DEMYSTIFYING LEARNING DISABILITIES


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


Join the discussion

Demystifying Learning Disabilities
Equity and accommodation in the classroom

"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

The Academic Exchange As a professor and a department chair, what issues concern you regarding learning disabilities?

Professor Darryl Neill I've seen two difficulties. First is the question, what is a learning disability? What is the evidence for these things? We faculty are being asked to do various kinds of accommodations, but we know nothing about the student, and we have little understanding for the basis of this. The student appears to us labeled from the Office of Disability Services as being officially learning-disabled. As research-oriented psychologists, we're very curious about the evidence for these accommodations. Do they make any difference? What's the basis for thinking they make any difference other than lowering the anxiety level of the student? And we're not so sure about the basis for some of the diagnoses. Disorders like dyslexia, there's a lot of work on, so we know that's real. But a learning disability for a multiple choice exam would be a stretch for us.

Here's another concern: you have parents who, like any parent, want their child to do better than they did. So when the student doesn't do so well in school and this is picked up early on, they go to the psychologist and get the diagnosis. 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. Have the exam put on a computer, have extra time, have someone paid to take notes in the class-I've done plenty of them. But 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.

And I'm concerned that the diagnoses may sometimes be masking other problems. I've seen some students who have been told by Dad, "You will go to Emory, and you will become a doctor." If these students don't want to do this, they can't tell Mom and Dad, so they get depressed. I've seen all this roll out in front of me with my freshman advisees.

The other problem is Emory's implementation of this. The university had to respond to this because of the federal mandate. I don't know of places other than Emory, but here we've moved rather slowly. The faculty knew nothing about it. We found out when students would show up at our class bearing these blue folders with this document that said, this student is certified as learning disabled and qualified for the following accommodations. And it was left up to the faculty to adjust.

But somebody's got to talk to the faculty, because we have lots of questions.

AE What do you think is the fine line between natural human differences and differences that we must accommodate?

DN The line is adequate testing, and this is where we in this research-oriented department get skittish about who is doing the testing and who is coming up with these diagnoses. It's a competitive society. That's why people pay $25,000 a year for tuition to come here. They think they're buying a leg up. And if they care that much about their kid, then they are also highly likely to have identified any difficulties that the kid had earlier in school and to have paid money to try to do something about it.

AE Do you think we run the risk of over-accommodation?

DN Let's say a student gets out of here and makes it to law school, and the law school makes accommodations. But when General Motors hires him for their law department, are they going to make accommodations, too? I don't know. The ADA applies to everybody; I would assume that includes corporations. But if I've got a corporation, why do I want to hire somebody and say, Sure, we'll give you an extra day to produce that memo. Or, this memo doesn't make much sense to me, but that's okay.

AE Have you ever thought a requested accommodation eroded or undermined your teaching standards?

DN Faculty have two somewhat conflicting roles. One, we're teachers. And we really get a charge out of seeing people like what we're covering. I've literally been stopped on the street by students who told me that that day's lecture was terrific. And that's why we keep doing this business. But that is countered by the other role, as the gatekeepers. At a place like Emory where a lot of students want to go on to graduate and professional school, we're the people who give the As and Bs. The people who pay all that money for students to come here expect us to be honest in doing that. And all these accommodations are scary for faculty. It's almost like someone, maybe the parent, has found an end-run around the system by going out and finding people who will give diagnoses to their child so the student gets special care all the way through.As we have more people trained to go looking, as we have more sensitivity to individual differences, we're going to find out more and more about these individual differences. And I think as a professor, I just want to know, am I being treated fairly? And are other students being treated fairly?