It’s estimated as many as one in five Americans experience some form of specific learning disability. Identifying who these people are, however, is not a precise science.
It took years before Jefferson-Scranton High School senior Mary Larson and her parents figured out why she couldn’t read. She depended on her father to read her grade school textbooks out loud. By fifth grade, she still showed no signs of grasping the meaning of written words.
“I went to Iowa City hospital and they had a professional test me, I had to do some reading tests, comprehension.”
The results showing she was different from her classmates sent Mary into a shell.
“When I found out I had it, I wasn’t very accepting, I was embarrassed, I didn’t want any kids to know I had this disability, I didn’t tell anyone,” she says.
Mary Larson has a severe case of a specific learning disability. She relies on computerized audio books and voice recognition tools to help her through school. Her reading, writing and comprehension problems are similar to many with SLD. Basically, these are disorders in one or more of the psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language. They include the most common form, dyslexia, which results in difficulties reading; dysgraphia, which leads to trouble writing legibly; and discalculia, the inability to solve simple math problems. They do not include other cognitive disabilities such as autism or AD/HD, although they may lead to learning disabilities. The chair of the education department at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids – Ellen O’Keefe – says she sees S-L-D manifest in a number of ways.
"They have issues with their memory, short term and long term, they have issues processing information, so whether it comes in auditorily or visually," O'Keefe says. "And it could be they have difficulty getting the information they’ve processed back out to respond.”
They may have trouble learning the alphabet, rhyming words or connecting letters to their sounds. Their spelling is most likely horrible. Professor O’Keefe says these are the clearest signs of a disorder that remains largely invisible.
"If you can’t see it, or directly see its effects, it’s difficult for people to know, but also to believe there’s something there, it is hidden, it’s been hidden, it’s been called a hidden disability since the beginning of my experience in 1976," O' Keefe says.
Until recently, the most often used method of identifying learning disabled children was what’s known as the “severe discrepancy” formula,” or what some researchers call “the wait-to-fail approach.” This refers to the gap between a child’s overall intelligence determined by I.Q., and his or her actual classroom performance. These days, says John Hosp, an associate professor of special education at the University of Iowa, the goal is to intervene in student’s education as soon as there are signs of trouble.
“The approaches to helping individuals with learning disabilities have been shifting ever earlier and with better means to identifying who needs help as early as possible,” Hosp says.
When Archie Willard was laboring to keep up with his classmates in Eagle Grove during the Great Depression, there was little understanding of why the combination of letters on a page made no sense to the first grader.
“At that time, there wasn’t even a word, a term, called dyslexia," Willard says. "you were either dumb or lazy you were considered, you would rather be considered lazy than dumb.”
His teachers didn’t quite know what to do with young Archie. They placed him at the back of the class and told him to keep out of the way of his fellow students. In many ways, attitudes in the classroom toward slow learning students have not changed much since then. There are still educators who look at poor performing students who may have a learning disabilty and say they’re just not trying.
Terri Petersen has heard this skeptical view firsthand.
:“I sit down with principals who tell me, I hope you’re not going to say that kid’s dyslexic because I don’t believe in it, there’s no such thing.”
Petersen teaches learning disabled kids at Summit School in Cedar Rapids, a private school that caters to their needs. She says the brains of the children she works with process information differently from their peers, and should therefore be taught differently.
“If you wear glasses, we would never tell you to take your glasses off and perform work, and if you have one leg, we would never ask you to run a race against other kids, and yet that is really what happens to these kids because the disability goes unnoticed,” Petersen says.
Educators in a small, southeast Nebraska town failed to notice Karen Thompson’s learning disability. She says she had a less-than-supportive first grade teacher.
“Boy, I was struggling and it was just awful, first grade was awful, it was my mom who figured it out, we were sitting down reading, trying to read, a book together, and she asked me to write down what I saw on the page, and she didn’t quite know what it all meant, but she knew something was wrong.”
The order of the letters was out of whack. She couldn’t tell her right from her left, so sometimes she read backwards. But once she knew she had a problem, she compensated, made it through college, and now heads a Johnston-based nonprofit agency that provides support for parents with learning disabled children. No one knows exactly what causes specific learning disabilities, genetics maybe. The state coordinator for the Learning Disabilities Association of Iowa – Kathy Specketer – throws out some other possibilities.
“Prematurity would be one thing, they’ve got some research now, there’s also environmental toxins, there might be maternal issues that go on during the pregnancy that might have an effect,” Specketer says.
There is universal agreement on one point. Specific learning disabilities never go away, they can’t be cured. But Iowans with them say you can make adjustments, you can be successful. There is a long list of celebrities with SLD to serve as inspiration. They include Albert Einstein, John Lennon and Walt Disney.