find it difficult to focus. 

Students who are especially challenged by reading comprehension can experience frustration and anxiety, resulting in lowered academic performance. What’s more, they can fall behind in their studies if they are unable to overcome their disability. 

However, with the right support and accommodations — such as more time for assignments and adaptive technology — all students with reading and comprehension challenges can thrive academically.


Some students with learning disabilities generally have trouble retaining and recalling information, a necessary task for any PhD student. Short-term recall can be challenging for some neurodivergent learners; this is especially true for those with acquired neurodivergence such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), often resulting in communication challenges. 

If you struggle with memory, memory aids like digital apps, browser extensions, and notebooks can enable you to record crucial information like deadlines, meeting times, and other appointments. Repetition is another great strategy to improve memory through reinforcement. For example, a student can make time to read an essay or research paper twice: once to passively absorb the information, then again to analyze and make sense of the text. 

Time Management

Time management is a critical component of academic success, especially for PhD students. Graduate students heavily rely on executive functioning to manage multiple, often conflicting demands on their time. However, people with learning disabilities often struggle to manage time effectively. Executive functioning challenges can make it difficult to initiate and stay focused on tasks, and these students may procrastinate or miss deadlines altogether.

To add to this, many students with learning disabilities have developed perfectionism due to the educational trauma of navigating neurotypically designed schools. Perfectionism often results in procrastination, which only exacerbates the issues caused by time mismanagement, creating a negative feedback loop for students who aren’t careful.

Test Taking

Test taking can be a significant obstacle for PhD students with learning disabilities. Struggling to interpret test questions, sense the passing of time, recall information, or organize thoughts can all affect neurodivergent test-takers. To add to this, different tests can pose different challenges; for example, writing exam essays or answering open-ended test questions can be more challenging than a multiple-choice exam. 

Additionally, neurodivergent students have unique sensory worlds that can make traditional classrooms with bright lights, strong scents, and general commotion incredibly distracting. These students may need to test in different environments to maintain their focus. 

Social and Emotional Challenges

Due to frequent social rejection and behavioral correction from people who do not understand or accept neurodivergence and disability, many PhD students with learning disabilities experience social challenges and neurological dysregulation. The resulting sense of rejection can result in significant emotional challenges, especially for neurodivergent individuals who suffer from rejection sensitive dysphoria (RSD), a heightened response to perceived criticism.

Sometimes, however, neurological dysregulation is simply a result of having a heightened nervous system. Many students with learning disabilities experience stimuli such as light, smells, and sounds more intensely than their neurotypical peers. So loud, bright classrooms and campuses can cause these students to experience anxiety or irritation due to an overloaded neurology. 

Stigma Around Learning Disabilities

The stigma, or bigotry, that surround learning disabilities is a result of ableism, or the view that disabled people are inferior to nondisabled people. Stigma often results in internalized ableism, wherein a disabled person views themselves as inferior to nondisabled people. Internalized ableism results in shame, embarrassment, social isolation, and can motivate someone to quit their PhD program or avoid applying altogether.

PhD students with learning disabilities often try to mask their neurodivergence to fit in with their neurotypical peers or avoid discrimination. This strategy, however, tends to backfire when disabled PhD students are ready to advocate for their needs or access support and accommodations. 

Writing Challenges

Writing challenges manifest in a variety of ways and affect any student, especially if that person has a learning disability. Issues can range anywhere from trouble focusing to struggling with holding a pencil or typing. Considering that most PhD programs require intensive writing, these challenges can lead to anxiety and low self-esteem for PhD students with learning disabilities. Depending on the unique challenge, students may find tutoring, writing in quiet environments, speech-to-text software, or other tools can greatly aid their ability to write.

Common Learning Disabilities and How to Adapt

Medically recognized learning disabilities can include dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, nonverbal learning disabilities, and other neurotypes. In the following section, you’ll find a few of the most common cognitive styles that are disabled by traditional higher education settings, along with tips and strategies that will help you adapt and succeed during your doctoral studies. It’s important to note that there are also disability services offered through schools that can aid PhD students depending on their problem areas.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

A widely misunderstood neurotype, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is a form of neurodivergence that is typically framed as a “disorder” and “deficit” of attention. There are three types of ADHD: hyperactive and impulsive, primarily inattentive, and combined. Regardless of the diagnosis, all three types experience similar educational challenges: focus, organization, and time-blindness.

There is a common misconception that people with ADHD are always unable to focus; in fact, quite the opposite is true. When ADHDers find a topic stimulating, they can hyper-focus for hours at a time, often making these PhD students more productive or attentive than traditional learners (given the right subject matter).

The challenge with ADHD is managing or controlling attention to focus on “uninteresting” tasks, which are subjective to the individual. Fortunately, there are tools available to help ADHD PhD students succeed.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with ADHD

While not all ADHD students need accommodations, many can benefit from additional time on tests, timers, to-do lists, daily planners, and wall calendars. Increasingly, ADHD students have also been practicing body doubling, where they work synchronously with another person to promote motivation and focus. Many ADHDers also favor pomodoro timers or other productivity apps created specifically for the ADHD brain, such as Inflow, Sunsama, and Akiflow.

Auditory Processing Disorder (APD)

An auditory processing disorder (APD) is a broad term used to describe a variety of different auditory challenges rather than a single event. People with APD struggle to process sounds and filter out background noise, which can cause them to confuse the order or direction of sounds.

PhD students with APD have unique sensory worlds that can make it difficult to distinguish between different noises; as a result, they will find it more challenging to comprehend lectures, follow directions, or understand certain ways of speaking. This difficulty becomes more noticeable in noisy or challenging listening environments or when listening to complex information.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with APD

Fortunately, there are many tools and resources available for PhD students with APD. One simple strategy includes taking notes during lectures, which can help students with APD focus. Visual aids like captioned videos, PowerPoint presentations, and other types of visual learning content can also assist with comprehension.

For APD students looking to reduce background noise and amplify sound, assistive listening devices can make speech easier to understand. Another option is to record lectures using assistive technology, which allows APD students to listen later in a less distracting environment. Specialized earplugs, like those made by Loop and Calmer, can also help reduce background noise so students can focus on learning.


Dyscalculia is a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to understand number-based information and math. While every dyscalculic person has different obstacles, PhD students may struggle with basic arithmetic, reading things like analog clocks and music notes, and understanding complex numerical concepts like percentages and fractions. For research students, this may present challenges in understanding and quantifying important data.

Despite these obstacles, students with dyscalculia often benefit from advanced creativity, conceptual, and language skills that can be academically beneficial. There are also many tools available to help dyscalculic PhD students overcome learning difficulties.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with Dyscalculia

Today’s dyscalculic PhD students are fortunate to live in a time where they can use calculators and other assistive technology to perform calculations. For example, the Photomath app was created to help with math comprehension by breaking down and explaining math problems submitted by students.

As many dyscalculics also struggle to understand graphs and diagrams, experimenting with visual aids can work well for visual learners. These students can also seek resources like tutoring or online courses that can supply additional support and instruction on math-related tasks. 


Dyslexia is similar to dyscalculia, but instead of struggling with math comprehension, dyslexics struggle with decoding and recognizing words. Common challenges include understanding written text like reading, writing and spelling; naturally, this can pose significant threats to a PhD student’s academic progress. At the same time, dyslexic PhD students often express talents in visual, conceptual, and creative thinking, which can be beneficial to their studies.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with Dyslexia

Thanks to the digital age, dyslexic students have a wealth of tools and strategies that can help them overcome language challenges in graduate school. For example, text-to-speech software and audiobooks can help dyslexic students read and comprehend their studies better. The Bionic Reading app, which highlights the first letters of each word, has helped many dyslexic (and ADHD) students improve focus and comprehension, as well.

Keeping in mind that dyslexic people are commonly gifted with visual minds and grasp concepts with ease, visual aids like highlighting and color-coding can help dyslexic students effectively identify important details and organize information, as well. 


Disabled by writing tasks, students with dysgraphia often struggle with handwriting, spelling, and generally organizing their thoughts in written form. While many of these students are gifted conceptual thinkers, individuals can be disabled by the extensive writing requirements that come with doctoral studies. Struggles include writing in a straight line, difficulties holding or controlling writing tools (e.g., a pen), and challenges recalling how letters are formed.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with Dysgraphia

Assistive technology is widely available to help PhD students with dysgraphia succeed. This includes speech-to-text software like Dragon Dictation, which allows students to dictate rather than write. Word prediction software and grammar and spelling checkers like Grammarly can also help.

Other helpful strategies include taking regular breaks when writing long assignments. Relaxing activities like meditation or short walks can enhance these short breaks, allowing students to regulate and reset their neurology, refreshing their minds. 


PhD students with dyspraxia — also known as developmental coordination disorder (DCD) — struggle with motor skills, including fine and gross motor coordination. Writing, typing, or simply getting around campus can be a challenge if you’re dyspraxic.

To add to this, dyspraxic students are often prone to falling, bumping into things, and bruising, which can lead to additional discrimination based on body movements and speech. The mental and physical effort required to manage movements, as well as organize and plan tasks that nondisabled people handle with ease, can also lead to burnout and exhaustion for PhD students with DCD.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with Dyspraxia

If you suffer from Dyspraxia, proactively contacting disability services can help you arrange classroom accommodations or assistive technology before you encounter accessibility barriers. There are also many dyspraxia tools available, such as weighted pencil grips, that can assist with common challenges.

Outside of technology, breaking down tasks into smaller steps can help reduce overwhelm and make assignments more manageable. You can also find a dyspraxic life coach or support group, on or off-campus, and tell your professors about any challenges you’re facing.

Language Processing Disorder (LPD)

Considered a learning disability, language processing disorder (LPD) affects an individual’s ability to understand, express, or process language. There are three types of language processing disorders: receptive, expressive, and language disorder (also known as mixed receptive-expressive).

PhD students with receptive language disorder struggle to understand what certain people are saying, while those with expressive language disorder may find it difficult to clearly express their own thoughts or comprehend the meaning of words or even entire narratives. Meanwhile, students who suffer from mixed receptive-expressive language disorder experience some combination of the aforementioned symptoms.

Tools or Strategies PhD Students with LPD

Many people with LPD find it helpful to hire speech therapists. As a graduate student, your school may offer access to a speech therapist at reduced rates.

If therapy doesn’t interest you, there is a range of assistive technology that will enable you to learn as well as your peers.

You can also ask your instructor or disability services to implement visual aids like charts, graphs, and diagrams into your coursework. Finally, take advantage of office hours if you need instructors to provide extra clarification and support. 

Nonverbal Learning Disorder (NVLD)

PhD students with nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) commonly struggle with spatial relationships, executive functioning, and social skills. For example, social interactions with people who communicate through “social cues,” slang, and indirect speech — rather than direct language — can be challenging for students with NVLD to understand. However, PhD students with NVLD are often well-spoken and can write well.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with NVLD

As with any executive functioning challenge, it’s always helpful to break down tasks into smaller, easier-to-manage steps. These students can also benefit from working with a mentor who can help them navigate graduate school. 

Coaches who share a students’ neurotype are also helpful, as they have similar thinking and communication styles; they can also share their experiences, talents, and challenges. So, PhD students with NVLD can benefit most from working with a neurodivergent coach. 

Visual Processing Disorder

PhD students who are diagnosed with visual processing disorder struggle to interpret and make sense of visual information. Although this may sound like vision loss, visual processing disorder means that a person has trouble processing, interpretating, and making sense of visual data; they can still see. However, lectures and assignments that rely on visual processing skills may pose significant challenges to PhD students with visual processing disorder.

Tools or Strategies for PhD Students with Visual Processing Disorder

A variety of visual aids (e.g., color-coding) can help students with visual processing disorder comprehend important information. PhD students can, for example, create color-coded charts or mark important information in their texts with manual or digital highlighters. 

PhD students with visual processing challenges can also access assistive technologies, including text-to-speech software that reads written documents aloud, and screen readers that convert digital text into audio formats.

What Accommodations Should Schools Provide?

Students with learning disabilities have the legal right to request accommodations and adjustments that help them succeed in their doctoral studies. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) legally requires universities to provide these adjustments.

In this section, you’ll find some popular accommodations and adjustments you can also request to help you excel in your doctoral studies as a student with a learning disability. 

Assistive Software and Technology

Whether you struggle with reading, writing, math, or comprehending and retaining verbal or written communication, you can use assistive software and technology — including speech-to-text programs, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, and voice recognition software — to overcome many academic challenges.

Many universities provide assistive software and technology through libraries, computers labs, or loaner programs; check with disability services to learn more about what your school offers.

Classroom or Laboratory Accommodations

Classrooms, laboratories, and other facilities can be inaccessible to neurodivergent PhD students, especially to those with unique sensory worlds who can’t tolerate a lot of stimuli. 

For these leaners, accommodations like noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, and access to audio recordings of lectures can help with accessibility. Schools can also provide a sign language interpreter or notetaker for classroom lectures.

For fieldwork and lab assignments, you can request accommodations that break down tasks into smaller parts, or additional time to complete assignments and tests.

Disability Resources and Services Office

Schools commonly have a disability resources office that can help you access assessment services and classroom accommodations. The names of these departments vary between institutions; some schools may call them accessibility resources, disability access, or simply disability services. Whatever the name, your campus’s disability resources can help you with accommodations like a flexible or reduced schedule, assistive technology, academic coaches, tutors, and counseling and psychological services (CAPS). 

Extra Time for Assignments and Exams

Extra time to complete exams and assignments is a common accommodation for students with learning disabilities. For PhD students who struggle with executive functioning, focus, mobility, fatigue, or traditional sensory environments, these adjustments allow for more time to process and organize information, manage distractions, and write at the doctoral level.

Hybrid Schedule or Scheduling Adjustments

Since disabilities are largely environmental, affected PhD students are often more productive when they are allowed to work from home. For example, students who cannot tolerate fluorescent lights often request hybrid schedules that allow them to learn remotely a portion of the time. Flexible schedules — including timing adjustments, hybrid schedules, and even online learning formats — help many PhD students with learning disabilities overcome environmental barriers.

Instruction Modifications

Depending on the format, students with learning disabilities may have trouble understanding directions. This barrier can significantly impact their ability to successfully complete the tasks required to earn their PhD.

While professors and other instructors have the responsibility to make their material as accessible as possible for all students, you may need to request modifications that align with your cognitive style. An instructor might implement visual aids, for example, or use multiple modes of instruction, such as a mix of group work, lectures, seminar discussion, and student presentations. 

Notetakers or Aides

Another common accommodation for students with learning disabilities includes notetakers who help students keep track of lectures. Many schools also offer aids who can help you manage your workload and schedule — for example, by creating routines or systems that align with your cognitive style. Some PhD students with learning disabilities can also benefit from requesting sign language interpreters. 

Reduced Course Loads

If you have a learning disability, you probably experience a variation in energy levels that can result in chronic fatigue. One accommodation you can request is a reduced course load to help you manage your coursework along with your other academic and professional demands. 


Many universities offer transportation accommodations that include rides to off-campus activities like internships, labs, clinics, and research sites. Higher education institutions may also connect you with local transportation providers or offer reimbursement for travel expenses, for example, flights to conferences or other academic opportunities.

Benefits of Online Learning for Students with Learning Disabilities

Since learning disability is largely a mismatch between a person and their environment, PhD students who need more control over their academic setting should consider an online education. Remote learning provides a flexible and accessible alternative to on-campus instruction by allowing you to work at your own pace in a controlled environment.

If you choose to pursue your PhD online, you’ll also have easier access to a lot of common accommodations. For example, online courses tend to offer transcripts, closed captioning, and the ability to adjust the speed of videos, including lectures.

Another benefit of learning online is that you’ll have more energy to focus on your coursework and research, because you’ll spend less energy (and money) commuting to and navigating campus.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Are My Rights?

The ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act grant you, a disabled student, the legal right to receive reasonable accommodations, including adjustments to coursework, course load, and learning and testing environments (among other academic requirements). While accommodations vary between schools and needs vary greatly between people, these adjustments generally offer flexibility that remove barriers that disable you. These laws also protect you from discrimination on the basis of your disability.

How and Why Should I Request Accommodation?

Incoming PhD students with learning disabilities benefit when they request accommodations as soon as possible. Ideally, this means you’ll contact your institution’s office of disability or accessibility services before you begin your studies. 

Requesting accommodations levels the educational field by removing barriers that disable you. Like many PhD students with learning disabilities, you may not know whether you need accommodations until you encounter a barrier that disables you. You may not need accommodations at all. However, the safest bet is to connect with disability services as soon as possible, register with them, and learn what services they offer. 

In What Ways Can the Inclusion of Students with Disabilities Improve a Program?

Diversity creates stable environments, and when PhD programs embrace diversity, they also foster environments that promote authenticity and unique perspectives. Learning disabilities are a natural form of diversity resulting from educational environments centered around neurotypical students.

Neurodivergent learners have unique minds, talents, and ways of thinking. If accommodated and supported to be their authentic selves, these students bring unique insight and perspective to traditional learning environments, promoting academic, artistic, and professional innovation. 

Learning Disabilities Resources for PhD Students

  • Understood.org offers comprehensive resources, tools, and general information on learning disabilities, including resources for graduate students.
  • The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity features research-based resources for dyslexic students and can benefit those pursuing graduate degrees.
  • National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) hosts resources for people with learning disabilities that include higher education and advanced degrees.
  • Dyspraxia Foundation is a nationwide charity that raises awareness and educates educational and medical professionals on dyspraxia. Their website lists a variety of advice for dyspraxic people of all ages.
  • Learning Ally is a nonprofit that offers assistive technology, such as audiobooks, to graduate students with learning disabilities.
  • Genius Within, a neurodivergent-owned and lead business, offers a wealth of resources and services for neurodivergent students, including coaching and assessments.
  • LD OnLine provides articles and other supportive resources for students with learning disabilities of any educational level.
  • Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD) offers professional development support and other resources to help students with disabilities navigate higher education.
  • Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology (DO-IT) promotes accessibility in classrooms and workplaces through online content, publications, and videos, as well as the application of universal design.
  • Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) provides advocacy resources and other support to people with learning disabilities, as well as a directory of local LDA chapters for different states.
  • ADDitude is a comprehensive resource for ADHD students. The website has a magazine, newsletters, blogs, and various assessments for all types of learning disabilities or neurodivergences.
  • International Dyslexia Association’s website has a wealth of resources on dyslexia, including fact sheets, success stories, infographics, and an advocacy toolkit PhD students can use to advocate for their rights.
  • Project Muse is an online database of scholarly journals and books for humanities and social science that PhD students with learning disabilities may find useful.
  • NeuroClastic is a media website on autistic and neurodivergent culture; it features articles on navigating higher education, as well as a variety of resources about various neurotypes.

Interview with an Expert Who Works with Students with Learning Disabilities

To gain a deeper understanding into how learning disabilities affect PhD students, we sat down with Alicia A. Broderick, Ph.D., a critical autism and disability studies scholar and a professor of education at Montclair State University. Recently, she wrote an award-winning book, The Autism Industrial Complex: How Branding, Marketing, and Capital Investment Turned Autism into Big Business. Presently, Ms. Broderick is writing an easy-read version of this text for a layperson’s audience.

How do you define learning disabilities, and how do they differ from other types of disability?

There are a number of conceptual problems with the idea of “learning disabilities,” each of which makes attempts to define the concept somewhat difficult.

First, “learning disabilities” or “learning disability” (LD) as a concept has evaded precise definition for the past six decades. It has been hypothesized over the years that LD involves perceptual, attention, memory, cognition, motor, and other aspects of neurological [dys]function. There have been whole lists of “specific” learning disabilities identified and named (including dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc.), and interventions for each packaged and sold, none of which has ever been reliably demonstrated to be connected to any specific, identifiable neurological dysfunction. So, as a concept, LD is pretty “squishy.”

Second, LD makes most sense as a concept within sociological and economic frameworks. The most logical explanations for the evolution of the concept of LD are those that take into account cultural and economic history, including the Brown v. Board of Education supreme court decision [ruling segregation on the basis of race unconstitutional], among others. These economic demands, coupled with new legal mandates that public schools actually serve all American students, have created an entirely new subsector of intervention industries in the public schooling market: Learning disabilities.

Third, in spite of six decades of failure to define or determine or to prove what LD is, and despite clear evidence that the history of LD as an idea is inextricably grounded in class privilege, racism, and commercial profiteering, the concept has nevertheless been reified (accepted as “real”) not only by schools, employers, parents, etc., but more troublingly, by people who identify as “LD” themselves. Many students think of themselves as “having” LD (or dyslexia, or dysgraphia, etc.), as though they “have” a clear and definable medical diagnosis, throughout their schooling and well into adulthood. When it can be just as convincingly argued (perhaps more so) that the concept of LD makes little sense outside of the specific contexts of schooling that created it, and that schooling creates learning disabled people through policy, school culture, and pedagogical practice.

What is the relationship between learning disabilities and neurodivergence?

Neurodivergence is a more recent term/concept than learning disability, and the idea of LD is probably best nested beneath the broader umbrella concept of neurodivergence, which simply means neurotypes that diverge from dominant neurotypes. LD as it’s commonly thought of is certainly a non-dominant neurotype, and for that reason most folks would probably include LD under the umbrella concept of neurodivergence [along with autism, ADHD, etc.].

What binds these different identities together under “neurodivergence” is probably the shared experience of being positioned as marginal, other, non-normative, or somehow “defective” [from dominant perspectives] in one’s ways of being in and experiencing the world. Neuronormative experience is anticipated and planned for in schools, workplaces, etc., and people experience neurodivergence when their embodiment diverges from those dominant expectations.

Why are some students disabled by traditional learning environments, while many nondisabled students earn their degrees without assistive technology and other accommodations?

The ideas of academic achievement and intellectual ability are not and never have been neuroinclusive concepts — that is, they are grounded in neuronormative expectations, assessed by tools that center or privilege neuronormative expression and experience.

Being normative is their purpose — it’s a design feature, not a bug. The entire point of academic assessments is to create a normative, competitive organization of students [e.g., those who excel, those with average performance, and those who fail]. 

Higher education is no different [in fact, is more competitive, because post-secondary education is elective, not compulsory]. Some people will always struggle with attaining their degree because post-secondary education was not designed for all learners to be successful. If your neurotype is more closely aligned with dominant norms, you’re more likely to experience success in your schooling; if your neurotype is not well-aligned with dominant norms, you’re more likely to struggle.

If you experience neurodivergence in a manner that disables you in higher education due to its non-inclusive nature, your only real avenue to “level the playing field” is to seek and claim the protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act [i.e., to be granted “accommodations” that mitigate the disabling features of higher education]. Seeking these protections requires you to identify as a person with a “qualifying” disability — in this case, as a “person with specific learning disabilities.”

So, in this sense, it’s actually useful that neurodivergent people think of themselves as “people with disabilities” in order to be entitled to the anti-discrimination protections of the ADA. If you think of yourself as having been disabled by your schooling, that won’t necessarily entitle you to your required texts being made available to you in a digital format that can be accessed via screen-reading technology, for example. So, the medical model of disability does have its uses.

Consider also that many disabled students do earn their degrees without assistive technology or other accommodations. And many nondisabled students are disadvantaged by traditional learning environments, expectations, and instructional styles, without that disadvantage being perceived or understood as the student being “disabled.” So, it’s complicated.

How can mentors, professors, supervisors, or advisors best support their students who identify as LD and ensure that their students’ graduate school experience is an accessible one?

The first thing that mentors, professors, supervisors, or advisors can do is be open to critically examining the ways in which the institution [and/or their own professional practice] may be rooted in ableism, including both structural and interpersonal. Disabled students experience not only discriminatory barriers to access, but also discriminatory forms of ableist bigotry that manifest as microaggressions and other kinds of interpersonal hostilities. Don’t engage in it yourself, and if it happens in your classroom, disrupt it.

Second, critically examine your practice, reflecting on the ways that your own expectations, curricula, instruction, etc., may be neuronormative without your even realizing it. For example, don’t adopt texts as required if they’re not available in accessible formats, ensure that your slides and other course materials are available in flexible and accessible digital formats, etc.

Third, mentors and other personnel should be prepared to facilitate their students’ bureaucratic access to the offices within the institution that will ensure their access to an ADA-compliant educational experience.

Lastly, mentors and other personnel should be prepared to act as an ally to disabled students within the institution. This requires advocating on behalf of disabled students at the levels of institutional and administrative policy, rather than only in terms of one’s own professional practice.

How can PhD students who identify as learning disabled best communicate their needs to their supervisors, mentors, and colleagues?

Ph.D. students who identify as LD can probably best communicate their needs to supervisors, mentors, and colleagues through a combination of tactics.

First, it is helpful to proactively communicate your ADA accommodations with clarity [e.g., sometimes the accommodation of “extended time” makes little sense in the context of a course with no timed tests], helping to underscore that the intent of ADA accommodations is to mitigate [witting or unwitting] discrimination.

Second, it may also be helpful to introduce the broader concept of neurodivergence, and the even broader concept of neurodiversity. Most university personnel will be familiar with “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging” (DEIB) initiatives.

Neurodivergent students (including LD students) are part of the broader fabric of human neurodiversity, which falls squarely within the “diversity” mandate of most universities — to embrace and value all forms of human diversity, and to seek to create equity, inclusion, and belonging for all students and personnel.