«Sally Patton UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION BOSTON Copyright © 2004 by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. All rights ...»
You have never been able to see, so you have learned about your world primarily through touching and hearing. You’re very bright and independent and get around well with your cane. You don’t understand why people keep calling you brave or courageous because being blind is normal to you—it’s part of living. You do get upset, though, when someone says your eyes look funny or when they talk loudly to you, as if you’re deaf. You hate it when people tell you that you can’t do something because you’re blind without even asking you what you think.
“The last church my parents took me to didn’t know what to do with me.
They said that there was absolutely no way the teachers could accommodate me because I wouldn’t be able to do all the activities the other children were doing and I might fall and hurt myself. When my parents assured the minister that I could take care of myself and that I would let people know when I needed assistance, he reluctantly let me attend the Sunday school. Everyone treated me as if I was going to break. The teacher introduced me as “a very brave little boy.” Then she gave the children something to read but did not offer to read it to me. When I asked the kid next to me to read it to me, he got into trouble for talking out loud when he was supposed to be reading quietly. When the group was talking about all living things being related, the teacher brought in a bunny.
Everyone but me was allowed to hold the bunny. The teacher said that she was afraid I would hurt the bunny because I couldn’t see. I explained that I am very gentle because touching is a big part of how I learn about my world. So she let me hold the bunny for a second and then snatched it away. I felt her anxiety. I never want to go back to church.”
74 Learning Disabilities
I think that when I was born, I was put in a rocket ship and taken to another planet earth. I never felt that I was like anyone else here. From the time I was five, I can recall feeling like an outsider. I first remember feeling like an alien when I tried to communicate. People would raise their eyebrows and make other facial expressions of confusion when I tried to express myself.... Constant rejection created feelings of isolation and isolation created anger and anger created self-defeat.
—Larry B. Silver, The Misunderstood Child Ours is a culture that prizes the verbal and logical modes of learning, and these modes dominate the approach to teaching in our schools. Children who succeed in school are those who can master these preferred ways of learning. Most children who learn and think in significantly different ways receive less support in school and may come to consider themselves deficient and even stupid. Many times, these feelings are reinforced by adults who think that these children are lazy or unintelligent. The struggles of children with learning differences are profound and their true gifts often go unnoticed.
This problem is becoming even more acute with the use of standardized testing to determine educational competence. Given
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the importance of these tests, teachers often resort to “teaching to the test.” When this happens, the teacher’s ability to support children’s different learning styles and foster creativity is severely jeopardized. This situation threatens to solidify intolerance in our culture for diversity of learning and knowing and forces more and more children into special education.
To understand the children in our faith communities who have been identified as learning disabled, we have to look at the prevalent perceptions about learning disabilities. Dr. Thomas Armstrong, an education specialist, states that it is the society that defines who is disabled. He gives the example of the Anang culture in Nigeria, in which children learn hundreds of songs and play numerous percussion instruments. In this society, someone who is not very musical is considered unintelligent.1 In Our Labeled Children, Robert Sternberg and Elena Grigorenko write, “Learning disabilities are labeled as such through the interaction of an individual with the environment. Virtually all individuals have disabilities of one kind or another, but society chooses to label only some of these learning disabilities.”2 Children labeled as learning disabled are frequently treated as if there is something wrong with them, and this is how society defines them.
We often see the results of this labeling in church when children act out and demonstrate low self-esteem.
Description There is no easy way to define a learning disability. Most professionals view learning disabilities as an overall category that contains many different types of learning problems. In popular usage, the label dyslexia is sometimes seen as synonymous with learning disability. However, most professionals designate dyslexia as only one type of learning disability. Some professionals place pervasive developmental disorders (PDDs), autism, and Asperger’s sydrome 77 Learning Disabilities into this category because children with these conditions have multiple learning problems.
The federal definition of what comprises a specific learning disability, as defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is the basis for determining which children qualify for special education services in school systems. However, this definition leaves room for immense disagreement and conflict.
The website LDOnline offers the most simple, understandable
definition of a learning disability:
LD is a disorder that affects people’s ability to either interpret what they see and hear or to link information from different parts of the brain. These limitations can show up in many ways: as specific difficulties with spoken and written language, coordination, self-control, or attention. Such difficulties extend to schoolwork and can impede learning to read, write, or do math.
Since professionals in this field do not have a standard set of labels with which to designate different types of learning problems, it is easy to get confused. LDOnline organizes the various types of
learning disabilities into three categories:
• developmental speech and language disorders, including developmental articulation, expressive language, and receptive language disorders
• academic disorders, including developmental reading, writing, and arithmetic disorders
• other learning differences, including motor skills disorders and specific developmental disorders not otherwise specified3 Developmental reading disorder, often referred to as dyslexia, is the most prevalent learning disorder and the one the general public hears most about. Because speaking, listening, reading, writing, and arithmetic use many of the same brain functions, people are 78 Welcoming Children usually diagnosed as having multiple learning disorders. Some
common labels associated with learning disabilities are:
• dyslexia—difficulty understanding words, sentences, and paragraphs
• dyscalculia—difficulty solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts
• dysgraphia—difficulty with letter formation and writing within a defined space
• auditory and visual processing disabilities—difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision4 Recently, the condition known as nonverbal learning disorder (NLD) has received a lot of attention. People with this poorly understood disorder have strong skills in verbal rote memory but difficulty processing information; they also have poor physical coordination and social skills. Some professionals consider children with NLD to have a mild form of Asperger’s syndrome, while others see NLD as a distinct disorder. Whatever the diagnosis, children with NLD have difficulties similar to those of children with learning disabilities and children with Asperger’s syndrome. If the developmental and learning disorders could be placed on a continuum, NLD might be placed between dyslexia and Asperger’s syndrome. (This issue will be revisited in the chapter on autism.) Dyspraxia is another poorly understood disorder that is generally placed in the learning disabilities category. There are two types of dyspraxia. A person with generalized motor dyspraxia has problems with coordination—both large and small body movements. Children with verbal dyspraxia have marked difficulty producing and sequencing speech sounds into words, and their development of expressive language is often delayed. Children can have one or both forms of dyspraxia.
Children with learning disabilities do not often fit within a discreet category. For instance, a child can have dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. Similarly, a child can have difficulty speaking and 79 Learning Disabilities controlling his or her movements but have no problems reading.
Children with any of the learning disorders can have sensory integration problems. Sometimes, sensory integration is their only problem, such that they are identified as having sensory integrative dysfunction (SID).
Given the complexity and diversity of learning disabilities, diagnostic labels are no substitute for getting to know the individual child. Relying on clinical terms not only limits understanding of a child but it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adult expectations of certain behaviors can be powerfully motivating, both positively and negatively.
Discussion Much has been written about dyslexia because it is the most common of the learning disabilities. Some learning disabilities professionals have concentrated their research on how dyslexic (or language-disordered) people think, and they have formed theories that challenge the traditional view of what makes a person smart.
Dyslexia actually means “trouble with (dys) words (lex).” Priscilla L. Vail, an expert in this field, lists several general characteristics of people with dyslexia in her book About Dyslexia. In explaining their unique way of interacting with the world, she describes dyslexic people as creative and imaginative. They have trouble with words but often know how to make the world work.
Vail says, “Dyslexics can learn to compensate but their learning style is permanent. Although this is inconvenient in school years, let us rejoice that no one ‘cured’ Leonardo da Vinci.”5 In The Mind’s Eye, by Thomas G. West, is a liberating book for rethinking the way we view people with learning disabilities.
West’s theories challenge us to reconsider the traditional views of learning. Like Vail, West believes that people with dyslexia are visual/spatial thinkers, rather than linear/verbal thinkers. This relates to how people use the right and left hemispheres of the 80 Welcoming Children brain. The left hemisphere thinks in words and numbers in linear fashion, while the right thinks in pictures and images in threedimensional space.
Our culture and our educational institutions are dominated by and reward the mental processes of the left side of the brain.
But West posits a relationship between creativity and the visual/ spatial or right-hemisphere mode of thought. He also says that people with dyslexic traits have always been part of the gene pool.
These traits have come to our attention as a disability as our culture has become more and more dependent on the left-brained way of thinking.
A number of people have achieved success despite some form of dyslexia or learning difficulty. According to West, this group includes Hans Christian Anderson, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Nikola Tesla, Leonardo da Vinci, George Patton, William James, Woodrow Wilson, Nelson Rockefeller, Winston Churchill, and William Butler Yeats. Contemporary figures with a learning disability include Walt Disney, Cher, Greg Louganis, Whoopi Goldberg, Henry Winkler, Danny Glover, Henry Ford, Charles Schwab, and Bruce Jenner.
A major hypothesis of West’s book is that many of these individuals achieved success or greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent learning difficulty. That is, they achieved success not because they compensated for some disability but because they could not fully compensate and instead embraced their unique talents. West suggests that having a learning disability is essentially a gift. He presents several profiles of famous people with well-documented learning difficulties and describes the mode of visual/spatial thinking that led to their achievements. Interestingly, many professionals believe Einstein was not only dyslexic but also had many of the symptoms associated with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism. Visual/spatial thinking is a very strong characteristic of people within the autism spectrum.
(See the chapter on autism.) 6 81 Learning Disabilities In The Gift of Dyslexia, Ronald D. Davis supports West’s view of learning disabilities: “The mental function that causes dyslexia is a gift in the truest sense of the word: a natural ability, a talent. It is something special that enhances the individual.” Not every dyslexic person is a genius, but if we understand how children with dyslexia think, then we can help their gifts emerge, whether in art, athletics, science, or another field. Davis lists the following abilities
that all dyslexic people possess:
• the brain’s ability to alter and create perceptions (the primary ability), a highly developed awareness of their environment
• intense curiosity, the ability to think in pictures instead of words
• intuition and insightfulness, the ability to think and perceive using all the senses or multi-dimensionally
• the ability to experience thought as reality
• a vivid imagination Davis suggests that dyslexia is a perceptual talent that, in some situations, can be a liability; for instance, it can cause problems in learning to read, to write, and to do math. He explains the thinking process of people with dyslexia with his theory of disorientation.