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College and Realistic Goals

I often speak on post-secondary education and students with special needs.

Every student I have met has "special needs" and quirks. Every human has limitations. Therefore, I have been stunned lately to hear and read advocates suggesting students with autism disorders or similar limitations can "do anything they want." No one can do "anything" simply because he or she wants.

Our personalities and physical traits do set some limits.

So, while I believe that most students can master a great many things — the key being practice and dedication (genius is effort) — there are some obstacles we cannot remove.

Reading some recent blogs and articles, I was troubled by how many think students should receive special accommodations, even waivers of some admissions requirements. One advocate even argued that a student with severe dyslexia and autistic traits should be able to become an air traffic controller. Wow. Hello? Reality? I admit it... no one would want me trying to track a hundred planes in the air.

I do believe we should accommodate students within reason. The problem is agreeing on what is reasonable.

We need to admit that some disabilities eliminate certain jobs from consideration. There might be exceptions, but in general, physical limitations can be dangerous in some professions. The courts have recognized this, as well. In one case, the courts ruled that a deaf nursing student could not hear and respond to machine alerts. The risk to patients precluded the student from completing the program.

Beyond the idealism of preparing "better citizens" and life-long learners, the reality is that post-secondary education is career preparation. I cannot, in good conscience, claim that a student unable to work under pressure is going to be able to handle some professions.

I had a student claim that it wasn't fair to give a future engineer a timed test. Sorry, but even engineers can face extreme pressures. Not only are there deadlines, but some engineers do deal with matters of life and death. Structural engineers might be contacted following a disaster, emergency personnel needing to plan safe evacuations. It's an extreme example, but realistic.

I don't care what profession you pursue, there will be deadlines. There will be pressures. There will be a need to communicate with others. Even as a freelance writer, I have to communicate with people. Only a handful of professions exist without the need to navigate socially.

The point of this rambling: we need to tell students with disabilities that the world is, yes, a demanding place. You need to set realistic goals, even during your university studies. Take a path that suits your personality, your skills, and your limitations.

I actually had an autistic individual tell me he wanted to study aeronautical engineering and be a recreational pilot. His argument was that no one else would be a risk. (Completely false, unless you never fly near humans.) Nothing personal, but if you are "non-verbal" under stress, studying general aviation is not something I can support. I know that's tough. Safety first.

There's nothing wrong with being a great designer of aircraft but not getting to pilot them. I doubt most aeronautical engineers are pilots. (I forget the term, but think it's "general aviation" or something similar.)

The blunt truth is there are many things I could not do. So what? Everyone has limits. It just means my opportunities are elsewhere.

While I haven't expressed this well, I am hoping my intent is clear: be realistic and consider the future. There are a lot of career paths, so there is always something appropriate for a good student. Once you realize you might have to shift some goals and priorities, success in college is a lot easier to achieve.

Knowing your limitations is not a bad thing — it's complementary to knowing your strengths!


  1. I agree. We need to help all students be realistic and plan carefully. I'm torn between "do the impossible" and the reality that failure can be discouraging. I want to encourage students, but realistically. Balance.


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