Demystifying Learning Disabilities

Equity and accommodation in the classroom

Join the discussion

"I worry that there's an entire industry out there
of gurus who are basically getting paid nicely to create these diagnoses, which may be built on sand."

--Darryl Neill, Professor and Chair of Psychology

"We need to find the common ground between
teaching style and the characteristics of the learner."

--Wendy Newby, Director of Faculty Resources for Disabilities

Determining Accommodations

Easing Tensions

Academic Exchange October/November 2000 Contents Page


Two years ago in an undergraduate psychology class at Emory, a student gave her professor a letter from the university's Office of Disability Services (ODS) stating that the student was registered with ODS and eligible to request certain academic accommodations. According to the letter, the student needed both extra time on multiple-choice exams and to take the exams on a computer. When the professor inquired about the nature of the disability, the student replied that it was "a learning disability for multiple choice exams."

Skeptical, the professor consulted another faculty member who had taught the student in a previous class and learned that the student had taken multiple-choice exams and had not asked for accommodation. When the professor confronted the student with her doubts after class one day, the student, sobbing, fled the room and eventually withdrew from the course.

Such situations don't occur often, but they do offer a snapshot of the ambiguities and dilemmas that arise in creating equitable conditions for students with learning disabilities. Faculty, on one hand, often struggle with the sense that they are being manipulated, that a diagnosis may be medically untenable, or that their teaching standards are being undermined by unreasonable expectations for accommodations. Students, on the other hand, become frustrated by faculty mistrust, exacerbating anxiety about their difficulties processing the information and ideas in a course.

According to Gloria McCord, director of ODS since 1999, a faculty member is legally not privy to information about a student's diagnosis. "Those are particulars about that person's medical profile," she says. "It's strictly confidential. The law would eat us up alive."

But, she adds, "Certified, licensed professionals provide us with the diagnosis. We are not the diagnosticians. We're the facilitators of the law, which says that every student with a learning disability should have a leveled academic playing ground. A faculty member can, however, challenge an accommodation if they think it's unreasonable. We'll go to the negotiating table and work something out."

Those negotiations are of particular interest to Wendy Newby, recently hired by Emory College and the University Advisory Council on Teaching to provide faculty resources for teaching students with disabilities university-wide. A Ph.D. in psychology, Newby has worked with students with learning disabilities for more than seventeen years and will be available to faculty to help interpret and resolve issues around disability acccommodation and teaching methods.

"A learning disability is a processing disorder," says Newby. "It could be based on a difficulty relaying messages from your head to your hand, for example, resulting in problems keeping up when taking notes in class. The student with a learning disability of this type may understand the ideas perfectly well but not be able to listen and write at the same time. This would be a disability in a class that requires a lot of notes but not in a class that is primarily discussion. For a student with a language-related learning disability, negotiating the complex language of a multiple choice test within a limited time period may be very difficult. The result of the test may reflect test-taking skills, not knowledge of the subject."

Professors everywhere are encountering growing numbers of students identifying themselves as having learning disabilities. Some four hundred and fifty students are registered with Emory's Office of Disability Services, and the majority have documented learning disabilities. According to a recent study by the American Council on Education, the number of college freshmen nationally identifying themselves as learning disabled, the fastest-growing category of disability, almost tripled from 1988 to 1998. Another study conducted by the Graduate School of Education at ucla reports that of the 154,000 freshmen who report a disability, four out of ten report a learning disability.


Raising doubts

For faculty, the tensions arise between a genuine desire to accommodate learning differences and level the playing field, and a healthy dose of skepticism about the diagnostic bases for the disabilities, many of which are relatively new categories. "Most of us are imperfect," says Deborah Ayer, a senior lecturer in English who is associate director of the Center for Teaching and Curriculum and director of the Writing Center in Emory College. "What distinguishes a disability from run-of-the-mill imperfections? These are the gray areas that create a kind of suspicion on the part of the faculty who are simply handed a letter. It's this disembodied voice ordering you to do something that sometimes doesn't make much sense. I think there's a real lack of understanding of what constitutes a learning disability and how it is validated."

Psychology professor and chair Darryl Neill adds, "Someone's paying a lot of money for these students to go here, and they have high expectations. If a student has some kind of cognitive problems, then they of course expect Emory to make accommodations. And most of the accommodations are no problem. I've done plenty of them. But as research-oriented psychologists, we're very curious about the basis for this. I worry that there's an entire industry out there of gurus who are basically getting paid nicely to create these diagnoses, which may be built on sand."

Some faculty members worry that the accommodations aren't always consonant with their curricular requirements and teaching standards. A professor may be asked to offer a test in an alternative format (multiple choice versus essay or vice versa), in an extended time period, or with the assistance of a scribe, who may type the student's oral response or fill in the answers on the test. A student may also require a distraction-free or private testing room; the use of a computer, dictionary, or calculator; no penalty for minor spelling or grammar errors; or enlarged print or audio versions of exams on tape. Students with difficulty processing the written word may receive course texts on tape. Faculty may also be asked to help students find a note-taker to compensate for difficulty assimilating, remembering, or organizing material while listening to a lecture.

Further, Ayer says that after spending many extra hours working with some students who have identified themselves as having learning disabilities, "I wonder--is it always in the best interest of students to nurse them through an assignment, or would it be better to let them struggle a little?" she says. "If you bend things too much, you harm them in the long run. They don't develop the independence that allows them to find solutions-to learn on their own."

Such questions are now becoming problematic even in the admissions process. Dean of Admission Dan Walls says that while a learning disability is a "neutral point" in the Emory College admission process, "it's a loaded issue. Sometimes students write about a disability in their application essay, sometimes high school counselors let us know, and sometimes an untimed sat score indicates a learning disability, but we try to ignore all that. We wonder occasionally, though, whether if you pay enough money, you can buy a disability."

In its extreme, skepticism can lead to backlash. Some even dismiss the very existence of learning disabilities at all, such as the Washington University physics professor who wrote last year to the Chronicle of Higher Education that "special privileges for the learning disabled are a scam, a breach of academic integrity, and a fraud perpetrated upon students who do not receive these privileges and upon those (employers and professional schools) who depend on the honesty of our grades and degrees. . . . Universities are about learning. If someone isn't very good at learning (in other words, is learning disabled), he should not attend university."

Expanding ideas of teaching
Most professors, however, simply want to create the best learning environment for all their students. "The Americans with Disabilities Act and what it requires was an eye-opener for me, a first step in thinking about those issues and trying to expand my ideas of teaching and evaluation," says Morgan Cloud, Candler Professor of Law.
"I began to see the need for faculty members to be more flexible. The 'empty vessel' theory of education-that professors can just put out information, and students, if they are competent, will get it whatever way the professors put it out-just turns out not to be accurate."

Cloud has especially reconsidered the traditional method of timed testing in legal education. Instead, he gives take-home exams. "The timed, in-class exam places an inordinately high priority on being able to write really fast, and that is obviously not a very good way to evaluate people with physical and learning disabilities. The ability to sit down and write really fast for three or four hours has nothing to do with being a lawyer. What lawyers and most professionals need to do is be able to think carefully, to reason, to solve problems, to work with other people."

Teachers want students to love what they love, says Newby. "That's why teaching is satisfying. But if I have a student who for some reason has difficulty not with the content of a class but with the process of gaining that information and giving it back to me, then I want to help that student be successful."