Everything I know about the subject of learning disabilities will ONLY ever be a drop in the bucket of what I have yet to discover

I write this blog post today as a mother, a special educator and as a student with exceptional needs.

The key to really helping students in exceptional educational programs, whether they are in gifted and talented (GT), on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a learning plan (LP), or even mildly struggling in a general education program, is a three way partnership between parents, teachers and students.

I know this sounds like something that always happens, but the truth is that it does not always happen (for various reasons on all sides). I have noticed that parents do not always realize how much they can do at home, teachers don’t desire to burden parents and children who already face challenges, and students are sometimes unprepared to fully and actively participate in their own learning. Full and active participation has nothing to do with excitement. Any SPED teacher can tell you stories of how excited their students are.

However…. There is one problem that I have as a parent…

As a parent, I find that I tend to OVER HELP my children. What I mean is that, through no fault of my own, I give assistance (or scaffolding) where it can cause more harm then good. Let me give you an example:

My daughter was highly verbal when she was born. At some point, she stopped speaking. I knew that we had some stress in the house, so I began to cater to her signals. I got things down from the cabinet when she pointed to it and I just allowed her to have her own space and communicate in her own time.

One day I had a friend babysit. Before leaving, I explained to him that she was non-verbal (for now) and to just let her point, she was a really good child – just quiet.

When I returned home I could hear him outside the door say, “No. Nope. I am not going to get it until you speak to me.” She was crying at this point and the mother in me wanted to swoop in and save the day. I found some way to control my person and I walked in and just waited. My daughter looked to me to save her and I didn’t – I wanted to see what would happen. When crying stopped working and saving was no longer an option my daughter spoke her first real sentence in over six months.

“May I please have a peanut butter sandwich?

It was music to my ears. It was also a good reason for me to stop the internal hate that was growing for the person who stood there and pushed my daughter to speak.

My daughter has not been quiet since and if she is quiet –something is going on…lol.

That was nearly 17 years ago.

The point is still the same. I was scaffolding my daughter because I noticed that she had a deficit in an area. My scaffolding would have been helpful had my daughter become completely non-verbal. Unfortunately, I had never fully tested the situation out in order to determine if this was a permanent change or a temporary change. It felt permanent because of the amount of time this had been going on. I had begun to give up on hearing her speak again and I had been researching how to teach sign language. What this taught me was that all I actually needed was to stand and wait and use two of the most powerful letters in the English language, “N” and “O”. NO!

Disclaimer:

Now: before anyone begins to post about the word NO being negative… I state here and now that NO is POSITIVE. It is the best way to defend oneself. Children need to know how to voice it and how to show it in body language (as do adults – for me this is an important skill for all people). A child who cannot say, “NO”, is at risk. There, I said it. I hope we all feel better and can move on.

I need to be clear about something else – had my friends test proved unsuccessful – I might have been really angry with him. But, it is important for me to understand that just doing the test (whether she spoke or not) was the only true way to discover what my next steps should have been. My friend showed me that I was OVER HELPING and that was causing a lot more damage then facing the situation head on and dealing with my daughter directly.

This post is my way of asking parents and educators to step into one another’s shoes. I believe that most of us want what is best for our students with exceptional needs – it’s my hope that those who do not want that will look for wonderful careers outside of education – I did say hope – so please no hate mail.

I have the same capacity to OVER HELP and Under Stimulate the learning of my students, if I am not careful. As an educator, I must always remember the lesson this situation has taught me. I must be willing to research, to test, to try harder, to try new things, to step away, to let another try, to seek additional answers even when I am sure I understand the problem.

As I said before, everything I know about the subject of learning disabilities will ONLY ever be a drop in the bucket of what I have yet to discover.

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Learning-Disabilities and/or Learning-Differences (LD), what is this really all about?

For as long as I have understood my disabilities, I have struggled with the terms “disability” and “difference”. There are some people who believe that using the term “disability” brings harm to the LD Community.  They believe this harm is the result of negative stigma perpetuated in our general society. Others, however, feel that the term “difference” helps the public to understand that a person with an LD processes information in a different way (they use phrases like difference not disabled).

While this choice is personal to the individual, it is important to understand is that the term “disability” has legal standing. The term “difference” does not.

I looked at two definitions when I started to write this article.

According to Dictionary.com a disability is:

dis·a·bil·i·ty

[dis-uh-bil-i-tee] Show IPA

noun, plural dis·a·bil·i·ties for 2.

1. lack of adequate power, strength, or physical or mental ability; incapacity.

2. a physical or mental handicap, especially one that prevents a person from living a full, normal life or from holding a gainful job.

3. anything that disables or puts one at a disadvantage: His mere six-foot height will be a disability in professional basketball.

4. the state or condition of being disabled.

5. legal incapacity; legal disqualification.

According to Wikipedia.com a disability is:

Disability is the consequence of an impairment that may be physical, cognitive, mental, sensory, emotional, developmental, or some combination of these.

I looked at Wikipedia out of curiosity. After reading the term on Dictionary.com I felt negative. I saw things like “lack of adequate power”, “preventing a person from living a normal life”. Yuck! So, I went to Wikipedia.com to see what others might say. I found that the later definition was uplifting. It may be true that the disability community often lacks the power and the resources to help itself, but is that who we are – or is that a condition or consequence of our place in society?

I now believe that this is a condition of my situation and not a definition of who we are as a people.

However, before I jump into preaching one theology over another. I have to admit that I have used these same types of negative definitions. When I was young, I presumed that I was enlightened about the term “disability”.  I believed that I understood those dealing with conditions that impacted their living and lifestyle. I did not turn away friends who were disabled. I helped people in wheelchairs (yes I did just say this). I spent time with people that had disabilities. I defended people when others were mean. I told my children to be proud of their disabilities. I really did believe that I had a positive perspective.

But – when I began to struggle with learning, I did not consider myself to be disabled. For that reason, I did not seek help and I spent a great deal of time feeling ashamed of my struggles. If I was backed into a corner, I identified myself as having some trouble with spelling. Or I would say that I was “possibly dyslexic”…but no, never did I really admit that I had a disability.

As an adult, I had to face this situation head on. I had called someone to discuss testing. The difficulty I was having in school was becoming too hard for me to cope with alone. Every time I reached out to a psychologist or therapist, I was asked if I have other disabilities. The terms “Asperger” and “Sensory Deficit” were tossed about. The whole thought process made me angry. How dare those people call me disabled! In my head, I only had problems with my learning and that was all it was. Nothing more! I had researched this and I was not like – I hate to admit I felt like this – but thought I was not like “those people”. That was when I realized that I had the same prejudices, had perpetuated those same stigmas and had felt those same negative emotions that were now interfering with my own ability to get the help I needed.

Stigma is an enigma that cripples.

I finally bit the bullet and got my diagnosis. This event was both exciting (because so much of what I had experienced made sense) and painful (because I had lived for so long without really knowing myself).

I have shuffled between the terms “disability” and “difference” as I have worked to come to terms with my diagnosis. I believe that the only way to change the stigma associated with the term “disability” is for those of us who are disabled to proudly announce that we are and face that often negative public persona head on. I believe we must also face ourselves and examine our own fears and beliefs about these terms.

Whichever term you choose, make sure you are well informed about both. I hope to one day be secure in with my disabilities. Until then, I am at least determined to honestly face it one day at a time.

An Introduction to Learning-Disabilities (LD)

Understanding learning disabilities (LD) can be very difficult for people in the general public to understand. I have written about the topic many times over the years and I am still amazed by the number of differences that can impact people with disabilities. I also find myself amazed by the way my own disabilities have changed over the course of my life. These changes at times work for my benefit and at other times they work against me.

In 2009, I wrote a paper that explains some of this. An excerpt of the paper (with a minor update) follows:

“On July 26, 1990, then President George Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was reauthorized by the Obama Administration as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). According to the U.S. Department of Education (2013) this reformation did the following:

(1) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness;

(2) Providing information to families to help them evaluate and improve their children’s schools;

(3) Implementing college- and career-ready standards; and

(4) Improving student learning and achievement in America’s lowest-performing schools by providing intensive support and effective interventions.

Nationally, a learning disability/ difference (LD) is described as a condition that either prevents or considerably hinders an individual’s ability to take in, organize, and/or act on information their brains receive through the senses, even though the individual may be at average to above average intelligence (Mercer, Jordan, Allsopp, & Mercer, 1996).  A learning disability can be the result of a physical impairment, mental impairment or both a physical and mental impairment.  It is important to note that a learning disability does not have to be the result of a physical or mental impairment.

Subsequent to IDEA, Bartlett v. New York State Board of Law Examiners, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS 22361, the Supreme Court of New York City affirmed a lower court decision concerning how an individual with an LD can prove they have a disability in order to receive accommodations (Rothstein, 1998).  Based on the ruling, an individual can show that they have a disability by providing evidence that impairment exists or by proving a history concurrent with having a disability.  An individual suffering from an LD must show that the impairment meets two specific definitions, 1) they must have a major activity hindered by the disability and 2) they must be substantially limited in their ability to complete that activity.”

The difficulty that I faced as an individual with an LD was that I had very little understanding of what other people experienced. This meant that I did not have the ability to explain to my teachers how I was hindered or limited. This is not uncommon. Many students suffer in silence, marginalized by their very inability to communicate what is necessary to help them get the assistance they need.  This is the biggest reason it is so important for us to act as a community. Parents, legislators, school administrators, educators, theorists, researchers and advocates in the LD community need to work together to better understand differences and to develop tools that individuals can use to help them to better help themselves.

I welcome your comments, feedback and experiences. References are supplied to provide you with an opportunity to research these things on your own. If you have information you would like to see posted or discussed, feel free to reach out.

References

Bloom, B., & Cohen, R. A. (2007). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National health interview survey. Hattysville: National Health Interview Statistics.

Bigge, M. L., & Shermis, S. S. (1999). Learning Theories for Teachers. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Curry College. (2004). Benefits of PAL. Retrieved June 10, 2008, from Curry College: http://www.curry.edu/curry/Templates/Lower_Level_Template.aspx?NRMODE=Published&NRORIGINALURL=%2fAcademics%2fLD%2bProgram%2b%2528PAL%2529%2fAll%2bAbout%2bPAL%2fBenefits%2bof%2bPAL%2ehtm&NRNODEGUID=%7b17DFD707-8538-403A-B823-8A33712469B4%7d&NRCACHEHINT=NoM

d’Almeida, A. C. (2007). Review on performance-pay for teachers literature. Denver: Educator Sub-Committer of Governor Ritter’s P-20 COuncil in Colorado.

Education, C. D. (Updated: 2007). K-12 Academic Standards. Retrieved February 22, 2008, from Colorado Department of Education: http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/documents/olr/k12_standards.html

Flanagan, D. P., Ortiz, S. O., Alfonzo, V. C., & Dynda, A. M. (2006). Integration of response toIntervention and norm-referenced tests in learning disability identification: Learning from the tower of Babel. Psychology in the Schools , v43 n7 p807-825.Gagne, R. M., Wager, W. W., Golaas, K. C., & Keller, J. M. (2005). Principles of instruction, 5th edition. Belmont: Wadsworth/ Thompson Learning.

Jensen, E. (2005). Teaching with the brain in mind 2nd edition. Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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McDonald, K. E., Balcazar, F. E., & Keys, C. B. (2007). Disability, race/ethnicity and gender: Themes of cultural oppression, acts of individual resistance. American Journal of Community Psychology , 39, 145 – 161.

McDonald, K. E., Blacazar, F. E., & Keys, C. B. (2005). Youth with disabilities. In.D.DuBois&Karcher (Eds.) hanbbook of youth mentoring. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Mercer, C. D., Jordan, L., Allsopp, D. H., & Mercer, A. A. (1996). Learning disabilities definitions and criteria used by state education departments. Learning Disabilities Quarterly , Vol. 19, No.4, pp. 217-232.

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