Liberal Education

My Learning Curve on Learning Disabilities

I recently spent a year studying best practices in serving students with learning and other disabilities, and, surprisingly, the experience altered my own thinking in significant ways. I came to this study not as a specialist in disabilities but as anacademic administrator with years of faculty experience, and that perspective helped me learn how faculty can play a key role in tapping the intellectual potential of students with disabilities. Having been a provost at two colleges, overseeing the offices that assisted students with disabilities, I understood the legal mandates for accommodating those students and the moral imperative to facilitate the success ofall the students we admitted. Those perspectives didn’t change. But I came to understand that working innovatively to serve students with disabilities contributes to the powerful social goal of unlocking the often stifled intelligence and creativity of students who learn differently and face significant obstacles in traditional educational settings. I also learned that the pedagogical challenges posed by students who learn differently have the potential to stimulate innovation in teaching in ways that can help all students learn. As a result of my year spent focusing on so-called “LD students,” I became a better administrator and a better teacher.

As I met with directors of college programs for students with learning disabilities,joined a vibrant listserv of such professionals, enrolled in workshops on the topic, and read key professional texts, I brought a healthy, even exaggerated, skepticism with me. I knew that many faculty view the dramatic increase in students with diagnosed disabilities with such skepticism, even though they rarely express it openly. Certain rapidly growing diagnoses—such as attention deficiency disorder (ADD), executive functioning disorder, and dyslexia—present themselves with symptoms that often mirror carelessness and poor study habits. I knew that, privately, some faculty wonder whether a symbiotic industry isn’t evolving in which well-heeled parents, disappointed in the academic performance of their children, are paying professionals to assuage their dismay by diagnosing their children as disabled. No one suspects this of a deaf student or a student in a wheelchair. But a student whose symptoms include an inability to organize and remember assignments seems suspicious. Were we as a society complicit in pathologizing poor study skills into a condition that requires accommodation and subtly shifts the responsibility for the student’s poor performance from the student to the school?

The answer, I came to believe, is clearly no. Indeed, many learning disabilities specialists believe that such things as ADD are still underdiagnosed. There are two kinds of information that dispel the skepticism. First, studies that document neurological differences in individuals with learning disabilities help demonstrate what those persons often know all too well themselves: they think differently. Even simple data, such as those derived from studies showing that ADD students have different eye movements when reading a text, help support the appropriate paradigm for understanding the interaction between learning disabilities and intelligence.

The importance of personal experience

As I talked with faculty and with LD professionals, I discovered that a more important factor in tempering skepticism of learning disabilities was personal experience. Again and again, I heard faculty tell how recognizing disability symptoms in a child, a relative, or even in themselves created a moment of awareness that modified their thinking and made it easier to understand how different ways of thinking and learning could foster a situation in which very intelligent and diligent children performed poorly in school.

For me, the light bulb went off when I read Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution (Mooney and Cole 2000). Here was a book in the field that was not written by and for educators, but by and for students with disabilities. Though the book has some flaws, its irreverence, wit, and common sense make it extremely valuable for understanding the experience of students with disabilities and how traditional educational approaches have frustrated and discouraged such students.

The book begins with each of the coauthors telling the story of his schooling. It is excruciatingly painful as they each describe multiple failures in school followed by teacherly and parental exhortations just to try harder and apply themselves. As an English teacher, I cringed with recognition and embarrassment as these young authors talked about how our earliest treatment of writing in the schools focuses on penmanship and spelling—two tasks notoriously difficult for dyslexics, whose other language skills (including the ability to construct complex sentences, coherent paragraphs, and compelling narratives) are left untapped while they struggle with handwriting and spelling tests.

I remembered that handwriting was my most difficult subject in elementary school. And I remembered how teachers repeatedly told us that they were preparing us for the more stringent demands of the grade levels ahead. The height of that ridiculousness came in sixth grade, where we all were required to write with ink cartridge pens because “that would be required when we went off next year to junior high.” Cartridge pens are murder for kids with weak handwriting—not to mention how rough they are on clothes. But the irony is that once we got to junior high, teachers didn’t care what we wrote with.

After the first two chapters, Learning Outside the Lines becomes a guide addressed to other college students with disabilities, offering practical advice on how to succeed. A few items will make faculty uncomfortable, such as clever advice about how to participate in class discussions of works you haven’t read or the revelation that one of the authors faxed every college paper to his mother for editorial assistance. But what is most remarkable about the practical advice is that virtually all of it is applicable to any student, not just students with disabilities: how to make good use of research librarians; different ways to read and highlight textbooks; how to take advantage of writing and tutorial centers; how to develop a quick outline for an in-class essay.

These two aspects of the book are crucial for understanding how colleges and their faculties can remove barriers to student learning. First, the book forcefully presents the often tortured reality of the intelligent student with a significant disability and leads to an understanding of just how poorly served those students have been by traditional pedagogical approaches. But the second, really powerful aspect is the book’s presentation of the keys to academic success for the LD student, many of which are straight out of any standard “how to study and succeed” playbook. At first, these two observations may seem contradictory: we need to appreciate how students with learning disabilities genuinely think and process information differently from the norm; and we need to recognize that what helps them learn is often exactly what aids the learning of so-called normal students.

Part of the message of Mooney and Cole’s book is that if you know you have some significant learning disabilities, you have to accept that you can’t get away with some of the careless behavior that some of your peers might exhibit. Your roommate might be able to party all night and still ace an exam in the morning, but you need to know that lack of sleep (and a hangover) impairs your memory. LD students need to internalize a dual lesson that requires some maturity: it’s not your fault; but you have to work harder to achieve the same results as students without your disability.

Universal Design for Instruction

The powerful pedagogical corollary to this I learned from the LD professionals, not the student writers. The concept of Universal Design for Instruction (UDI), borrowed fromarchitecture and applied to the classroom, asserts that innovations designed to aid disabled persons often end up benefitting many kinds of learners, not just those with documented disabilities. Proponents of Universal Design love to use the architectural example of the “curb cuts” created to allow persons in wheelchairs to move easily from sidewalk to street. While they are designed to do exactly that, they also turn out to be very handy for bicyclists, delivery persons with hand trucks, and parents pushing strollers. The design that accommodates everyone brings unexpected benefits.

What does Universal Design for Instruction mean for college teachers on an everyday basis? It offers a set of principles that can be applied to the dozens of choices one makes in designing and delivering a course. When assigning a paper, should you just talk about your expectations in class, or should you also distribute a handout? UDIsuggests doing both, thus catching the auditory and the visual learners. And be sure to put the written assignment sheet on your course management site: the student with a visual disability might benefit from an electronic copy that can be enlarged; the student with executive function disorder is helped by being able to find everything on the course site; even the student skipping class to attend a family wedding can also access the information remotely.

Some of the most radical implications of Universal Design relate to the assignments we use to measure student learning. Universal Design principles suggest that we should use several different kinds of assessments: tests, essays, oral presentations, group projects, etc. Using varied assessment methods reduces the likelihood that we are primarily measuring test-taking skill or essay-writing skill when we want to see how much a student has learned about a political theory or a biological process.

Consider the multiple choice exam. Many students (I was one of them) find multiplechoice questions easy. The presence of the correct answer jogs your memory and, byapplying deductive reasoning, you can eliminate some wrong answers and guess correctly. But consider what a question like the following, designed to measure knowledge in a biology course, looks like to a dyslexic student:

Which of the following is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes?

a) Certain ethnic backgrounds

b) Hair color

c) Obesity

d) High blood pressure

e) All of the above

f) a, c, and d

Identifying the correct risk factors (a, c, and d) and recognizing that a, c, and d each fail to be the “best” answer can be a baffling exercise in close reading that obscures whether or not the student actually knows the material being tested. For the dyslexic student, a short answer questions that simply asks the student to list the risk factors might work much better because it would test the student’s recall of the information taught in class. But for other students, the opposite is true. So UDI suggests that you mix the methods to get better pictures of what students are learning.

If you are like me, you may remember your sixth grade teacher emphasizing that a big part of your assignment was learning how to follow directions. That is an important skill, but it shouldn’t be the prism through which we assess all student learning. (Trying to read a multiple choice question that deliberately creates additional complexity through the eyes of a dyslexic student reminded me of Jonathan Mooney’s revealing comments about word processing spell-checkers and dyslexics. He acknowledges that spell-check is a great help for the dyslexic student, but he adds that there is almost nothing worse for such a student than being confronted with four different words with slightly different spellings to choose from.)

So I asked an irreverent question in a faculty workshop on Universal Design: “Is Universal Design fundamentally at odds with writing across the curriculum?” This is a topic big enough for another essay, but it generated a revealing discussion. The instructor responded that the two philosophies are not at odds as long as the courses that put an emphasis on writing are courses that include learning writing skills as a fundamental objective. Fair enough. But I reminded her that one goal of writing across the curriculum is to get more classes to do just that and to wage war against the student perception (and sometimes the faculty practice) that writing only matters in English classes. I mention this only to suggest that UDI has its limits; it’s not a panacea. But it is a good way to engage faculty in thinking about their pedagogy and in thinking about learning disabilities more broadly than just in terms of student accommodations (making sure that student X has extended test time and that student Y is allowed to do in-class writing on a laptop). More usefully, UDI allows faculty to explore ways to improve their pedagogy for the reality they face every term: each class is filled with different kinds of learners, some with documented disabilities and some with more traditional strengths, weaknesses, predilections, and aversions.

When I spoke to the professionals in charge of the offices that serve LD students, I encountered people who were dedicated, smart, and passionate about their work. When I asked them how to get faculty more involved with and attuned to students with disabilities, they all stressed that they (as professional staffers) couldn’t do this on their own; they need (and often find) faculty champions who help initiate conversations about progressive pedagogy on their campuses. Sometimes, they told me, these are the usual suspects: faculty in psychology and education who understand the learning or neurological issues as part of their fields. But, just as often, they are faculty who have dealt with an LD child or relative. Others are faculty who recognize characteristics of learning disabilities in themselves. Indeed, academia is often a very good place for people who are brilliant but lack certain basic social or communication skills. The new research and the bigger crop of students with disabilities attending colleges provided them with a vocabulary to understand themselves or their loved ones whose intelligence or creativity doesn’t fit well into the conventions of schooling.

One director pointed me to Temple Grandin’s (2010) TED talk about autism and creativity. It’s a remarkable piece that uses visual images to illustrate the different ways her mind works. The biggest response she received from the audience came when she described autism as a continuum stretching from nonverbal children to brilliant scientists and engineers and said, “I actually feel at home here because there is a lot of autism genetics [in this room].” Her point was that Asperger Syndrome (and other disabilities) can mask the creativity our society needs to solve its most pressing problems. As I work with LD professionals to bring broader faculty understanding and participation to our efforts to enhance services to students with disabilities on our campus, I think of my own learning curve over the last year. In a way, my skepticism(or, less judgmentally, my critical perspective) served me well. It led me to the hard questions and the unusual sources that allowed me to change the way I think and teach.


Grandin, T. 2010. “Temple Grandin: The World Needs All Kinds of Minds.” Filmed February 2010. TED video, 19:44. Posted February.

Mooney, J., and D. Cole. 2000. Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give You the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Christopher Ames is vice president for academic affairs at Shepherd University.

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