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

Journal Article

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


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Attention problem; Emotional/Behavioral disability; Learning disabilities; Multiple disabilities; Postsecondary; Student survey; U.S. context




Specific accommodations were not the central focus, but rather the perceptions and experiences of postsecondary students with learning disabilities about the accommodation process; however, researchers mentioned various academic accommodations including those provided during course exams.


Postsecondary students with learning disabilities from a large university in the southern U.S. participated; 31 students completed surveys, and 15 of those students were also interviewed. All participants were at least university sophomores, with a full year of university completion thus far. Additional self-reported demographics included gender, ethnicity, native languages, their cumulative grade point averages (GPAs), and the timing (grade level) of their initial disability determination. Participants reported having various learning disabilities, including those affecting reading, writing, math, language, and other learning. A number of students also reported other disabilities: 19 had ADHD, 2 had depression, and 2 had anxiety disorder.

Dependent Variable

All participants completed a set of quantitative surveys, including the Attitudes Towards Requesting Accommodations Scale (ATRA), The Self-Determination Scale (SDS), and the Revised Self-Disclosure Scale (RSDS) -- measuring various psychological phenomena. A subset of students also participated in semi-structured interviews, discussing different ways they disclosed their disabilities and need for accommodations; some participants did not disclose and did not request accommodations. These interview transcripts were analyzed by two researchers, finding high agreement, then complete reconciliation of differences prior to data analyses.


Students were identified as having made various degrees of disclosure about their disabilities and desire or need for accommodations: no disclosure or need, disclosure by contacting the university's disability services (DS) office then only providing letters to professors, and disclosure through the DS office's letter and also having detailed personal conversations with professors. The psychological surveys confirmed significant differences in scores between those who disclosed their disabilities and accommodations requests with professors and those who did not do so. For instance, students who did not self-disclose to professors had much more negative views or attitudes about seeking accommodations, and also much lower levels of self-determination, than those who fully disclosed directly with professors. Further, nine factors were identified as influencing the decision to disclose about their learning disabilities and need for accommodations. These factors were further separated into larger themes: knowledge (about accommodations), experience with people, self-awareness, and supports. The first theme pertained to one factor: the students' knowledge (or lack of knowledge) about accommodations that would support them. The "experience with people" theme encompassed students' sense of the demeanor of the professor, and their experiences with DS, the professor, classmates, and academics in general. Self-awareness factors included their views of their own disabilities, and about needing or not needing accommodations. Finally, the "supports" theme related to whether students had developed coping strategies for their disabilities that would not necessitate their seeking accommodations. The factors for students who did not self-disclose included very high negative comments about knowledge of accommodations, perceptions that they did not need accommodations and had other coping strategies instead, and had higher negative associations with their disabilities, and desire to avoid negative comments from peers. The inverse was reported about both the students who disclosed through the DS letter only and through both the letter and conversation with professors. In other words, both of these other groups of students had fewer negative comments about knowledge of the accommodations process in the postsecondary setting, more positive comments about their own disabilities, and more positive comments about their needing and benefiting from accommodations. Further, both disclosure groups had made more positive comments about the demeanors of professors; however, they made more negative than positive comments about academics, and negative comments about experiences with peers. Both disclosure groups made similar amounts of positive comments about coping mechanisms as the no-disclosure group. Limitations of the study were reported, and future research directions were suggested.