In the 1990s, more attention has been focused on adults with learning disabilities (LD) as a result of increased advocacy and research, several major federal laws, and heightened awareness of the changing demands of the workplace. Until now, most programs, research, and funding had been directed toward children, although it is clear that most people do not outgrow learning disabilities (Gerber and Reiff 1994). This digest looks at current definitions of learning disabilities, the experiences of adults with LD, factors influencing their successful adjustment to adult life, and strategies for adult educators and counselors.
Federal regulations for implementing the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act use the term "specific learning disabilities"--disorders in one or more central nervous system processes involved in perceiving, understanding, and using verbal or nonverbal information (Gerber and Reiff 1994). "Specific" indicates that the disability affects only certain learning processes. Although adults with LD consistently describe themselves as being labeled stupid or slow learners (Brown, Druck, and Corcoran in Gerber and Reiff 1994), they usually have average or above average intelligence.
People with learning disabilities are the largest segment of the disability population, and growing numbers of college students identify themselves as having LD (Gerber and Reiff 1994). Estimates of the numbers of people affected by LD range from 5-20% of the population (Gadbow and DuBois 1998; Gerber and Reiff 1994), meaning that as many as 5 million, 11 million, or 30 million adults have LD. One reason for the variance is misidentification. African-Americans and Hispanics are often inappropriately diagnosed with LD, such as speakers of African-American English whose language may be considered substandard or deficient by assessors (Gregg et al. 1996). There is also the "unresolved question yet persistent belief that one half" of all adults with low literacy skills in fact have learning disabilities (Gerber and Reiff 1994, p. 121).
Personal and background factors were also important for successful adjustment. Most successful adults had relatively moderate LD and higher than average IQ, came from above average socioeconomic backgrounds, and had social and psychological support systems (Gerber and Reiff 1994; Greenbaum et al. 1996). They were knowledgeable about their disability and creative in compensatory strategies, took control of their lives, were goal oriented and persistent, and chose environments that suited their abilities and disabilities (Reiff et al. 1995; Telander 1994).
In Gerber, Reiff, and Ginsberg's research (Gerber and Reiff 1994; Gerber et al. 1996; Reiff et al. 1995), the most important factor was "reframing." Reframing means reinterpreting a situation in a productive, positive way. For adults with LD, the stages of reframing are recognizing the disability, accepting it, understanding it and its implications, and taking action. Highly successful adults used reframing, moderately successful ones did not progress through all four stages to the same extent as the highly successful, and the marginally adjusted group did it unsuccessfully or not at all (Gerber et al. 1996). The researchers concluded that success entailed a continuous process of confronting one's strengths and weaknesses and making adjustments.
Once a learning disability is identified, three categories of assistance are psychosocial, technological and educational. In the psychosocial area, an individual's self-esteem can suffer from years of internalizing labels of stupidity and incompetence and experiencing dependence, fear, anxiety, or helplessness. Four ways to strengthen self-esteem (NALLD 1994) are "awareness" (knowing about and documenting the disability), "assessment" (understanding the disability and one's strengths and weaknesses), "accommodation" (knowing what compensatory strategies and techniques help), and "advocacy" (knowing their legal rights and services for which they qualify).
Schools and workplaces offer some accommodations to help with academic and vocational adjustment. However, less attention is paid to social and emotional functioning (Telander 1994). Social competence--dealing with pressure, change, or criticism; holding conversations; using receptive and expressive language and appropriate humor; being able to make inferences; and being sensitive to others' feelings and moods--is sometimes impaired by cognitive processing difficulties. These social skills impairments may be reinforced by isolation and negative experiences. Adults with LD may also experience frustration, anger, and other emotions arising from academic and social failures, rejection, and the attitudes of others. Laws and accommodations "will only partially redress discrimination of persons with learning disabilities if social/emotional function" is not addressed (Gerber and Reiff 1994, p. 80).
Assistive technology, "any technology that enables an adult with learning disabilities to compensate for specific deficits" (Gerber and Reiff 1994, p. 152), has great potential. Many software developments that were not specifically designed for persons with disabilities are proving to be of great assistance in increasing, maintaining, or improving functioning. Assistive technology ranges from low to high tech, the choice depending on the individual, the function to be performed, and the context (Riviere 1996). Examples include the following (Gerber and Reiff 1994; Riviere 1996): (1) for organization, memory, time management problems--highlighters, beepers, digital watches, tape recorders, personal management software; (2) for auditory processing--FM amplification devices, electronic notebooks, computer-aided real-time translation, voice synthesizers, videotapes with closed captioning, variable speech control tape recorders; (3) for visual processing--software display controls, books on disk; (4) for reading--scanners with speech synthesizers that read back text, books on tape and disk, CD-ROMs; and (5) for writing--word processing tools such as spelling and grammar checkers, abbreviation expanders, brainstorming/outlining software. Distance learning networks and the World Wide Web are beginning to be explored for their potential in compensating for disabilities.
As for educational strategies, adult educators should foster an inclusive learning environment that includes sensitivity, attitudes, awareness, accommodations. Other techniques are described by Gadbow and DuBois (1998): providing notetakers, using activities that represent a variety of learning styles, permitting technological devices, providing alternative testing arrangements, extending time allowed for assignments, minimizing distractions, asking learners what accommodations they need. Rocco (1997) suggests that discussion of disability issues be encouraged in adult education, that disability be included in examining the characteristics that bestow or deny power, and that educators reflect critically on innovative ways to assist learners who learn differently, whether or not they are classified as having a learning disability.
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