(Adapted from Teaching for the Lifespan, Reiff and Ofiesh, 2016)
“How can we best help individuals with learning differences lead satisfying and meaningful adult lives?” Trying to answer the question is maddeningly complex. It requires building perspectives from multiple contexts and applying them in an infinitesimal array of individual interactions. This process may challenge attitudes, alter belief systems, and catalyze innovative approaches to teaching and learning. Educators who aspire to prepare individuals with learning differences for a satisfying adulthood are those who embrace their work as “the hardest job you’ll ever love.”
We need to understand the journey that takes individuals to adulthood. We need to acquire dispositions and pedagogical practices that prioritize promoting strengths and abilities of people with learning differences as opposed to fixing weaknesses and limitations. Helping students with learning differences develop an awareness of proactive behaviors increases the likelihood of both vocational success and overall positive adaptation to the demands of adult life. Many individuals with learning differences grow up to be highly successful adults who often share how they managed to “Turn the lemon into lemonade” as one individual described his journey. Students who acquire specific skills that adults with learning differences have used to be successful are truly preparing for adulthood.
What happens to kids with learning differences when they grow up? The general public still questions if learning differences simply go away once students have exited school. Learning disabilities (and many other learning differences) are traditionally school-based deficits, generally diagnosed in school. Even now, students with learning differences are often tempted to leave their learning differences behind. Many believe their learning differences will not have an impact in college, work, relationships, and especially feelings about themselves.
Learning differences do not end once students have finished school. The adult world is certainly different than the school environment. Adults with learning differences are not routinely assessed, evaluated, and judged by teachers nor do they bear the public educational labels of their schooling. Yet the same difficulties with processing information persist - except they manifest themselves in different ways. Adults with difficulties with reading, writing, or math do not struggle with weekly tests, but the innate challenges still affect work and personal life. Knowledge about adult outcomes for persons with learning differences presents an important perspective for teaching and parenting children.
How do we view the notion of disability? Most of us take the term for granted, but how is it relevant to persons with learning differences, a term not used in the law, research, or diagnostic manuals? Ultimately, we want our children to enter into adulthood with self-awareness and personal autonomy. Identifying people with learning differences as “disabled” influences the way we perceive and act toward them, and the way they perceive themselves. The story of why we call individuals who learn differently, “disabled,” comes from many different areas. The term disability is more than a medical, psychological, or educational issue; it has roots in politics, economics, and our culture. If we desire to empower students who learn differently to succeed in life, we need to understand how we came to our current place in identifying and teaching students with learning differences, as learning disabled.
A Fundamental Question
It is critical to begin any discussion of working with individuals who learn differently by addressing a fundamental question. What does it mean when we use the term learning differences? How are they similar to and different from learning disabilities? As educators, clinicians, and researchers know, students take on all shapes and forms. The use of the term learning differences, first and foremost, is intended to represent the spectrum of individuals who have the ability to live independently and who learn differently. The term learning disability traditionally refers to individuals who, in spite of their average to gifted abilities, and a potential to learn, have difficulties meeting expectations of achievement, particularly in a school setting. They may have difficulty reading, writing, or performing mathematical calculations quickly, as well as carry out executive functions and other skills. The atypical challenges these individuals face every day are not readily noticed by others the way one may notice a person with blindness who uses a cane or a person who uses a wheelchair. In this regard, the disability is hidden or invisible. Therefore, unlike disabilities that are diagnosed soon after birth, the presence of a learning disability may not be recognized until the academic demands of a general education classroom become inordinately hard to attain without additional support. These students need the support because they learn differently.
Many eventually are diagnosed and identified with a specific label such as dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, dysphasia, dyspraxia, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, a disorder of language, autism spectrum disorder, mild intellectual disability, emotional and social disorders, and lesser known medical syndromes, such as Velo-cardio-facial-syndrome (VCFS). In our educational system, labels play an important role; the use of the term disability is needed in order to qualify for the services offered under the law. However, recent advances in neuroscience show that significant learner variance can be found in one in five individuals.
A Paradigm Shift to a Strengths-Based Model
Many laypersons lack knowledge about learning disabilities. Because of the invisible nature of cognition, others believe these students are “lazy” and “unmotivated” or that their parents have false expectations of success for them. Still, others believe that some are “gaming the system” to get accommodations on high-stakes tests and erroneously believe in doing so they will be provided with a competitive edge. All of these assumptions are false.
Diagnoses of disorders that are traditionally school-based deficits are generally diagnosed before college, but sometimes, especially for high-achieving and talented individuals, the diagnosis comes later in life. At times, individuals with learning differences are often tempted to leave their label of “disabled” behind. Many believe their learning differences will not have an impact in college, work, relationships, and especially feelings about themselves. Many do not want to be associated with a label that has made them feel less-than-adequate. By minimizing the term disability and broadening our scope to learning differences, we believe we promote the transition to a new era of thinking about learner variability. In doing so, however, we still believe in the continuum of services, accommodations, and settings that must be allowed for all individuals who are eligible for them.
We are at a crossroads in education where access to instruction through technology and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) suggest we change our notions of disability to one of the differences. Doing so allows most individuals to learn successfully in general education classrooms and learn more effectively in a variety of settings. Technology is changing the very way we see the world, each other, and ourselves. It is rapidly breaking down barriers that have thwarted the progress of untold numbers of students with learning differences.
The UDL framework minimizes the concept of disabilities in the classroom. It emphasizes instructional approaches that work for all students, instead of a traditional model that compartmentalizes instruction into two categories: traditional approaches for “normal” students and special approaches for students with disabilities. In short, UDL levels the playing field. It counters the marginalization of students with learning disabilities and other labels. We all learn differently to one degree or another and have learning preferences that are invariably our learning strengths. As we embrace UDL there is a need to minimize the relevance of categorical distinctions and emphasize learning strengths.
Rather than try to change the way individuals with learning disabilities learn, we are beginning to change environments so that all individuals can learn. We have the opportunity to shift to a more positive strengths-based model by providing mentors and educators with a multitude of ways to allow individuals to experience education. Although learning differences make learning exceedingly difficult in specific ways, these students have strengths in areas typically not noticed in school. These include visualization, analytical thinking, analogous thinking, awareness of the environment, and narrative thinking. Use of the term learning differences allows us to adopt a strengths-based model that embraces the whole person.