NLA Discussion: Learning disabilities, literacy and policy
GLENN_YOUNG at nifl.gov
Fri Nov 14 23:54:41 EST 1997
[NLA Colleagues -- for some reason a previously posted copy of this
message came out strangely formatted. I'll try again, hoping it comes out
right this time. David J. Rosen, NLA List Moderator]
Glenn Young responds -
First of all - sorry for the long response - but so much has been
raised by both George and David - I will attempt to reply to both
George and David in the same statement - also excuse my spelling.
If we look at the research that is done at Harvard (Beth Israel) and
all the research that is being done through NIH, plus the research
that is being done through the Neuroimaging around the country, plus
the research that is being done in such places as Washington State
with their welfare programs, we see that there are clear neurological
issues associated with LD, and in fact, it appears that there are many
different neurological issues, involved in a wide range of
disabilities associated with learning issues - these range from the
"ectopias (sp?)"- or small groups of neurons clustered outside of the
normal brain boundaries that are being found in dyslexics brains - to
the deficit levels of neurotransmitters involved in Attention Deficit
disorder - to differentials in the size and functions of the Magno
Cells in the eye, etc. The research, and the increased capacity to
view the functional brain has moved us away from just the "presumed"
to the actual understanding and viewing of some of the neurological
issues involved in LD and ADHD. - in other words the brains of those
with LD and ADHD have particular characteristics that are not present
in the brains of those without these disorders.
Second - All "disability" is culturally based and the values of the
society will determined if child born with various "differences" are
exposed at birth - or praised and held to high esteem. So all
definitions of what is a disability are cultural. And we live in the
latter part of the twentieth century - in the United States - in a
postindustrial, early-informational economy - with all the values and
morays of this society - and the definition of disability in this
"a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits the
ability of the individual with the impairments to perform major
daily living activities -
and in this society, reading (and other learning functions such as
writing, etc) is considered a major daily living activity, and if
there is a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits
the ability of the person to perform major life activities - then that
person has a disability - in this society.
Third - why is LD more prominent in low-income populations? Because they
are at higher risk to insults to the central nervous system (both invetro - and
after birth) that can cause the brain issues - because of issues of poverty
- Marian Wright Edelman's book called Wasting America's Future - says
that living in poverty alone increases the likelihood of having a learning
disability by 30% (and that is one of the more conservative estimates.) If
you read the studies of children affected by lack of access to medical
services, exposure to lead and having lead poisoning, being fetal alcohol or
drug impacted, being low-birth weight, etc., etc. - they all say that LD
is one of the major results of these issues - Right now 65% of those in
special education come from families with incomes of 25,000 or less.
As far back as 1987 - in the bill that authorizes the NIH/LD research -
Congress stated that it was more likely that LD would be over-represented in
poor populations - because of the issues I've been stating - The Labor
Department in 1991 - in its report "The Learning Disabled in Employment
and Training programs" says that it is more likely.... etc. And the
research into welfare populations in Washington State and Kansas is
finding rates that show very high rates in these populations (around 35%).
While I also agree that the issue of using multiple means for gaining access
to information for all people is good and even the right approach - the
point that I am making here - is that there is a difference between a good
idea and a civil right. Persons with disabilities (and LD is clearly
covered) have the right to the accommodation - it should not be a question
of teacher or program choice or willingness - it is a question of the person's
The right to reasonable accommodation is a unique civil right given only to
persons with disabilities - by not providing the accommodation when there is not
learning disabilities - could be bad teaching approaches. However when not
providing accommodations when there is a disability, is a violation of law and
the violation of the persons civil rights.
So the chief policy question - is how can literacy program develop ways and
means of assuring programmatic approaches that are in line with federal
disability law? This would mean developing and supporting a "non-hostile"
environment towards disability!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (This hostile environment
including the overt and covert messages from providers to students that LD is
not a real disability - or it just a question of learning or teaching styles,
etc. And that "labeling" is bad and should be avoided - This really does create
a hostile environment for persons with LD - and has the program working towards
denying persons their civil rights and in fact is illegal under ADA/504.)
and that programs have approaches for persons with LD that incorporate the
issues of accommodations from the beginning of the process - (and it is
not a zero sum game - either "reading" or "accommodations" - its the balance
that is needed for each person based on their individual needs.
The other policy question is one of how to build (or require?) partnerships by
which persons who have undiagnosed LD can gain the "ticket" that diagnostics
gives to the legal right to accommodations - for use with such things as the
GED, or for continuing education efforts and for the work place. - and since a
disability can not be presumed - and only persons with a disability are legally
entitled to the accommodations, then the diagnostics is the "ticket"
While most literacy programs do not have the ways and means of providing
diagnostic services - they are certainly in the position to develop the
coalitions and partnerships with programs that do - witness New York City and
the California Community College System. Can this partnership approach become a
And lastly - another policy issue is one of what types of other services can be
developed through the literacy programs to support adults with LD - other than
"reading" classes - can we look at developing LD support groups, can
volunteers be developed as advocates for adults with LD as they try and work
other systems? Can literacy programs help provide the accommodations
needed in testing programs like the GED. (such as proctors for individualized
GED tests) etc. There are lots of things that can be done. And to do
them may require policy changes.
Oops - last point - the focus of the system change needs to be on all
levels - and without all levels of support - the change will be most
difficult. Teachers need to understand this stuff - as well as program
managers, regional state and national policy makers, and the schools of
education (as well as the adult learners themselves). I tend to think that
the first real changes needed to come from a national policy perspective -
but that maybe only because that's were I'm working. -- So - I guess the
answer - is that the most important steps towards change needs to come from
whereever you're working because they're all needed and all important.
_____________________________ Reply Separator _________________________________
Subject: NLA Discussion: Learning disabilities, literacy and policy
Author: nla at world.std.com at inet
Date: 11/13/97 11:59 PM
George, Glenn, and other NLA Colleagues,
On Thu, 13 Nov 1997, GEORGE E. DEMETRION wrote:
> What I like especially is Glenn's interpretation of literacy as one
> intervening variable among others in helping people to expand their life
> capacities. Where I might differ is that I don't see this applying
> simply to LD students, but as a more generalized objective of adult
> literacy education. Thus, perhaps in some ways, opposites do meet;
> Glenn, seemingly as interpreting "learning disabilities" as an innate
> physiological malfunction, whereas I look at knowledge and felt
> "inadequacy" more as a psycho-cultural phenomenon and by doing so achieve
> a certain personal agency over such a labelling that in some compelling
> ways characterizes my own struggle and sometimes failure to learn.
> Perhaps Glenn identifies more freedom through the diagnosis. If so, I
> can respect that, but let's keep an open mind.
George and Glenn, I would like to move the discussion toward consideration
of the implications of the differences in your points of view for public
Glenn, if learning disabilities exist as innate physiological
malfunctions, what are the implications for adult literacy policy?
George, if this is more a psycho-cultural phenomenon, what public policy
should we advocate for?
And each of you, what is the right locus of policy? Local government?
State? Federal? Graduate Colleges of Education?
Or should learning differences/learning disabilities be a matter for
individual programs or teachers to decide, and not in the policy arena at
After Glenn and George have responded, I hope others will, too.
David J. Rosen
NLA List Moderator
<DJRosen at world.std.com>
More information about the Nla-nifl-archive