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The Buzz

December 10, 2009

I wrote this post for an educational blog that I was invited to participate in, after attending a three-day workshop on learning disabilities a couple of weeks ago. Because I spent a lot of time on it, and because I am a shameless self-promoter, I’m going to re-post it here.

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My first impression as I took my seat in the back – near the snack table – was that I recognized that familiar buzz in the room: it’s the buzz that happens whenever a large group of educators comes together in one place. The steam had barely risen off the morning’s coffee and already the room was humming with questions, ideas, stories, gripes, concerns, and speculation. The issue of learning disabilities, it seems, is a catalyst for never-ending discussion – often cyclical, sometimes controversial, and usually resulting in more questions than answers.

As a relative newcomer to the adult literacy field, I knew that learning disabilities were central to my practice, but I wasn’t confident in my ability to help learners identify them, or to provide tutors with the tools they need to work with them. Over the course of the training event, I realized two things: first, that I had a better grasp of the issues surrounding LD than I thought I had, and second, that a lot of people with more experience than me are still asking a lot of the same questions. This I find both reassuring and worrisome.

Instead of trying to cram the entirety of my learning experience into a few paragraphs, I’d like to distill it down to the main themes and ideas I came away with. Let’s see if I can put it down in one sentence: Learning disabilities are complex yet fairly easily identifiable syndromes that differ for each individual, and therefore require a wide range of approaches and accommodations which turn out to be useful for most any student in any educational setting; this realization has led to the development of new educational philosophies such as the Universal Design for Learning. (Phew! Is it cheating to use a semi-colon?)

Linda Siegel’s presentation on assessment reaffirmed something that I think many of us already felt – that with a few simple tools, and our own instincts as literacy practitioners, we can work with our learners to create a fairly accurate picture of their needs and challenges, without a $2000 price tag attached. Formal assessments, of course, can help learners access programs and funding that might otherwise be unavailable to them, but I was inspired by the (rather obvious, when you think about it) idea that help should be available to anyone who displays a need for it.

This led me to wonder why help isn’t always available to those who need it. Is it a question of politics? Economics? Limited resources? Possibly, but I think there may be something else going on here as well. Many times I’ve heard the idea expressed – have, in fact, expressed it myself – that a formal identification of LD is a way to help an individual avoid being labelled “lazy” or “stupid”. In a way, the underlying assumption here is that help should only be available to those who have a good excuse for requesting it, as opposed to those who are lazy and don’t want to do things the hard way, or those who won’t be able to learn no matter what approach is taken. Yikes.

Maybe what we really need is a re-evaluation of our society’s collective assumptions and biases. Are any learners really “lazy”, or do they come across as such because they are overwhelmed by any number of factors – family life, self-esteem, socioeconomic status, poor nutrition – and unable to deal with the tasks we have set out for them? How do we define “stupid”? At what point on the IQ scale does an individual move from having an officially recognized cognitive disability to simply being “stupid”? Does the individual in the former case deserve help more than the latter? I think most of us in the field of education would recoil from using such terms to describe our learners, but as a society, I don’t believe we are free of their stigma.

By the end of the three days, I had the sense that the training event’s strength lied in inspiring this kind of meandering train of theoretical thought, further feeding the buzz in the room that I had picked up on the first day. I will admit that I didn’t feel I had come away with much in the way of concrete actionable strategies that differed greatly from ones I had already been employing. On the other hand, the complex nature of LD belies any sort of “quick fix” or magic one-size-fits-all solution; as much as I’d like a flowchart that tells me to use strategy X with learner X, I realize now that it doesn’t really work that way. Overall, I feel I have a clearer understanding of the issues surrounding LD, and – apart from the bedbugs in my hotel room (don’t worry, Lit BC, I know that wasn’t your fault) – the event was a very worthwhile experience. I hope I can pass on some of the inspiration I felt to my tutors and colleagues when I facilitate a workshop on LD next spring.


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