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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Listening to students' voices - Dealing with Invisible Disabilities

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 29 - April 20, 1995

When James Wood was a young child, he had a hard time cleaning up his room. "There were toys everywhere. I didn't know where to begin. There was too much information. Finally, my parents figured out that if they had me place all my toys in a pile, I could deal with it better."

Wood was half-way through his college career with an unhappy ending in sight before he discovered why he couldn't clean up his room.

He has attention deficiency disorder (ADD) without hyperactivity. "When I was younger, I scored 99 percent in standardized testing, but my grades were never at that level," Wood recalls. "I did well enough to get into Virginia Tech, obviously, but when after two years my QCA was 1.7, my doctor suggested I be tested."

Wood's family physician began specializing in ADD. "I was a ground breaker. ADD without hyperactivity was a new field and they didn't know it extended into adulthood," Wood said. "Now, it has been determined that it's hereditary; we believe my Mom has it and a cousin has been diagnosed. It is possible that as many as one in 10 in the population could have ADD."

Another of the one in 10 is Michelle Shabazz, who was not diagnosed until she was a senior in psychology at Virginia Tech. "I was talking to Helen Crawford, (psychology faculty member). She was quizzing me on the class material, and said--'Oh, you're going to get an A on a test she was going to give. When I got a D, she said, `This isn't right; you know this stuff.' She told me to get diagnosed." Shabazz was diagnosed at the Mental Health office in Radford.

"It was a relief to find out I wasn't stupid," Shabazz says.

Getting to college had been a struggle, and staying here was a struggle, Shabazz says. But she doesn't think it would have helped to have been diagnosed in high school. "I remember students being made fun of because they took LD classes.

"As it was, I was not allowed to take college-prep classes," she recalls. "I would sign up for algebra, and they'd put me in business math. I had to go to the community college to take the courses required for admission here. In high school, it seemed like if you were poor white or black, they thought you should work at the arsenal or foundry."

Once enrolled at the university, the fight continued. "I was struggling to get a 2.0--or the minimum QCA to stay in college. But, after I was diagnosed, there was a steady rise. I got 3.0 and 3.3 in the summer sessions following my ADD diagnosis."

Signs of ADD include never finishing a task and studying hard without effect, Wood says. "You keep getting distracted. You go to put something away and you find something else you need to do. You start to do that, and you notice something else....

"The diagnosis changed my life," agrees Wood. "I'm on medication. I'm more organized and focused."

A fifth-year student with one year to go, he was a business major for three years. "I wouldn't trade that experience, but it didn't provide a creative outlet," he says. "When I was diagnosed ADD, I decided on a fresh start.

"I'm always going to do better at something I'm interested in because I'm going to pay attention," Wood says. "Changing my major helped, although not in all of my classes." His QCA went from 1.79 to 2.3 with the change in major, then to 3.4 after learning study skills.

ADD is usually accompanied by a motor-skill deficiency. Wood has apraxia, which affects hand control. "It's minor but it can make writing clearly difficult. I have to concentrate on my handwriting to make it legible; while doing that, I miss what is being said. So now I go to lectures with my notes typed. I check off areas as they are covered and make a note in the margin when new material is presented so I can follow up later," he said.

Another complication was inefficient study skills, "as a result of going for years without being diagnosed," Wood said. At his physician's recommendation, he went to a psychotherapist who specializes in study skills for help in developing skills that suit his strengths.

Virginia Tech has helped Shabazz with study skills. She is able to learn better from hearing than reading, but has a hard time sitting through classes, "such as my 4 to 10 p.m. class on Thursdays--advanced psychology for education. I hope my teacher doesn't think I don't think his class is interesting," Shabazz says. "It's just torture to sit there. I have been leaving at the 8:30 break. I won't schedule a class like that again."

How do Wood and Shabazz tell teachers about their disability? "Once I was in design, I told faculty members that I'm ADD," explains Wood. "I only did it in lecture classes. This year I haven't done it at all because I'm doing so well it's not necessary to bring it up. I don't want the negative connotation of students seeing me receive special attention--which does happen just because the faculty members get to know you better.

"If I had a new teacher, I probably would tell the teacher I'm ADD, but that I don't expect to have a problem," Wood said.

His only discouragement has been that when he's been trying to tell people about ADD without hyperactivity. "Some people don't believe it exists--maybe because they can't see it."

He says he hasn't met a professor yet who hasn't been willing to work with him. "Most of my professors are younger, especially in English, which is my minor and my toughest subject. But they know something of ADD. All have been willing to help as long as I'm willing to try, and I haven't been a problem."

Wood says, "I'm always open. Hopefully by being open, others will learn if they have a problem. I can see ADD qualities in other people. By doing that, I've reduced any negative connotations that I've had. Problems come because people don't understand."

"I give the accommodation letter to my teachers," says Shabazz, who is still adjusting to the knowledge that she has ADD. "I'm supposed to sit in the front, get a copy of the teachers' notes if they have notes, and tape lectures. I don't take tests with everybody else, and I get an extra hour for tests. Taking tests by myself really helps," Shabazz says. "I can use the copy machine in Disabled Students Services to copy people's notes and that fills in the blanks in my notes. Some times when I'm in class, I'm just not in class...."

The teachers have been helpful, Shabazz says. "The professor in the philosophy course, Language and Logic, worked with me for two hours after every class." Even so, she failed. "I just couldn't get the logic--those VEEN diagrams...." She substituted another philosophy course, Morality and Justice.

It has been determined that there are some classes Shabazz can't take. "I took math science twice before I passed. That was another course I shouldn't have taken."

Asked how faculty members can help, she said, "I need more breaks. If I'm not paying attention, I might as well not be there. I'm not being disrespectful if I go stand in the hall for a few minutes, but I feel disrespectful. I really care about all my classes. I feel really privileged to be in graduate school.

"It's a problem if the teacher keeps changing due dates and I'm not paying attention. I'll bring the assignment when it was originally due and not bring it the next week when it is really due.

"I need assignments returned to me with comments so I have a gauge of how I'm doing....If there are corrections to be made, I want to make them."

Shabazz starts a month ahead to complete an assignment. When interviewed, she had just finished an assignment that was due in two weeks and knew what she was going to do to complete all her assignments for one class early, saying "I want time to make sure it's right." Ginny Reilly of Disabled Students Services reports that when working on a team project, Shabazz also researched the other team members' assignments so she would understand what everybody was doing.

"I feel like I snuck into graduate school and if my work is not good, I'll be out," she says. "I'm here by the grace of God. I received a minority student tuition waiver and I want to be deserving of that."

Both Shabazz and Wood are confident about their future.

"This experience has helped me understand other people's disabilities," Shabazz says. After she graduated in psychology, she worked at New River Valley Workshop as an employment specialist, helping people find and keep jobs. Then funding was cut. She was going to get a state job in which she would help people live independently, but that position was frozen. "So I came back to school. It all happened for a reason; I can do more with a graduate degree."

During the summer, Wood works for a construction management firm in D.C., working with interior designers. "They've asked me back repeatedly and tell me I have a job when I graduate. I must be doing something right."