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Many misperceptions circulate about learning disabilities. Some are rooted in the confusion and controversy surrounding LD's numerous labels and complexities. Others result from a less-than-full awareness of advances in our knowledge of learning disabilities, as well as learning styles and differences. Regardless of reason, as educators we are responsible for staying up to date and correcting others' misperceptions when we encounter them, to better serve students who think and learn differently.
The misperception that people with dyslexia see things backward developed because many young children with dyslexia reverse sounds and letters when reading and writing. In fact, dyslexia is an umbrella term that describes a number of difficulties acquiring fluent (accurate, fast) decoding and spelling skills. Dyslexia relates to the brain's perception and processing of written language in a far more complex way than seeing things backward.
The word disability is the first problem in the misperception that people with LD can't learn, since disable means not able. Students with a learning disability can learn; they learn differently. The practical implications of the words we use to describe people take a long time to gain general recognition, and even longer to change.
The second problem driving this misperception is that our culture defines intelligence according to how well we perform in academic settings. Because students with learning disabilities often perform poorly in school, many people assume they're not intelligent.
The truth is two-fold. First, students with LD often demonstrate skills and abilities that are not assessed in traditional schools. Though they may not seem intelligent within a traditional school curriculum, they may shine in other settings or when offered opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence in nontraditional ways.
Second, students with LD usually score in the average-to-superior range on general intelligence tests such as the WISC, WAIS, and Stanford-Binet. Though these tests are usually fairly reliable indicators of how students will perform in school, they don't predict school success for students with learning disabilities. This discrepancy points to what we already know: students with LD reach their potential when they are taught in the ways in which they learn.
The misperception that students with LD shouldn't attend an independent high school has the same origins as the misperception that they can't learn. In reality, many students with learning disabilities flourish at competitive elementary and college preparatory schools – that is, those schools that recognize and embrace these students' presence and provide needed support.
Tasks that are difficult for people with learning disabilities can also be difficult for people without them. Studying for an exam or writing a research paper, for example, is challenging for all students. Some people use this overlap to argue that students claim a learning disability as an excuse to avoid the challenge or get extra help. The fact is, we all have areas of difficulty and the issue is one of degree. Level of difficulty can be plotted along a continuum. A diagnosis of learning disability means that the student's difficulties are further along the continuum than most other people's in spite of their intelligence and effort.
Before learning disabilities were as well understood as they are now, students who performed poorly in school were often automatically placed onto a vocational/technical track or counseled out of college preparatory programs. As a result, many students with learning disabilities did not go to college. However, students with learning disabilities can flourish in college when they are adequately taught learning strategies, study skills, writing, and self-advocacy during high school. Many colleges offer support programs for students with learning disabilities.
Because a learning disability is invisible, people might question its existence and resent the "privileges' it seems to bestow. Federal law, however, accords rights to people with learning disabilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA).
The misperception that LD would self-resolve if the student were more organized is based in the fact that students with learning disabilities are notoriously disorganized. They lose homework, take messy notes, miss deadlines, and so on. However, a lack of organization is actually a manifestation of the learning disability. Many students with learning disabilities can't get organized. They don't know how. The organizational systems that people without disabilities more or less intuitively develop must be explicitly taught to and practiced with students who have a learning disability.
Because most students with a learning disability look and act like other students, it seems inexplicable that they have difficulty with such basic tasks as understanding what they read and writing neatly. Some people think they just aren't trying hard enough. For students with LD, the increased effort it takes to perform a task for which they lack the skills can lead to frustration and, ultimately, defeat. A student who is not trying has actually given up. A student who is trying but not succeeding needs explicit instruction on how to perform the task.
Some people find it hard to believe that a student can progress from kindergarten through eighth grade, and sometimes even well into high school, without having a learning disability diagnosed. However, some students have more severe learning disabilities than others. Students whose disabilities are more severe are usually identified earlier. Also, some bright, motivated students manage to hide their struggles or compensate for their difficulties. It is only when they start struggling in a faster-paced, or more advanced curriculum, where the focus is on teaching content rather than skills, that the strategies they were accustomed to using cease to be effective.
The misperception that students with LD who receive accommodations or modifications are given an unfair advantage is based in some people's refusal to acknowledge that learning disabilities are as real as physical disabilities, like blindness and paralysis. Would a teacher require a blind student to read a typed essay or ask a student in a wheelchair to take the stairs in the interest of "fairness"? Of course not.
We would provide accommodations so those students could meet the objective of the task in a different way. Offering students with learning disabilities appropriate accommodations is fair in the same way.
This article was adapted from Teaching Independent Minds by Patricia W. Newhall. Published by Landmark School, Inc., the teaching guide is available for purchase.