A better plan for learning

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Ava McGovern

Selma Dahms, junior, said she was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia in early elementary school.

Selma Dahms has dealt with a learning disability her whole life.  Dahms, junior, said she was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in early elementary school. She said getting this diagnosis helped her receive accommodations such as an Assist Plan and 504 plan in school, but the process was complicated.

“I think [a 504 plan] should be a lot easier for people to get,” said Dahms,  about the plan that allows her to have more time for testing. “I was only able to be tested and diagnosed with learning disabilities because I’m privileged. I was lucky to have a parent who was willing to help me get diagnosed and go through the legal process of getting [a 504 plan].”

Dyslexia causes difficulty in reading and spelling, and ADHD makes it difficult for one to pay attention and concentrate. A condition that causes severe difficulty in making arithmetical calculations is dyscalculia. These are definitions of common learning disabilities, and would all allow a student to apply for different accommodations like a 504 plan.

“The definition of a need for a 504 is that the student is at a measurable disadvantage to their peers, and would have to go above and beyond to get the same [academic] results,” Taylor Sebestik, the senior grade level counselor, said. “If there’s something causing that, we want to make accommodations to level the playing field.”

“If it were an easier process and more readily available, I probably would have one by now.””

— Harper Hansard

However, the paperwork and the official diagnosis needed to receive a 504 plan have discouraged students like Harper Hansard, junior, from receiving one. Hansard said she deals with anxiety and dyslexia, and despite the struggles of these, she chooses to advocate for her accommodations rather than use a 504 plan.

“I started looking into getting different plans during COVID-19, when I was really struggling doing online school,” Hansard said. “Getting a 504 plan is pretty difficult in general, [so] I gave up and roughed it out. If it were an easier process and more readily available, I probably would have one by now.”

Sebestik said this process is long for a reason. He said it is complicated because of the legal steps required, as well as the importance of these plans going to students who need them.

“[The process] is just to make sure that it’s appropriate and needed,” Sebestik said. “We don’t want to give somebody help that they don’t need, both for their own sake and for using the resources where they are needed. If we’re giving help to someone that does not need the help, we’re not helping them, we’re actually hurting them.”

Dahms said one of the challenges in the process of receiving a 504 plan was getting a diagnosis. She said too much of the pressure to diagnose the child is on the parent and that schools need to be more involved.

“Teachers should have training on how to screen for signs of a learning disability,” Dahms said. “From there, [the teacher should] send the child to a nurse or somebody who can further investigate that. Not everyone is going to have a parent who [can] help them with that. And you can’t do it on your own.”

Trevor Morgan, senior, recieved a diagnosis because his teacher recognized his ADHD. He said his experience at school was very challenging before his treatment.

“I’d get in trouble all the time because I was crazy and wouldn’t listen,” Morgan said. “One of [my] teachers recommended I see somebody because I might have ADHD. My medicine helps, and [school] is pretty normal for me.”

“Even if teachers say they’re not going to look at you differently because of your learning disability, it’s not true.”

— Selma Dahms

Even after going through the diagnosis process and receiving a 504 plan, Dahms said she still struggles. She often needs to self-advocate to teachers in order to receive help.

“I do find myself making sure I have strong relationships with my teachers, so if the time comes that I do need the accommodations, I’ll be able to get them,” Dahms said. “It gets old, asking for the same [accommodations] over and over again. It doesn’t feel like you’re asking [for] much, but apparently it is. It does get extremely frustrating.”

An additional problem when discussing accommodations with teachers, Dahms said, are the possible unintended consequences. Because of issues like this, Dahms said she tries her best to get by without using her 504 plan. 

“I try to avoid using my 504 plan at all costs,” Dahms said. “Even if teachers say they’re not going to look at you differently because of your learning disability, it’s not true. [They’re] going to take it into account when you talk to them and read [your] work. So I try to save those accommodations for when I absolutely need them.”

Dahms spent her whole life learning with disabilities and accommodation plans. Having seen all of the struggles and successes with them, Dahms said she hopes for a better system. 

“I wish there was an easier way for people who don’t have accommodations to get them,” Dahms said. “I wish I could’ve had them in middle school. And I wish our teachers had received more training on how to handle students with disabilities.”