In earlier articles we have discussed learning and how our brains and learning methods affect the learning process. Today let us talk about learning disabilities.
The first person that comes to my mind when thinking of learning disabilities is Richard Branson of Virgin Group, with over 400 companies.
“I left school when I was 16 years old,” says Branson, “partly because of my dyslexia. I couldn’t always follow what was going on, so I didn’t find the lessons interesting and became distracted. My teachers thought I was just lazy because back then; people didn’t understand as much about dyslexia as they do today.”
Although things are different today, the average person, including most teachers around the world, are unaware of learning disabilities, what they are, the early signs, how they come into being and whether they can be cured. But the good news is that there are people like Richard Branson who have proven learning disabilities do not doom you to a life of insignificance and inactivity. “On one of my last days at school, the headmaster told me that I would either end up in prison or become a millionaire,” says Branson. It was quite a prediction and he values the recognition that the master could see that he “seemed to think in a different way from my classmates, and had from an early age.”
In reading more about learning disabilities I also came across this comment from a young American, HB, who had been placed in the class with learning disabilities from the time he/she was six (in 1996) and kept in that class for much of elementary school. Today HB is still wondering in what capacity he/she has a learning disability.
“I have no problem with any form of learning today,” says HB. “I’m 23 and about two years from completing my Ph.D. in a field that requires me to traverse math, science, and the humanities, write extensively, and engage with people on a daily basis. Not to sound like a jerk, but if anything, everyone in the program seems to be having trouble but me. I find myself tutoring the students who were likely placed in the “gifted” programs in elementary school.”
Both these cases should offer hope for parents with kids who have learning disabilities. And it should inspire people who struggle with their learning disabilities.
What are learning disabilities?
Learning disabilities (LD), which are also called learning differences or learning disorders affect how we capture and process information. According to Dr. Sheldon H. Horowitz at the National Centre for Learning Disabilities in the US, LD is an umbrella term.
LDs can be defined as disorders of basic psychological processes that involve understanding and using language. These are disorders that affect our ability to receive, process, recall or communicate information.
Within the specific LD umbrella, fall a number of disorders.
Specific learning disabilities
Dyslexia, commonly known as a LD affecting reading is not just confined to reading words. It also includes issues with understanding what you read as well as the speed and accuracy in doing so.
Dysgraphia is the term for specific learning disorders involving writing. Dysgraphia could affect a number of aspects involving writing, and mean different things to different people at different stages of learning and in life. It is not just about how a person writes or holds a pen, but also about how they plan, organize and edit their writing. Dysgraphia includes anything falling within the domain of expressive written language.
LD involving spelling can affect both reading and writing in a significant way.
Dyscalculia or LD in math involves not just the ability to count, but also the way a person operates in the numbers domain including the fluidity and flexibility they show with figures, in estimating, measurement, money or in understanding rules and patterns that have to do with numbers.
Learning disabilities involve our senses
LDs are impacted by the ways we process information that we receive from our senses, says Dr Horowitz. “The way we listen, the way we view things and the way we organize information that comes in through our senses, through our ears, through our eyes, touch and any number of sensory processes.”
Auditory or visual processing
Some children, and indeed adults, may have very strong preferences about how they receive information. If they have challenges in the auditory processing area, they’d have trouble if the teacher comes to the front of the classroom and merely speaks or dictates notes without writing anything on the board or showing any pictures and other demonstrations. Those with visual processing on the other hand would prefer this method of instruction, as they’d be unable to fully and clearly process the information if the teacher silently writes on the board or tells them to copy something from a notebook.
The effective learning for each group depends on how effectively the information they must learn is presented, in accordance with their learning preferences. Not only will they have problems with understanding, but also in retrieving the information they heard or saw, in remembering that info and in processing it so some use can be made of that info.
And this is true not just for those with LDs, but for everyone.
Sensory and motor integration
This means how well we are able to coordinate what we do with what we sense and vice versa. Manual dexterity, fine motor control, eye-hand coordination are all affected when there are problems with sensory and motor integration.
There is a lot of research going on into how and whether learning handwriting, like many of today’s adults did affects our brains, including our capacity for sensory motor integration.
Social and emotional functioning
“Students with LDs are not necessarily those kinds of kids who have problems in the social domain”, says Dr Horowitz. But because so many of them often miscue language, mean something and say something else, or fail to find the right words, they could often be misunderstood or even ridiculed. They may also fail to pick up on non verbal cues when interacting with peers. They may not always know what is appropriate or inappropriate in a situation.
With maturity and practice kids with LDs can overcome these challenges. But educators have a key role to play in helping these kids develop self confidence. For example, if a teacher is going to ask a kid with learning disability in reading to get up and read in front of the class, that child is going to be fearful of this possibility. This affects both confidence and ability to learn in that classroom. By being sensitive to such issues, teachers can help children do well, and overcome the many challenges they face.
Children may have issues with transitions and changing class rooms and teachers.
What LDs are not
LDs are not a result of poor vision or poor hearing. People with LDs should not be confused with those who have Autism spectrum disorders. They are also not the same as those with intellectual disabilities, or mental retardation, as both the examples I cited above prove so clearly.
LDs should not also be confused with emotional disturbances, emotional or mental health issues.
Learning disabilities do not stem from cultural, economical or social disadvantages or your family background.
Nilooka Dissanayake is a Chartered Management Accountant by profession with an MBA from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. She is a freelance trainer with nearly two decades of experience. Her current focus is on providing attitudes, knowledge and skills needed to achieve personal, professional and business success. She is also a ghostwriter and is currently writing a book about success and related topics for a client in the US.
This article was first published in The Nation on Sunday 31 August 2014.