ERIC Identifier: ED414434
Publication Date: 1998-00-00
Author: Kerka, Sandra
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult
Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Adults with Learning Disabilities. ERIC Digest No. 189.
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
DEFINITIONS OF LEARNING DISABILITY
The field has not quite
reached consensus on definitions of LD, and there are professionals as well as
members of the public who do not understand them or believe they exist. For
example, in a Roper (1995) survey of 1,200 adults, 85% associated LD with mental
retardation, 66% with deafness, and 60% with blindness. In Rocco's (1997)
research, faculty "questioned the existence of certain conditions or if they
existed, the appropriateness of classifying the condition as a disability" (p.
158). However, most definitions describe learning disabilities as a group of
disorders that affect the ability to acquire and use listening, speaking,
reading, writing, reasoning, or math skills (Gerber and Reiff 1994; National
Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center 1995a; National Center for
Learning Disabilities 1997). These difficulties vary in severity, may persist
across the lifespan, and may affect one or more areas of a person's life,
including learning, work, and social and emotional functioning.
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).
SUCCESSFUL ADJUSTMENT FOR ADULTS WITH LD
Adults with LD may
face challenges in several areas of life, including education, employment, daily
routines, and social interactions. However, many are able to make successful
life adjustments. Research has recently been directed toward learning what
factors help these adults succeed. Most of these studies used such measures of
success as educational attainment, income, job level, and job and life
satisfaction. Success was influenced by educational experiences and personal
characteristics/background. Educational factors included the following: high
school completion; quality of elementary-secondary education; quality of
postsecondary education, training, and services; and a shift from a remedial to
a compensatory approach in special education (Gerber and Reiff 1994). Successful
college students with LD (Telander 1994) had previous college experience (i.e.,
they had tried college more than once), took a lighter course load, had more
high school English courses, and sought help with study skills.
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.
STRATEGIES AND SUPPORTS FOR ADULTS WITH LEARNING
Adults with LD need a range of skills and abilities to manage
their disabilities in education, training, and employment situations.
Appropriate assessment is the starting point for all other strategies and
techniques. Teachers who suspect learners may have a disability can be trained
in screening methods that will help them recognize when more formal diagnosis is
necessary (NALLD 1995b). Teachers may observe that (1) adult learners have
average/above average ability but demonstrate unexpected underachievement; (2)
what appear to be problems with vision or hearing are not the result of physical
impairments; or (3) behavioral or psychological manifestations (attention,
concentration, organization) interfere with learning. Error patterns in reading,
writing, speaking, and math may help differentiate between possible LD and other
causes of low achievement. If screening results suggest LD, educators should
refer adults to professionals trained in formal assessment. Assessments should
be appropriate for adults as well as culturally sensitive. The most significant
problem for minority persons with LD is cultural bias in assessment, according
to Gregg et al. (1996).
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
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