NLA DIscussion: learning disabilities
robin l. schwarz
rschwar at american.edu
Thu Oct 23 14:55:44 EDT 1997
I have been reading the NLA list entries for a long time and was very
relieved that the subject of learning disabilities and literacy has been
raised in a meaningful way. I have appreciated Archie's excellent input
on the needs of the learning disabled learners, but the most recent
comments about learning disabilities indicate that there is still a
great deal of ignorance on the subject and that for reasons I cannot
comprehend, people are actually afraid of the term and its implications.
Eve Robbins has pointed out the legal parameters in accommodating
students, but the broader question of who is LD and how it affects
programs remains. From more than 25 year's experience with learning
disabled students, 15 of those with adults, I have to agree IN PART with
the statement that anyone who has gone to school but not finished high
school has a learning disability. My very strong opinion is rather that
anyone who has been to school and still can't read must have SOME
learning problem, whether a learning disability, a significant
un-diagnosed visual problem or some other problem. Figures that I have
seen over many years of the percentage of students in literacy programs
who probably have a learning disability are very high --anywhere from
40-80%, depending on whose data one looks at. What these figures mean
to me is that there are many, many students whose learning is not
"average" and who have unusual difficulty learning to read, write or do
mathematics. The result is that any encounter they have with a learning
situation is fraught with problems. Though they may enter a literacy
program with the best intentions and motivations, these students
typically avoid failure whenever it begins to re-appear in their lives.
They often do this by having many personal obligations, problems, etc.
that 'prevent" them from continuing yet again in a literacy program or
Therefore, whether or not they are actually legally diagnosed , a
process which takes a long time, is very costly and can be extremely
intimidating to an adult already embarassed by his or her deficiencies
in education, these students really need to be approached AS IF THEY
WERE LEARNING DISABLED. That is, teaching methods and materials, and
programs, should be designed from the outset with this population in
mind. The methods and materials won't hinder the non-learning disabled
and may help many many more students learn effectively.
The drop-out rates, success rates, effectiveness and other measures of a
program that are regularly discussed on this list indicate how
effectively a literacy population is being served. If the fact of huge
numbers of students' learning difficulities, whether legally designated
or not, are ignored, such measures will continue to show high drop-out
rates and relatively low success, which, of course, makes obtaining
political and financial support even harder.
I know the cry of ' but the teachers don't know' or the volunteers don't
know and aren't trained is always raised at this point, but once again,
policy needs to address this need, and programs designed so that
teachers and volunteers are trained, even if only with handouts on
learning disabilities. Modest adjustments in teaching methods and a
sensitivity to a student's struggles with learning can make all the
difference in keeping a student coming to class or tutoring and making
some modest progress.
In other words, in my view, it isn't necessary to know if students are
legally diagnosed as LD because if they AREN"T learning, SOMETHING has
to be done and often the approaches used for LD students are very
successful. Policy therefore, should include provisions for informing
teachers, programs and others about learning disabilities and how best
to teach and reach those who MAY or do have them.
Yet another caveat: many literacy programs also serve students whose
first language is not English--usually immigrants or refugees. The
incidence of learning disabilities among these students may be equally
high and is often overlooked.
Robin L. Schwarz. ESL/LD Specialist American University
rschwar at american.edu English Language Institute
O: 202-885-2161 Washington, DC 20016-8031
"Attitudes are the real disabilities"
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