By the time she reached the third grade, Aliza Sokolow's teachers could plainly see that she was a bright, articulate child. But something was interfering with her learning. It took seven more years -- until her sophomore year in high school -- before Sokolow was finally diagnosed with a learning disability and given some strategies to cope with it.
Once the nature of her problem was clear, however, Sokolow exhibited her trademark determination, working tirelessly with an educational therapist to gain new skills and relearn old ones. After a year and a half of intensive effort, she said, "I have learned how to study efficiently and which study environments are best for me."
Sokolow was loath to draw attention to herself, but she agreed to follow certain recommendations, such as having extended time for test taking, to compensate for her learning disability.
Now a successful senior at Milken Community High School, Sokolow is the executive editor of her school's newspaper, sits on the student government's executive board and student judiciary and is a competitive swimmer. This summer, she participated in a journalism program at Columbia University.
So when she started thinking about college, Sokolow naturally wanted to know what kind of programs existed for students with challenges like hers. College and universities are prevented by law from discriminating against applicants with physical disabilities, such as an inability to walk, see or hear. Nor can they discriminate against candidates with learning disabilities or conditions like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But the degree to which the latter category of students are accommodated can vary greatly.
Last January, Sokolow attended a college conference that featured a session for students with disabilities. Students were querying one representative from a prestigious private school about his institution's program, but he couldn't answer their questions.
"He didn't know anything," Sokolow said. "It was a rude awakening."
She decided to do her own research, scouring Web sites of institutions around the country to see what types of programs they offered to students with physical or learning disabilities. Many of the applicable sections were under construction or buried deep within the Web site. "I found it fascinating that the disability departments at some schools made the disability sites difficult to find, thus making the disabled more disabled," she said.
Books were even less help than the Internet, as their information grew quickly outdated.
Sokolow realized that if she was having difficulty accessing this information, other students surely were as well. Since she had already done so much research, she decided to create a Web resource guide that could help other students. The guide would contain a comprehensive listing of colleges with direct links to the disability sections of their Web sites.
"People of my generation are always on the Internet, and also things can be updated a lot faster. So students would be able to use this resource very easily," she said.
Hundreds of hours later, and with the help of the Technology Department at Milken, Sokolow produced the "College Guide to Learning Disability Programs," a CD-ROM featuring links to disability programs at community colleges and universities throughout the country. With sites ranging from Abilene Christian University to Youngstown State University, the CD-ROM contains more than 1,600 links.
The nature of the programs listed varies. UCLA, for example, has an Office for Students with Disabilities, and offers such services as note taking, taping, providing sign language interpreters, adjusting time allowed for exams or giving priority registration for those students who qualify. At the University of Arizona in Tuscon, the Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques (SALT) Center is dedicated specifically to students with learning and attention challenges.
"I just really want to get this resource out there because I realized there were a lot of students who were in the same position as I was when I went to that conference, and students with disabilities really do have a lot of resources out there," Sokolow said. (This year, Sokolow will be a speaker at the conference.)
Students aren't the only ones to find the CD-ROM helpful.
"This product really streamlines the process of getting information [about disability programs], which can be cumbersome," said Vicky DeFelice, partner at DeFelice & Geller, an educational consulting firm in Westwood. "It's useful for students, but also for counselors, independent consultants like me or anyone who needs to look up this kind of information."
"It doesn't really matter where you go to college or what you study," Sokolow said, taking a philosophical view of her project. "If you're a mencsh and an ish tzedek [a righteous person] and a good person, you can do great things no matter where you go to school. But if there are great programs out there that can help you, more power to them."
The "College Guide to Learning Disability Programs 2004" is available at Amazon.com for $24.95.