One misconception about learning disabilities persists – that it just means having difficulty with learning. A learning disability (LD) is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). LDs are often first observed when a student begins attempting school-related tasks such as reading, writing, speaking, spelling, or mathematical calculations. If they do not perform these tasks as expected, a series of false beliefs become attached to the student’s behavior:
• They are not trying hard enough – they are lazy.
• Their inability to perform is a behavior problem – they just want attention.
• Their problems are due to visual or hearing problems.
• They are not bright or intelligent enough – they may even be mentally retarded.
• They will outgrow it.
• Learning disabilities are not real.
Discrepancy between achievement and expected potential
Our society is structured to recognize certain developmental stages, cognitive and behavioral skills as ‘normal’. Generally, schools teach based on where a student ‘should be’ at different ages. If a student consistently has difficulty learning what is being taught for their age group and they are not accurately assessed, they can be considered ‘failures’ and labeled behavior problems. These LD students often have co-occurring social-emotional and behavioral issues that intensify the effects of their learning disability; thereby adding support to the belief their behavior is preventing them from learning, when in fact their inability to learn is causing some of their behavior.
LD students experience extreme frustration when they desperately try to grasp what their peers are learning and cannot do it, no matter how hard they try. To have family members, teachers and peers tell them they are stupid or slow or that they should just ‘try harder’ and ‘stop being lazy’, compounds their problems.
Sometimes it takes a certain amount of ‘proof’ to erase this false belief.
The adage ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ is what attendees of a Dyslexia Simulation experience. This unique activity is offered at the Rawson-Saunders School of Austin, dedicated to educating dyslexic students. Eager adults sit in a large room taking a series of ‘tests’ designed to replicate what a typical dyslexic student goes through during a day of classroom activities. By the end of the presentation, family members are crying, stunned into silence, or wildly waving their hand to ask questions about how they can assist their child in dealing with the challenges they face every day at school. One thing is certain – no one leaves the simulation believing these students are not trying hard enough.
Learning disabilities are complex disorders of the central nervous system.
The combination of three decades of research in testing and classifying the neurobiology of learning disabilities and legal protection for students under the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) has dispelled the idea that LDs do not exist – at least in the school system. Major improvements in identifying students who need special education due to learning disabilities have improved the way schools provide students with accommodations to best assist their learning abilities. One major breakthrough in reading LDs is sophisticated brain imaging that has shown there are certain regions in the brain associated with the skills needed for learning to read. Students with LDs have different brain patterns than students who learn in the traditional manner.
The false belief that LDs are caused by problems with seeing and hearing is somewhat understandable because visual and auditory input are means in which information is transferred into the brain. Students with these problems may or may not also have learning disabilities. Once problems with the eyes and ears have been eliminated and the student continues to have difficulty reaching their potential in school, the possibility of LDs should be explored.
Persons with LDs are at least of average intelligence and often are excellent problem solvers, having had to compensate for their disability. It has been demonstrated that once the learning disability has been identified and accommodations are made in the classroom that these students can become successful.
A major misconception is that students can outgrow a LD. Since it is a neurological ‘glitch’ in the way information is processed, it is a lifelong issue. Individuals with LD can learn to compensate for their weaknesses and emphasize their strengths to become successful contributors to society.
The NCLD estimates there are 15 million Americans with learning disabilities. LD affects 4-6 percent of public school attendees. Having a LD can be challenging for the entire family, requiring patience and understanding of the accommodations needed to support the individual in reaching their potential. There are still false beliefs about learning disabilities that affect the lives of those struggling with the tasks that most of us accomplish easily. For anyone affected directly or indirectly by LDs, the best defense is having knowledge about learning disabilities and taking advantage of the resources available.