For many students, learning disabilities may have a mild, moderate or severe impact on their educational experience. Since the 1970s, schools have been looking at students’ performance, comparing them with their peers and determining if they qualify for special education services. For those who are fortunate enough to obtain the skills and support they need to graduate, often developing their own coping strategies, there are several paths that they may follow after exiting the public school system for higher education or the workplace.
Alison Canty has worked as a civil rights investigator for the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. In the South Washington County School District that she graduated from, she was a retention and recruitment coordinator working to retain staff of color. She also coordinated their teacher cadet program, working to identify students in the school district considering teaching careers and convincing them to return to teach in their own school districts.
Canty says that challenges faced by people with learning disabilities don’t end after leaving the educational system. She has experienced such challenges in her own work life.
“[Some employers] have an idea of what accommodation means,” she says of organizations that create amenities to assist those with disabilities. Others do not acknowledge the need “even though I have a master’s degree, a human resources graduate certification, a bachelor’s degree, and all this education to try to prove to employers that I am just as capable as anyone else who may not have [a learning disability].”
An employer once told Canty when she asked for time off for testing to determine a learning disability that her position would not be there for her when she returned. Canty is an example of students with a learning disability who are not diagnosed during their public school years. She has auditory dyslexia.
“Information comes in and goes though [my] brain, and how I write it out may not be exactly how I heard it.” Though Canty excels at public speaking, if she had to create the same written response it would take her a much longer time. After several edited drafts, she says, the finished product would be the same.
In the district she graduated from, she says educators thought it would be more socially damaging to separate a child from kids in their age group than to hold them back a grade because they hadn’t mastered grade-level goals. As a result, she graduated from high school by developing coping strategies for a learning disability she wasn’t even aware she had.
When learning disabilities are identified, supports for students are not limited to the schools. Dorothy Heidelberger is a vocational rehabilitation counselor with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. She works with students in all South Minneapolis schools.
While disabled students are in their junior and senior years of high school, Heidelberger does a vocational assessment, attends Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings, and reviews previous school records in order to first make sure they graduate from high school, and second to create individualized transitional plans to employment or post-secondary education.
In her post-secondary career, Canty bounced around to different learning institutions, but most of the students Heidelberger sees will exit high school unprepared for a university or college. “Typically, especially in Minneapolis, we are graduating students in special ed that do not read at the fifth-grade level,” she says.
Technical colleges require an eighth-grade reading level, and other programs require at least a sixth-grade reading level, often with a higher math level. So, students’ inability to read and write blocks their chances of broadening their marketable skills after they graduate.
In an effort to reduce special-education determinations based on race, civil rights legislation allows Minneapolis, unlike all other Minnesota school districts, to eliminate actual IQ scores in diagnosing a learning disability due to the test’s cultural bias. Yet, 98 percents of the students Heidelberger sees are on an IEP; 70 percent of those are African American.
It was while Canty was attending St. Catherine’s that she was first told that she may have a learning disability. That’s when she found the Reading Center in Rochester, Minnesota.
Cindy Russell is executive director of the Reading Center: Dyslexia Institute of Minnesota, an organization focused on teaching children and adults to read, write and spell for the past 60 years.
“Understanding how to help people with dyslexia is old business,” Russell says. “It’s just so shocking still that people are not diagnosed. They don’t get the help that we know will help them with the problem.”
The Reading Center recognizes two types of dyslexia. One is visual dyslexia, visual memory that interferes with a person’s ability to translate what they see on the paper into their brain in an organized way. This includes reversing letters and, less commonly, translating a mirror image of letters.
There is also auditory dyslexia, where children are unable to hear the rhyme in rhyming words. “That doesn’t seem like it’s a very big deal,” says Russell, “but if you can’t rhyme, it’s very hard to take a word — ‘hop’ and ‘drop’ — and understand how to put those words together with different initial sounds,” a skill that is essential to learning how to read.
Though Canty came in to get testing for herself, the Reading Center typically sees adults through their children. “When we are conferencing with the parents and describing what learning issues their children are facing, they realize that that’s the very same thing that was happening to them as they were growing up.”
Russell says dyslexia tends to run in families and is very prevalent in the general population. “One in five individuals has a learning disability,” she says, “and 80 percent of those are language learning disabilities.”
Currently schools use a whole-language approach to teach children how to read, relying heavily on phonics, memorizing whole words and reading for the enjoyment of the content. “The problem with that is, if you can’t unlock the code to reading, you can’t enjoy the content,” Russell says.
The Orton-Gillingham approach the Reading Center uses to teach students “breaks down words and sounds into their individual smallest component. It’s structured, it’s sequential, it leaves nothing to guesswork, and then it shows the individual how to put those words together,” says Russell.
Can better understanding dyslexia be an element in helping to bridge the achievement gap? Canty believes so, and for the past four years the Reading Center has been partnering with Rochester Public Schools, taking groups of 20 kindergarten-through-fifth-grade classroom teachers and training them in this different learning approach.
Based on standardized test scores, the approach has made a positive impact. “The data [we] saw last year…showed that of the at-risk readers in the intervention classroom — the group that we taught — 50 percent of them moved out of that at-risk category entirely compared to the control group,” Russell says.
“The great thing about it is that the kids who struggle, struggle a lot less and start to read more normally. And the kids who are going to learn no matter what you do, the kids who are very good at reading, get even better.”
As they often do while they are in the educational system, people with learning disorders often develop their own workplace coping strategies. This might include taking tutoring classes specific to those with learning disabilities and choosing work that minimizes the possibility of relying on weaker skills.
There are also assisted technologies. Text-to-speech technologies allow individuals to scan text to be read to them through a computer, and speech-to-text technologies allow people to speak into a microphone as the words appear on a word processor screen. Relying on a trusted family member, friend or coworker is another coping skill that people often use.
“They’ve learned to use [these coping strategies] on their own before they’ve even gotten to that point where they’re at the workplace,” says Russell. “But there are so many people out there who are undiagnosed. They don’t know [to say,] ‘Hey, I’ve got dyslexia and there are these technologies that can help me.’”
“Trying to find a system that is more helpful for students of color who are struggling and who may have learning disabilities, that might be part of the problem with this achievement gap,” says Canty. “They are being either under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed and then not getting the right services that they need to be successful.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.