DEMYSTIFYING LEARNING DISABILITIES


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

Wendy Newby, Director of Faculty Resources for Disabilities


Join the discussion

Demystifying Learning Disabilities
Equity and accommodation in the classroom

"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

Determining Accommodations

Easing Tensions


Academic Exchange October/November 2000 Contents Page

The Academic Exchange Why do you think there is so much skepticism about learning disabilities, such as the notion that if you have enough money, you can "buy" one?

Wendy Newby In my experience, most of the students who receive this diagnosis come by it legitimately. But this is a new field, and as we get better at understanding the nature and characteristics of learning disabilities, we get better at the diagnosis. Our tools are not always adequate, but new ones are constantly being developed and old ones improved. We may miss some cases as well as over-diagnose at times, but I do not consider this to be a major problem.

AE What is a learning disability?

WN A skilled diagnostician using the right tools and interpreting carefully can discover the processing difficulties that would support the diagnosis of a learning disability. Basically, the diagnosis of these disorders requires evidence of specific cognitive processing difficulties in an individual of average to above-average intelligence and a demonstrated effect of this processing difference that interferes with a "basic life activity," such as learning. Hidden disabilities like learning disabilities and attention-related disorders are difficult to diagnose because their characteristics change throughout the life span of the individual. Often individuals compensate for their difficulties, so the processing problems become less obvious until confronted with increased demands. This would be the case with many students at Emory. They have learned ways to work around their problem areas, often working harder and longer to get the same job done.

AE How do we know whether the recommended accommodation suits
the disability? Does it really create equity, or does it just lower the student's anxiety?

WN This question goes to the heart of the "standards" issue. The value of the Emory degree should not be compromised in the eyes of either the faculty or the student. It is very important that when the student leaves here, all recognize that the degree of a student with a diagnosed disability has the same value as that of any other student. Accom-modations like extended time on tests are meant to allow a student with a disability to have full access to educational opportunities. These changes to instruction are not meant to ensure that all students are successful. If I give a test in my history class and ask for a written comparison between two events, I want to know if the student understands this information. If it takes the student a little longer to do this, that's all right with me. By extending the time limit for this student with a learning disability, I will have a more valid assessment of what this student knows about this topic.

On the other hand, it would not be appropriate to grant extended time to someone who needs to make rapid judgments about whether to administer a drug to a patient in distress. If time is a critical element to the job, then extended time would not be an appropriate accommodation.

AE Do you think these accommodations ever erode a professor's control over a course?

WN It used to be that a teacher would stand in front of the class and lecture. If you had an auditory processing problem and couldn't keep up with the flow of language, you either borrowed notes from a friend or just lost out. Nowadays, we recognize that people learn differently. We need to find the common ground between teaching style and the characteristics of the learner.

In the college, the Center for Teaching and Curriculum is here to support the development of effective teaching practices on campus. If you have been teaching the same way for ten years and someone comes in and tells you to change, you probably won't want to do that, but if you learn about ways to teach that are interesting to you, that make learning for students more efficient and add to enthusiasm for your topic, who wouldn't want to do that? That's not erosion of control; it's developing greater control.