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.

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In the beginning, there was the letter “A”

Many moons ago I did what most parents do. I made the choice to start teaching my daughter how to write. I was very excited. I had found this little table and chair set at a yard sale and I had purchased these fancy little pencils with pink and red hearts on them.  I had even lined the paper so it had bold lines for my daughter’s first letters.  I wanted her to feel like I had put some effort into it (too much Mommy pride). See example:

________ 

– – – – – – – – –

________

(Just imagine this with a fantastic letter “A” in the center!)

It was a Saturday afternoon. I never remember what the weather was like. I know the sun was coming through the windows when we started. My daughter had on this red corduroy overall suit with tiny little flowers and a yellow shirt. Her hair was in these rather cute ponytails with balls on the ends.

I grabbed a piece of paper and I wrote a large letter “A” in the center of one of my homemade lines. Kneeling next to my daughter I placed the paper in front of her and said, “We are going to write your name. This is how you write the letter A.” I then showed her how to make the letter using her own hand.

To my utter shock and eventual horror, my daughter began to cry. She pushed the pencil away and tried to get out of her seat. Tears immediately streamed down her little puffy cheeks, her breaths were heaving in and out, and her anger was spiraling out of control.  It was just the letter “A”! I was not making her eat some exotic, creepy looking vegetable. I was not even threatening to take her favorite toy away. It was just the letter “A”.

But, when my daughter reached out and nearly hit me in the face, I had to take a deep breath and give us both a break. I honestly admit that I was heart broken and felt ill-used. I cried. I pouted and I asked myself how I messed up this supposedly fun experience for the both of us. Being a parent is not easy, but failing at the letter “A” is devastating. In that state of mind, it was clear that I was not going to be able to solve our problem that day. I gave in, but I told my kiddo that we were going to start again the next day.

It would take another 2 and a ½ weeks, lots of frustration and a great deal of back and forth before my daughter would write her name for the first time. For the effort she put in, the results were almost circular on the page, as she could not write in a straight line.  In those two weeks I lost more often then I won.

I share this experience, not because every child with a learning disability has these types of struggles. I say it to express how these types of issues can manifest in behavior. My daughter is a sweet, wonderful, talented, and bright young lady. As a child she was polite, calm, and good-nature. She was the kind of kid that was continually laughing…until I placed a pencil in her hand and watched her become a difficult, angry, and aggressive terrorist.

While I like to believe that I do not have to negotiate with terrorists, I had to make a choice. I was either going to negotiate with this terrorist (who happened to be my daughter) or I was going to break her in an effort to teach her this basic and vital skill.

Fortunately for us something happened after that time. We found a compromise. I can’t tell you how that compromise came about. And the honest truth is that a compromise with one kid with an LD may not work for another kid with an LD. I do recall that it was the result of quick thinking. This compromise helped me to see that my daughter was not the terrorist I thought she was and it showed my daughter that I was not the mean person I seemed to be those first two weeks.

The compromise also helped me to see that I was a good teacher for my daughter. This is not always the case. Many parents are unable to teach their own children (I had this struggle with my son – I will share more about that experience at a later date). The things that make a parent and a child alike are often the very things that make them incompatible as learning partners. My daughter and I, while very similar, had the capability to become partners in her learning and our first step towards building a solid partnership came during that compromise.

If you are a parent facing this issue, my first suggestion is to take a deep breath. Remind yourself that writing is a skill and you are not bad for wanting your child to write. Ask yourself if you are the right person to teach your child. This is vital. Your child can learn to love learning or they can learn to hate it, but it begins with a teacher who is stern when they need to be, supportive because they have to be, and easy when it is the right thing to do. If you fear that your frustrations are going to be too difficult for you to control, then you are not the right teacher for your child. Coping with an LD and teaching another to cope with an LD is not simple, easy, or light work. It requires dedication, the ability to work through the tears and a resilience of mind. If I was willing to give up or give in every time my daughter fought me on a lesson, then I was not going to be the right teacher for her.

Once you figure out if you are in fact the right teacher for your child, then I suggest the following:

  1. Take it slow: nothing happens over night. Your child will forget more often then they remember, so give it time.
  2. Use appropriate expectations: Appropriate does not mean low. Set high and quality standards. Work towards those standards in a time period that works with your child’s disabilities. If your child’s attention span is only 15 minutes then do not expect them to be able to accomplish an hours worth of work. As you work within that 15-minute time frame, look for creative ways to stretch that to 20 minutes, then 30 minutes and so forth.
  3. Get Creative: Most children do not learn the same – even though most adults need the same skills to be successful. Search for ways to teach those skills using as many creative methods as you can find.
  4. Great effort requires great rewards: Celebrate the simple. Make a big deal of those milestones. Your child is working overtime to learn – show you appreciate it.
  5. Thank Yourself – Take parenting breaks. Give yourself space and time. The more refreshed you are, the better teacher you will be. But treat yourself as you treat your child – you deserve it.

Until next 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

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