Research Corner

By Sally Scott, AHEAD Senior Research Associate

AHEAD Information Services provides highlights of research articles from peer reviewed journals that have direct relevance for your daily work in the disability resource office.

Research You Can Use: Self-Disclosure Decisions of University Students with Learning Disabilities

Citation: Cole, E., & Cawthon, S. (2015). Self-disclosure decisions of university students with learning disabilities, Journal of Postsecondary Education and Disability, 28(2), 163-179.

College students with learning disabilities (LD) don’t always choose to disclose their disability. Because LD is a “non-visible” disability, students are able to make a conscious decision to self-disclose to the institution, faculty, or disability resource professionals in order to receive accommodations, or they can choose to remain hidden and forgo accommodations. Previous research provides some possible factors that contribute to student decision-making about disclosure. These include individual levels of self-determination, psychological factors associated with the experience of having a disability, and attitudes about accommodations. But how do these factors work together to explain student decisions about disclosure?

Emma Cole and Stephanie Cawthon, from the University of Texas at Austin, conducted a study to learn more about this. They looked at the attitudes and perceptions of students with LD who disclose and those who don’t. They also wondered what factors students consider important when deciding if and how they should disclose.

Some Key Findings
There are some important differences between students who disclose their LD and those who don’t. Students in the No Disclosure group:

  • reported lower levels of self-determination and worse attitudes about accommodations;
  • had inaccurate information about accommodations at the college level (e.g., my disability isn’t serious when compared to students who are deaf or blind, so I wouldn’t qualify for accommodations);
  • had an overwhelmingly negative view of disability and described it as “a stigma,” “excuse,” “problem,” and “handicapping;”
  • felt that they did not need accommodations or that they would not be helpful (e.g., I think I would use extended time as a crutch and get even farther behind than I am now);
  • chose not to disclose so they could avoid negative reactions and comments from peers.

Among students who chose to disclose their LD, Cole and Cawthon looked for differences between students who disclosed to professors using only their official DS registration letter (the Letter Only group) and students who disclosed to professors using their official DS registration letter and speaking with the professor about their individual learning needs (Letter and Conversation group). What affected the depth of disclosure for students? Students identified these factors as important to more disclosure:

  • the demeanor of professors (e.g., they were willing to help or perceived as kind);
  • past experience and interactions with professors (e.g., had conversations with instructors about successful learning);
  • their own view of disability (e.g., I’m not any different; I am reaching my full potential).

Suggestions from Students
Cole and Cawthon asked students about their recommendations for disability resource offices and faculty. Here is some of their advice:

  • Make sure disability resource office and accommodation information is provided to all incoming students early in the process (e.g., in new student orientation and campus tours).
  • Provide testimonials from students (preferably online) so incoming students can better gauge the helpfulness of accommodations based on other students’ experiences.
  • Provide more information and training for faculty. Students do not want to be placed in the position of educating faculty about disability resource office procedures and protocols (e.g., how testing accommodation procedures work).

Think your disability resource office already does these things? Check out the Implications for Intervention section of the Cole and Cawthon article to read more recommendations from students and learn how the campus that was the site of this research has enhanced their services even further.

Want to know more about the methods, outcomes, and limitations of this research? You can access the article at: Scroll to issue 2 and select your format of choice (pdf, Word, mp3, or Daisy).

Have you published a research article or read a research study that informed your work? E-mail Sally Scott ( ) with suggestions for future research summaries in the Hub!