About the Author of What are Specific Learning Disabilities?
Dr. Oksana Hagerty, an educational and development psychologist, who serves as a learning specialist at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla., the first accredited higher education institution to award bachelor’s degrees primarily to students with learning disability, ADHD, and other learning differences.
What are Specific Learning Disabilities?
According to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), specific learning disabilities are disorders that compromise one or more basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language. The results are conspicuous impairments in the ability to listen, think, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. However, lengthy the definition, it clearly points to one dominant element that we recognize as the cornerstone of learning, and, consequently, specific learning disabilities: language.
The same point of view is reinforced (although indirectly) in the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Which labeled only three conditions as “specific learning disorders”. SLD with impairment in reading (dyslexia), Specific Learning Disabilities with impairment in mathematics (dyscalculia), and SLD with impairment in written expression (dysgraphia).
The Role of Language in the Definition of a Learning Disability
Why is it so important to understand the role of language in the definition of a learning disability? Because it explains why certain factors ( auditory processing deficits, for example) or even their coherent groups ( non-verbal Learning Disabilities, for example) never officially have been elevated to the status of a specific learning disability — and had to take a back seat (at least for now).
The aforementioned modern definitions of Specific Learning Disabilities reflect what Leo Vygotsky nearly 100 years ago called “the greatest discovery of the child’s life” — “the discovery that everything has a name.” “Since this very moment,” he wrote, “child’s speech becomes intelligent, and the child’s intelligence — verbal”. That is, speech becomes a means of thinking. Modern researchers like Brock and Fernette Eide call it the “right-to-left [hemisphere] processing shift”. But the essence remains the same: reasoning. Which was once functioning without the help of language — gets a powerful tool that, on the one hand, revamps it and, on the other, limits it by a rigid system of words ruled by grammar.
What happens if this shift does not fully occur? For many years, we believed that dyslexia “happens.” Now we know that, among other things, spatial reasoning and simultaneous processing survive and thrive, too when the shift does not occur. Not a bad trade-off, after all. (an exhaustive “list of survivors” exists in the Eides’ book, The Dyslexic Advantage).
Now, why is the impairment in verbal reasoning considered a disability and the impairment in, say, spatial reasoning not? Simply because that this is how our society defines what is ordinary (verbal reasoning) and what is extraordinary (spatial reasoning). The same principle applies when, say, society considers tone-deaf individuals not disabled and word-blind (an old term for dyslexia) disabled. However, social relativity is not the only guiding principle here. Vygotsky, for example, defined intelligence as the “capacity to learn from instruction.” What is the first thing you buy when you prepare your child for school? Books. Because learning in the “left-brain world” precisely means “listening, thinking, reading, writing, spelling, or doing mathematical calculations.”
Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities
It is important to note, however, that modern psycho-educational theories (beginning from Howard Gardner’s pioneering multiple intelligence theory) attempt to push the limits and include formerly “extraordinary” abilities among those that should be in the focus of education. Nancy Mather, a leading disabilities researcher, and educator, was among the first to place non-verbal learning disabilities (inability to manipulate, integrate, and learn from non-verbal information) on the same level among the blocks of learning as verbal LD. Why is this shift so important? Because it proves that we — quite literally — succeed not always “in spite of” difficulties, but rather “because of” them (thank you, Malcolm Gladwell, for spearheading this idea in your wonderful book David and Goliath).
If we truly embrace this view (and, as you can see, research embraced it quite some time ago), we will stop looking for the patterns of weaknesses. But, rather engage in the more compelling quest for the patterns of strengths, which are defined (yes, we live in the left-brain world), but not stigmatized by our relationship with language.
Thank You Darryl
A special thanks for Darryl, who made it possible to introduce Dr Oksana to our readers.
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