A Few Thoughts on Learning Disabilities

21 Mar

I do have some history with working with individuals with learning disabilities and even originally was going to get my master’s in teaching LD before ending up with my degree teaching EBD. 


The journey actually begins way back in high school with one of my best friends, Sean, who was classified LD.  I knew he might have been a little slow, but didn’t treat him as anything less than what he was; a good friend.  He and I both grew up milking cows and it would be fair to say he knew more about dairy cows than I did.  After high school he was engaged to be married, and when that fell through he moved to Georgia.  A few years later, I followed him down. Sean started out trying construction jobs but found he could do fast food work, with the help of an understanding store manager.  While he wasn’t too good on the register, he worked the back making sandwiches.  He eventually started his own business with pet and house sitting, making a good living at it.  He was best man at my wedding and now is married and in the pet sitting business with his new bride.  What Sean lacked in raw intellect he made up for with dependability, honesty and determination. 


I worked with him in fast food for a year or so, before landing a job at a private school that specialized in teaching kids with LD, ADD and dyslexia. It was a boarding school that also had day students.  It was a good place to get started as a young teacher, living and working at the same place.  None of the faculty were certified, most were pretty young and single.  It was a very expensive school that offered tutorial, co-tutorial and small group classes, along with very structured schedules.  Boarders had 2 hours of evening study halls before getting some free time.  It was rigorous, structured and individualized. 


The students were from pretty wealthy families, some from other countries.  Those who teach LD students know that they often have a repertoire of behaviors that are incompatible with academic success.  These kids were, in the words of one administrator, from the “golden ghettos.”  Their parents often spent little time with their kids, preferring to indulge them with material things rather than invest in meaningful discipline and interaction.  So in addition to being self-indulgent, the students also often had some emotional problems.


This was the early 1990’s, and the drug of choice was Ritalin.  Most of the boys were on it, and even a few of the girls.  The teaching we did was structured, but there was still enough room to be creative.  I taught physical science, chemistry and biology.  I quickly discovered that I was doing my best work with the slowest kids.  I really enjoyed working with them, and teaching these kids required a lot of patience, precision and self-discipline on my part.  But the hands-on creativity I employed paid dividends and my students consistently did well on their departmental exams. 


Despite the fact that each student paid $5000 for each hour of instruction each semester, teachers were not paid very well.  Of course, I did get a place to live and free meals, but I was still making less than many paraprofessionals.  I began to outgrow the place and yearned for more freedom.  In addition to teaching all day, I also did duties 2x per week at night and then one weekend per month.  During a typical week, I might put in 60 hours and up to 80 hours if I had weekend duty.  It was a good thing I was relatively young because it was a challenging pace to maintain for 3 years.  By the end of my 2nd year, I started thinking about getting my Master’s degree in special education. 


This is my way of introducing you to how I experience the world of LD.  As I said, LD students can be among the most fun and entertaining students to work with.  They are generally bright, but need help with organization, accountability and perseverence.  Many like to give up before they even start a challenging task.  My work involved simplifying the process and breaking tasks down into discrete steps that were easier to manage, and then gradually expand the tasks and expectation.  I managed to guide some fairly low kids through stoichiometry, balancing chemical equations, learning element names and symbols, learning the parts of the digestive tract, calculating work, force and energy.  And we had fun. 


So I naturally chose this population when starting on my master’s degree.  It was a professor who talked me into changing tracks to get into EBD.


Students are classified as having learning disabilities on the discrepancy model, meaning there is a discrepancy between aptitude and achievement of 2 standard deviations.  So with a mean of 100 and a SD of 15, a student scoring 100 on an I.Q. test and scoring 70 on a reading achievement test would have a reading disability.  Officially speaking, the discrepancy can not be accounted for on the basis of a sensory disability, such as being blind or deaf which is why hearing and vision screenings are part of the eligibility process.  This is all the official party line.  However, there are politics involved with the LD classification that exist no where else.


There are 3 mild disability classifications and eligibilities that make up 90% of all students enrolled in special education.  One is Emotional Behaviors (EBD).  The criteria for EBD also involves falling below the mean by 2 standard deviations along with other behavioral criteria.  However, no parent who is half-way savvy wants their child classified as EBD.  And if the parent fights hard enough, they can get it changed to something more socially acceptable.  Changed to what?


One possibility is Mildy Intellectually Disabled (MID) otherwise known as mildly retarded.  This, again, involves scoring 2 standard deviations below the mean on various assessments, including adaptive behavior.  But, again, not many savvy parents are keen to having their child labeled as being retarded, no matter how we try to disguise it as MID.


Which leaves LD as the single most popular of the milder eligibilities.  Being learning disabled is a lot less threatening than being emotionally disturbed, and not nearly as socially unacceptable as being retarded.  Plus, it works better with person-first language.  Most people are fairly understanding of someone with a learning disability.  They have less comfort with having a mild intellectual disability and certainly less than having an emotional or behavioral disturbance!


In my experience, there is a broad overlap between the mild disability eligibility areas.  It isn’t until you get a couple of self-contained classes side-by-side that the contrast comes more sharply into focus.


I was a long-term sub in a middle school EBD classroom who happened to have P.E. at the same time as the neighboring LD class.  I’ll never forget the kickball game where the EBD kids took on the LD kids.  Since I had kids who were skipping or in ISS, I only had 3 kids in the class who took on 10-12 kids in the LD class in a game of kickball.  I had misgivings, thinking it was hardly fair for the EBD kids who were outnumbered 4:1.  And I was partially right.  It wasn’t fair.

It was a massacre. 


The LD kids had many more difficulties with their fine and gross motor functioning, motor planning and were just generally more timid.  The EBD kids had no such physical limitations and were fearless in their aggressiveness.  That was the first time I had seen such a stark contrast between these two groups.  After 3 kids with LD kicked the ball and it was either caught or they were thrown out, the EBD kids went on to score 15 or so runs before us teachers said they had to give the other team a chance.  The kids with LD were up…3 up and 3 down.  We had to mangle some rules so they could give everyone a chance to kick the ball.  About 2 of the kids with LD made it to first base and none ever scored.  It was apparent to me that day that there was a lot more to the LD label than intellectual functioning.  There were sensory perception issues that went beyond simple reading comprehension or math calculation.  These were bright students who were not seeing the world the same way as most other people, or at least in a way that lent itself to winning a game of kickball against a team they outnumbered.

Keep in mind, these were self-contained students who represented the most “disabled” in their respective categories.  It is much more difficult to spot who is who among a group of resourced/mainstreamed students.  In fact, if you read the two articles cited below, there is some argument as to whether or not LD is a legitimate category of disability at all.


Over at Education Gadfly you can read another article on the LD classification in special education.  Hat tip to Liz who gives her own take here.


 Once I entered the world the severe and profound, such ambiguities and politics ceased to be factors.  Anyone can just look at my kids, and there is no question at all as to whether or not they are exceptional.  And I’m okay with that lack of ambiguity.





2 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Learning Disabilities”

  1. bronwynkate at 12:03 am #

    Of course, Sir, they are people first and foremost.

    Just part of the wonderful tapestry of being human.

    I can’t believe the EBD kids whooped the LD kids so badly. Lots of LD kids do not really like sport, but that’s too much!


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