Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D.
There is no doubt that some individual’s brains don’t process information as efficiently as everyone else. Some of those differences are noticeable, but manageable. For example, some of you who are reading this article can’t make heads or tails out of a map. Your brain just doesn’t do something called "spatial orientation" very well. This is no commentary on intelligence. It is simply a fact that is easy for some and nearly impossible for others.
Fortunately it doesn't really matter because with GPS, all you have to do is follow verbal directions and you can get where you need to go. The “disability” doesn’t seriously interrupt your ability to do the business of life.
But other challenges can cause great interruption in functioning. Reading problems like dyslexia inhibit not only a child’s ability to comprehend written language, but also reduces or eliminates the pleasure of reading. This is a tremendous hindrance to anyone in the educational system.
While there is evidence that this was recognized as far back as the late 1800s, it wasn’t until 1970 that learning disabilities were formally recognized. And it was a full twenty years later in 1990 that the educational system began to recognize and manage it as we know it today.
The major areas where these challenges have been identified are reading (dyslexia is just one type of reading disability), writing, math, and executive function.
Learning disabilities cannot be “cured.” They are life-long conditions, but pose the greatest threat to daily function to those in school. And these children have almost no power to help themselves.
Fortunately, we have a system for identifying learning disabilities in the school system as well as effective interventions that allow students to perform at the level of their capabilities. In earlier years, many of these children had serious grade issues, dropped out of high school, or failed to complete college. Not because they weren’t capable, but because their disability effected their joy of learning as well as their performance.
It would be like Michael Jordan being forced to play basketball with one hand tied behind his back. He might perform OK, but he definitely wouldn’t demonstrate his full potential. Not because he couldn’t do it, but because he had a challenge that most players didn’t have. Untie his hand and he would blossom.
That is the sunny side of the story. The downside is that the world outside of education rarely takes learning disabilities into account. After students leave college, their employers will not cater to their learning disabilities like they have come to know in the educational system.
For example, students who have extended time for tests and assignments, who require a quiet place for testing, or who require extra information beyond the classroom and textbook (e.g. faculty notes or a note taker with them in class) might perform well in college, but try that with your job.
“Hey Boss, I need someone to come to meetings with me to take notes because I have a note-taking disability.”
“Hi Boss, I know the work is due on Friday, but I have a disability so I can’t get it to you until Tuesday.”
This would never fly. So I drill it into my student’s brains that while they are in college, they have four years to figure out how to manage their disabilities. Even though we accommodate disabilities – as we should and as we are required to do by law – that world ends upon graduation.
This isn’t an impossible task. Coping skills, learning strategies, and problem-solving strategies are skills that can be learned.
A parent of one of my college freshman many years ago met with me upon his matriculation. With him sitting in the room, she told me all the things he couldn’t do. She had spent her life intervening for him with teachers and administrators. I have no problem with that, but what she failed to do was intervene with him!
She didn’t teach him, nor did she pursue anyone who could, ways to manage his disabilities. I told him the same thing I've said here - he had four years to learn to do that. This, I said, was the most helpful thing he could learn while he was in college.If your child has trouble in one of these major areas, seek help through a private learning center, psychologist, or through the school system. But don’t forget to begin teaching your child how to manage these challenges. Otherwise, you are setting him/her up for a rude awakening.