Nolan and Physics: A Case Study on Accommodating Learning Disabilities

Date Updated


I'm Nolan, a junior at the university. I am a physics and astronomy major. I plan to attend graduate school in physics. I have two learning disabilities: Dyslexia, a reading disability, and Dysgraphia, a writing disability. I was diagnosed by a clinical psychologist when I was nine years old, and have been reassessed two times.

Access Issue

My Dyslexia and Dysgraphia are severe. I can read, but it takes me a very long time, and I can write but writing is extremely slow and exhausting. I have strong verbal and analytical skills, but reading print material and expressing myself in writing or using a keyboard are very slow. Before starting classes as a freshman I met with the counselor in the disability services office to talk about my accommodation needs. In high school I was accommodated with extended time on exams. I was concerned that in college exams would be longer and require more writing.


My disability documentation was accepted by the disability services office. The college learning disabilities specialist reviewed my documentation and felt that three times the allotted time was justified for most exams, especially essay or long-answer exams. The specialist indicated that my Dysgraphia was very severe. She recommended that I use audiobooks or electronic text. Note-taking assistance was also recommended, but I decided not to use that accommodation, because it would mean more reading and, since I am a strong auditory learner, I remember classroom lectures and discussions. The learning disabilities specialist was most concerned about faculty accepting the recommendation for three times the allotted time since most students receive at most two times the allotted time. She wrote specific letters for me to give to instructors regarding the justification for the extended time recommendation, and I personally talked to each instructor. When I started to take physics courses, the learning disabilities specialist and I went to meet with each instructor to explain and discuss my needs. Several physics instructors were reluctant about that much extra time for exams; some said that their exams were time-sensitive since they wanted to measure how much and how well a student could produce in a one- or two-hour exam. One professor disagreed about the amount of extended time and went to talk with the disability services director. He then agreed to the accommodation, and there were no problems. Some of the professors later understood why I needed that much time when they observed me trying to write exam answers.


This case study illustrates the following:

  1. Students with learning disabilities have individual needs, and there may be great variation in academic accommodations for students with the same diagnosis.
  2. Sometimes it is more important for the student, faculty, and disability services staff to meet to discuss accommodations and needs, especially when the accommodation recommended is atypical.
  3. Student self-knowledge and management of a disability are important in determining accommodation needs (e.g., this student recognized himself as a strong auditory learner, hence no need for note-taking assistance in his case).
  4. It can be helpful for the student to thoroughly discuss concerns with disability services staff in advance since they might be able to facilitate sensitive situations (e.g., anticipating that some faculty in physics would likely be hesitant about the amount of extended time for exams).