Life without boundaries: A positive deviance inquiry of communication behaviors that influence academic success of learning-disabled university students

Davi Israel Kallman, University of Texas at El Paso


The label of "disabled" causes many learning-disabled students to downplay their disability in order to avoid alienation and isolation. Hence, many of learning-disabled students go through years of education without accommodations, increasing the likelihood for academic failure. Students who do have accommodations are still at risk of failure especially if they lack strong support systems and suffer from low expectations. Simply put, dropout rates among learning-disabled students are a complex social problem. The dropout rate among these students is nearly double that of general education students (Blackorby & Wagner, 1996). Dropping out has devastating financial, educational, and social repercussions for people residing in the United States (which will be discussed in Chapter 1). The odds of finishing high school and continuing onto college are rare. Students without additional resources to accommodate for academic shortcomings find it nearly impossible to achieve academic success. While the odds of graduating from college with a high GPA and in a timely manner are low, some learning-disabled students have been able to utilize resources already present within their community. These students have utilized intrapersonal and interpersonal communication behaviors that have helped them defy the odds and achieve academic success and graduate in a timely manner. These students are considered Positive Deviants because they engage in practices that "deviate" from the norm and "positive" because these practices have desirable outcomes. This study explores "what" communicative behaviors enable learning-disabled college students in a university in the U.S. Southwest to achieve academic success relative to their peers who struggle to keep up. Eleven Positive Deviants (PDs) were identified based on the following screening criteria: They are registered with the university's Center for Accommodations and Support Services (CASS), suffer from a learning disability that hinders their academic performance, have regular household responsibilities, have a job or are committed to extracurricular activities that require them to be active at least ten hours a week, and are still able to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher and graduate from college in five years or less without the help of specialized tutors. The 11 Positive Deviants participated in in-depth interviews and participatory sketching exercises. Interviews and participatory sketching provided insights on the intrapersonal communication and support systems in which PD practices were identified. Several communicative practices were identified as being effective in the academic success and timely graduation of students. Their key practices included: consistent daily positive affirmations from students; positive messages from parents, family members, friends, peers, teachers, and mentors praising students for their ability to overcome obstacles; and receiving clear messages from parents to "not use their disability as a crutch" finding other ways to compensate for their disabilities. Many communicative practices were internal and required constant and repetitive self-talk and self-evaluation. Only then did students find the courage to accept their disability and ask others for help. Family, friends, and teachers also played a role in motivating success. Receiving academic support from parents, teachers, and peers allowed them to build self-esteem and gain confidence. Parental storytelling of academic failures motivated students to do better. Reminders from friends and peers about how much journey they had already covered and that they could get over any hurdle helped students cope with academic stress. In addition, involvement with jobs and extracurricular activities improved social skills and prepared them for real world experiences. Religion and spirituality also played a role in addressing, and reversing, the shame associated with students' disabilities.

Subject Area

Communication|Special education

Recommended Citation

Kallman, Davi Israel, "Life without boundaries: A positive deviance inquiry of communication behaviors that influence academic success of learning-disabled university students" (2012). ETD Collection for University of Texas, El Paso. AAI1512582.