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Misunderstanding learning disabilities March 21, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, grad school, older son, science, teaching.
Tags: , , , twice exceptional

I was extremely interested when I saw that FSP wrote a post about learning disabilities.  I was equally disappointed when I saw her perspective:

Would knowing that ‘they can’t help it’ help us — the advisor-editors — be more understanding when we encounter this frustrating problem? Would it make us — especially those of us who (like to think that we) don’t have this problem — more likely to be patient when we have to point out (and fix) the same problem again and again?

In my case, probably not. It was interesting to hear this idea, but I am reluctant to embrace the ‘they can’t help it’ explanation.

This sentiment was echoed in several of the comments.

I personally find it frustrating that teachers at all levels will make the assumption that someone who makes these repeated errors is lazy and/or stupid rather than suffering from a learning disability.  As the parent of a child who has a couple, I’ve had to spend a lot of time learning about them in order to make sure my son received an adequate education.  I don’t think this is bad as it has given me a very different perspective on how to approach teaching.  In fact, there have been times I’ve had to explain to teachers how to work with my son because they simply have no training in these areas.  (And 90% of the time, they think they can somehow push things off onto a special ed teacher, not realizing that a child with average or exceptional functioning, even one with a learning disability, very often cannot qualify for special ed.)  What’s worse is that, at the college level, most people don’t even have a background in education let alone have any clue how learning disabilities can impact a typical college student.  They seldom think about how their teaching or interactions can place students with LDs at a serious disadvantage.

I realize it’s a futile effort to educate everyone, but there are a couple very important things to realize about learning disabilities, especially when dealing with college students.

1 – Learning disabilities exist on a continuum, just like any other brain function.  Usually, only the very worst cases of learning disabilities will be recognized and diagnosed.  This means there really are a lot of people in the population that have learning disabilities of lesser degree.  And these lesser, undiagnosed learning disabilities can and do have negative impacts on a student’s learning and ability to express their knowledge.  This has been why there is such a push to recognize and teach to different learning styles.  It helps teachers to make their subject accessible to people of all abilities.

2 – The more intelligent a person is, the easier it is for them to have an undiagnosed learning disability.  Intelligent people can and do compensate for their weaknesses by using their strengths.  This became abundantly clear to me when I found out that my older son (the scary-smart one) was diagnosed as having an auditory processing disorder.  I had no idea that his behavior was indicative of a learning disability…because I’d been doing the same thing for years!  So chances are, I have the same thing…but I never realized it until someone who had expertise in dealing with the issues point these things out to me, and I was in my late 20s and in grad school at that point.  Learning that my son had these issues and analyzing my own approach to learning has been a huge boon.  Still, how do I deal with a teacher who has a very auditory/sequential approach to teaching?  While I had a very accommodating math professor who was more than willing to draw plots or graphs to demonstrate various concepts, not all professors have been so willing.  Further, there are a number of professors who simply can’t think of ways to graphically illustrate a concept.  So am I the one with the limitation, or are they?  Either way, the situation is terribly frustrating as a student.

My frustration with all of this is that there is a lot of ignorance of 2e (twice exceptional) students.  College students, and especially grad students, may have learned to compensate for any learning disabilities that they have.  This makes it hard to tell when someone is LD or not.  However, a good place to start is making the assumption that they really can’t help it.  If someone has made it as far as college, and especially if they are in grad school, chances are that they would have realized and corrected the mistake long ago if they could.  I am not sure why people who work so hard to be scientists would turn around and be negligent about the presentation, knowing that people will make assumptions that they are lazy.

ETA: If you doubt my view of this, please look at this article, describing many of the things I have brought up along with references to studies.  Specifically:

Many more students may be learning disabled and gifted than anyone realizes. In spite of their high intellectual ability, such students remain unchallenged, suffer silently, and do not achieve their potential because their educational needs are not recognized and addressed. Unlike the situation in which a learning disability is accompanied by another “handicap,” students with LD who are gifted present a paradoxical picture of

exceptional strengths coexisting with specific deficits. Curiously, this condition carries with it both a blessing and a burden. On the one hand, gifted students with learning disabilities can draw on their gifts and talents to compensate for their disability. With support, understanding, and some instructional intervention, many are able to overcome their academic difficulties and go on to productive, satisfying careers and lives. On the other hand, because they are able to draw on their strengths, for many students the disability is masked while the “drag” on their academic performance prevents them from consistently achieving at high levels. Thus, they are often not identified and continue to be a severely misunderstood and underserved population. When gifted students fail to achieve their potential, whatever the cause, our nation loses a great deal of talent.


1. FrauTech - March 21, 2011

I get your point but I also think there’s too much focus sometimes on disabilities. As in, everyone has a different learning style and everyone will be at a disadvantage for some portion of their education. Also I think there’s a tendency for every parent to assume their child is smarter than average (much as we all think we are above average performers) and so ignore certain deficiencies just because their child is smart. I’m not saying that’s what you’re doing, but the teachers have probably dealt with plenty of parents wanting exceptions for their child “because he is smarter than the rest!” rather than dealing with the problems. Probably leads to teacher frustration. However from a college perspective I think you are right, that we assume a writing student is just being lazy when maybe the feedback is not given in a way that allows the student to understand and improve.

mareserinitatis - March 21, 2011

I guess my frustration comes when I have evidence of testing done to prove what I’m saying as well as disprove what the teachers are saying…and it doesn’t do any good whatsoever. The only thing I can assume is that they simply don’t want to deal with any kid outside of the norm.

I also think it’s very hard for most people to understand what it can be like living with learning disability. It’s very easy to take it for granted that the things we find easy are easy for everyone. But the thing I find most frustrating is there is actually a lot that can be done to cater to diverse learning styles…but most people don’t care or aren’t willing because it’s easier to blame the student than to put forth some effort.

2. GMP - March 21, 2011

Cherish, I liked your post. But I still believe, especially in college and grad school, that there are plenty of lazy and unmotivated people. I have had students with diagnosed learning disabilities and those who asked for a concept to be presented a few different ways (so they may be struggling with an undiagnosed disability), and I have no problem with that; these were people who worked hard on the material and it showed. I have no problem explaining concepts in as many ways as necessary to a student who comes to class, follows the course, does the work, and is still struggling. But I would say the number of underperformers by virtue of sheer laziness/lack of interest is still drastically higher. This may explain the teachers’ reluctance to accommodate certain special requests, because very, very often they are not truly justified…
I can understand your frustration, though.

mareserinitatis - March 21, 2011

I’m not disagreeing with you that there are unmotivated people or people uninterested in learning. On the other hand, having a learning disability can really kill your motivation. Many people make the assumption that the problem is laziness when it is, in fact, a mismatch between the person and their learning environment. Very often, when someone has an undiagnosed learning disability, they aren’t sure they can deal with it and the typical response is to withdraw.

3. gasstationwithoutpumps - March 21, 2011

I think you missed the point. Most of the commenters were not doubting the existence of disabilities, just the assumption that ALL students had disabilities.

mareserinitatis - March 21, 2011

No one was claiming that ALL students have disabilities, but that the students who have difficulty correcting their issues really are suffering from an LD. And the point I’m trying to make is that it’s probably a lot more common (and often undiagnosed) than people realize. And even if it does become obvious, there are a lot of people who won’t do anything about it as they’d rather lay the blame on the student.

4. SL Smith - March 21, 2011

You definitely missed the point of that post. There is nothing in there that is insensitive to people with learning disabilities; in fact, there is explicit recognition that such disabilities are real. You are looking in the wrong place for a reason to be disappointed.

mareserinitatis - March 21, 2011

I’m not sure how making the assumption that people don’t have learning disabilities (as in paragraphs 6-9 in the original post) when studies have shown that this occurs with people of high ability (and most people in graduate school are probably within that range) is NOT insensitive. Acknowledging that the disabilities are real while stating explicitly that such a scenario is doubtful is really not much better than saying they don’t exist at all.

5. anon - March 22, 2011

FSPs post questions only the assumption that *most* people have learning disabilities:

“But the Writing Expert said that most people can’t fix these problems.”

Even assuming that many learning disabilities go undiagnosed, I think we can safely say that *most* people (for the sake of argument, let’s say that means at least 70% of the relevant population) have no writing-related learning disabilities.

In the article you cited, I found this quotation:
“In one study, as many as 33% of students identified with learning disabilities had superior intellectual ability (Baum, 1985).”

Apropos FSP’s post, it would be interesting to know the prevalence of writing-related learning disabilities among the population at large, or better, among the graduate student population. I would be surprised if the latter is more than 10%.

mareserinitatis - March 22, 2011

I don’t think you can safely make that assumption at all. Keep in mind that those are students with identified learning disabilities. My point, and the point of the article, is that it’s quite easy for students to have learning disabilities which are never diagnosed and that they exist on a continuum. That means there are probably more than that who have learning disabilities, but most are never identified. The 33% is a lower bound.

Second, I think it’s a very bad idea to make assumptions that we have any clue how prevalent they are when there is no good way to evaluate them. You’ll notice that the article also pointed out that the group of people with learning disabilities is extremely heterogeneous in the way they are displayed. I wouldn’t make assumptions about writing ability among grad students as writing is not the only skill required for grad school. I’ve seen some very talented scientists who really struggle with writing, and there’s no way I can say whether or not those issues were due to some sort of learning disability or processing disorder.

Finally, I still think that it’s just poor form to assume that people who make repeated mistakes do so because they are lazy or don’t care. Some may, but I’m more inclined to think better of people, that most of them really don’t want to be making mistakes but either don’t realize they need to be corrected or, as the speaker in the original post indicated, they can’t.

mareserinitatis - March 22, 2011

And actually, I’d guess that 10% is pretty low: http://eideneurolearningblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/creativity-trade-off.html

“Understanding the trade-offs in the brain might suggest reasons why gifted-LD or twice exceptional students seem so common (over half of gifted students in one series) and why the highest IQ kids had thinnest prefrontal cortex in early development (figures from Shaw et al. below).”

6. squirrely - March 22, 2011

If 33% (or more, as you suggest) of the population has a disability, is it still reasonable to consider it a disability rather than the norm? Just wondering.

mareserinitatis - March 22, 2011

I believe the 33% statistic indicated that 33% of those who are diagnosed with a learning disability are gifted, not that 33% of the population has learning disabilities.

That being said, I don’t think it’s a good idea to create the notion that there is a “normal” way of learning. If I recall correctly, based on Linda Silverman’s work (which I don’t have handy at the moment, so it may have been someone else), one third of school-aged children are believed to have strong visual learning preferences. The way most material is presented in a classroom caters to the auditory-sequential learners, and the students with visual preferences are being neglected. So one out of every 3 students is not having his or her needs met in a normal classroom, not taking into account anyone who is intellectually gifted or anyone who has a learning disability (or both!). Given the large continuum of abilities and preferences in a normal classroom, I’m really not sure why there is such strong adherence to traditional teaching methods. My best guess is maybe it’s just too difficult for people who function well inside that particular teaching/learning structure to adapt to teaching any other way. (I sometimes wonder if its a lack of willingness, but I’m trying to give people the benefit of the doubt.)

7. jenny - March 23, 2011

soo b/c i went throw are school after H.S and passt with veary high marks i can help my disabilty ??? is that what ur saying. or do i blame the high school for lumping me in with kids who diablity was badder thin mine??? i work harder thin most ppl have to get where i am today to over come my disablity. and u know what i dont care if anyone think cuz a person went to collage that makes them normail. i have proud of my diabilty and dont give shit what others say about me. i can go as fair as i want in like i just take a differnt rout thin normail ppl do and yes i have disabites as u can tell

mareserinitatis - March 23, 2011

No, I don’t think you can help your disability, and I think it’s great you got through college. I understand that someone with a disability has to work twice as hard to get through the same material as someone without. The post I was referencing, however, was talking about people who don’t have diagnosed disabilities, and it initially said it was very doubtful that people without diagnosed disabilities can’t change their writing. I guess I can’t agree with that given how much I’ve learned about people who never get diagnosed and how some of these problems exist in the rest of the population, albeit they are not as disabling for most people as they are for someone who has been diagnosed with a disability.

8. Adam - April 7, 2011

Here, I just feel the need to write a little about my experience.

I have a learning disability, in which, I didn’t find out about until a couple of years ago. In fact, my processing speed is 98% slower than that of my peers. During my early years, I find public school to be extremely difficult. Furthermore, I barely achieve my first university degree due to my undiagnosed learning disability. With my diagnosis I know the reasons for my difficulties; more importantly, knowledge is empowerment. I choose to look at my learning disability as a learning differentiation. Due to my brain’s ability to cope, I’m blessed with the gift of intuition; in clarification, I have a 97% higher level of intuition than that of my peers. That said, apparently I run on intuition and gratefully so.
Currently, I am a military vet of 10 years; moreover, I’m back in university studying Human Resource Management. Now that I know about my learning differentiation, I’m doing extremely well in school. Interestingly, all I have to do to learn is listen; I never pick up a pen and I never write a note; I commit what I’m taught to my intuition and I trust my brain to put the pieces together when I need to recall information. In highlight, I focus on finding ways around my issues. I never give an apparent obstacle attention; whereas, I know that those who do set up barriers, whereby, negativity fortifies failure. Regardless of circumstances, people need to visualize their future, believe in themselves and achieve their dreams. Positivity fortifies success and everybody is meant to live a wonderful life.
As a former foster child from a broken home with supposed fetal alcohol syndrome, I never let my past circumstance define my future. My world is what I make of it regardless of my learning differentiation.

9. fargojones - August 30, 2011

Thanks for this post. My fiance was halfway through her second master’s degree before being diagnosed with a learning disability. She would work her ass off, but would run into professors who assumed she was lazy. She put in more time than others to learn concepts only to have to fight the system because she didn’t test well given time-constraints on tests. Once she went through the horrible battery of expensive tests to diagnose her LD, she still had to deal with professors who didn’t understand and thought she was lazy.
I look at it like this – you don’t yell at a color blind person for just not seeing colors correctly. So please don’t yell at someone who is perfectly capable of understanding concepts given enough time or the right learning tactic. Such attitudes displayed by GMP above are far more destructive to people with learning disabilities than they realize. There may be lazy students out there, but what good are you doing assuming that students with learning disabilities are lazy? More often than not, they are working harder than the ones who just get it right away. That attitude buries good students under a lazy assumption whereas assuming they are hard working and supporting them hopefully uncovers the students that want to achieve.

10. Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies « FCIWYPSC - July 10, 2012

[...] have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while [...]

11. Extenuating circumstances aside… « FCIWYPSC - July 26, 2012

[...] while back, I wrote a post on misunderstanding learning disabilities where I discussed the very common misconception that people who make mistakes with writing are not [...]


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