Can Americans define the term "learning disability?"
This article examines the statistics surrounding what Americans know — and don't know — about learning disabilities. The results highlight the necessity of educating parents and teachers more comprehensively about learning disabilities and what causes them.
Parents and educators are well informed about learning disabilities.
While Americans are better educated about learning disabilities and special education than they were five years ago, there are still serious misconceptions about the capabilities of children with disabilities. A study commissioned by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation asked questions of 1,000 adults, 700 parents, and 700 teachers about their perceptions of learning disabilities. Children with specific learning disabilities make up about forty percent of students who are served under the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and are thus an important population to be understood so their needs may be better met.
The Tremaine Foundation conducts their survey every five years, and the latest results are heartening in several areas. Based on the federal definition of “learning disability” (neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to read, write, spell, or do math, but is not tied to overall cognitive ability), thirty-eight percent of respondents say that they have heard or read a lot about these disabilities, up seven percent from the last point. Also, seventy-nine percent believe that all children learn in different ways, and ninety-two percent agree that children with learning disabilities process words and information differently (as opposed to incorrectly or worse) than other children. The most optimistic statistic is that eighty percent of Americans believe that “people with learning disabilities are just as smart as you and me.” This is a great improvement over the last survey and highlights a better chance for students with learning disabilities to receive a comparable education to those without.
However, when asked about the specifics of learning disabilities, the results are not as optimistic. While seventy-six percent of people could identify dyslexia as a learning disability, eighty percent link all learning disabilities with mental retardation, which is not a learning disability at all. Similarly, sixty-nine percent of people polled identified ADHD as a learning disability rather than an emotional and behavior disorder. In fact, learning disabilities are specific brain functions that inhibit learning but have nothing to do with intelligence level (as opposed to mental retardation, which specifically affects IQ). Dyslexia, a disability that affects the ability to read the written word, is the most well-known. Other common learning disabilities are dyscalculia (difficulty in grasping math concepts), auditory and visual processing disorders, and nonverbal learning disabilities, which cause problems with visual-spatial and organizational processing. While ADHD is often associated with learning disabilities, it is not one in itself. Yet this tendency to group learning disabilities with behavioral disorders and mental retardation may cause educators to try to use the same interventions with all of these students.
The statistics that are most disconcerting are those related to the causes of learning disabilities. Fifty-one percent, including teachers, believe that learning disabilities are sometimes the result of laziness. This is down six percent from five years ago, but it is still a common belief. Additionally, fifty-five percent of parents and the general public, along with forty-three percent of teachers, agree that learning disabilities are caused by the environment in which children are raised, despite the overwhelming medical and scientific research evidence to the contrary.
The bottom line
With the reauthorization of ESEA looming large, defining learning disabilities has become more important. Children with learning disabilities do not need a “dumbed-down” curriculum or the types of interventions connected with mental retardation, ADHD, or autism.
More immediately, this poll highlights the necessity of educating parents and teachers more comprehensively in the causes and needs of learning disabilities. Teachers who believe that learning disabilities are caused in the home may be more likely to pass the buck to parents, and parents may take on an unnecessary feeling of guilt if they believe the same. Educators must understand that learning disabilities are driven by a number of factors and thus work with families to design the best possible learning plans for their children.