As part of the course, each student investigated a community resource in order to determine services, accommodations, or allowances for adults with learning disabilities. Some of the community resources included the Goodwill, Department of Motor Vehicles, State Board of Elections, Richmond Public Libraries, and Virginia Employment Commission to name a few. I concluded after last night’s class that if I knew someone with a learning disability who needed special services, the Goodwill is the number one place to go. I was blown away at the amount of programs, workshops, and trainings for adults with all types of disabilities, but specifically for someone with LD, ADD, or BD. I mentioned in class how much I appreciate this assignment because I want to be able to refer someone to the appropriate place if I ever needed to for my job, family, or friends. I was again reminded of how sad it can be for someone who is learning disabled and wants to be able to drive, vote, do library research, or receive unemployment benefits. It was incredibly hard for some students to even reach a real person when exploring certain community resources. I imagined the extra time and effort one would need to put in if he or she had a learning disability. At the Library of Virginia, the Archives’ employee implied that a research library isn’t the place for someone who can’t read well. I then wondered how many successful historians with learning disabilities are out there that have encountered difficulties looking at primary source material. Or, maybe successful historians with learning disabilities used their learned creativity skills and mastered the art of collections research. I concluded that the type of service and accommodations available to adults with learning disabilities may depend upon funding, employee knowledge, and type of facility. For instance, Goodwill is a for-profit organization that uses its revenue for various programming efforts, such as resume review, job skills training, and basic math, reading, or writing courses. The Virginia Employment Commission, on the other hand, did not offer any special accommodations for someone with a learning disability online or via phone. The main city branch library serves a more diverse population as opposed to the Library of Virginia and other smaller, branch libraries. For this reason, the Richmond Public library’s main branch provided an adult reference section with audio books for adults with learning disabilities. I think the more knowledge employees have on this subject, the better they can serve the learning disabled population. I am reminded of one of the readings on ADA implementation efforts that involved employee training programs in order to better educate workers on the various types of learning disabilities. The more knowledgeable an institution on this subject, the better they can be at implementing advocacy programs and accommodations of various types.
This class prompted me to embark on a case study. I have a close friend who I’ve known since high school. Her name is Lindsay and she has severe ADD. In this blog, I will write about her experiences as an adult with a learning disability using Dr. Gerber’s degree of success model as a template. I became inspired by the readings on highly successful adults with learning disabilities. I wanted to know more about individuals in my life who have learning disabilities. Lindsay and I’s talk helped place things in perspective when I reflected back on our years of friendship. For example, I sometimes got angry when Lindsay cancelled plans last minute because she overbooked herself or I was confused at her inability to sit through a movie with me growing up. I always appreciated her for who she is, but I now appreciate her even more and what she has been able to accomplish in her life. Her guiding principles in life remind me that persistence, desire, and reframing are not concepts specific to adults with learning disabilities – they apply to all of us.
Lindsay’s rate of self-awareness grows the older she gets. Her markers of success are not defined by employment standards, marriage or family. Lindsay is not interested in setting career or family goals; instead, Lindsay is driven by Ironman competitions. Ironman competitions are triathlon races that involved swimming 2.4 miles, then hopping on a bike for 112 miles, and finishing up with a 26.2 mile run. When asked about long term goals, she said “Sure. That sounds like a great idea. That may last like 2 days and then I quit because it’s boring…Questions like where I’m going to be in five years – I have no idea. If I had to pick, maybe short term goals.” She found her niche competing in triathlons at age 28 (she’s now 30). She raced in three Ironmans in 1 year and is about to race her fourth in Chattanooga, TN later this summer. When she completed her most recent half Ironman (70.3 miles) in May 2014, she finished top 10 in her age group. She said, ” I enjoy that stuff… that kind of stuff is fun because I get off by doing well and people recognizing that I’ve done well… When I didn’t have good grades as a child, I thought I sucked…”
Lindsay was diagnosed with ADD in the fifth grade. She defined ADD as having a short attention span and a hard time concentrating. She also gets easily frustrated when she doesn’t know something, and has a tendency to give up easily. She said simply “I just don’t have the patience.” In elementary school, Lindsay received terrible grades and was “in and out of trouble…a lot.” Lindsay described an incident where she got in trouble for yelling at a student for not wearing her P.E. shoes. As a result, the class couldn’t go outside for recess. Lindsay made the other student cry and found herself in trouble again. She described another incident in which she was the only student who was “written up” for bad behavior by a substitute teacher. Lindsay’s fifth grade teacher encouraged her parents to get her tested for ADD. Lindsay’s teacher noticed Lindsay sat in the front row, asked questions, paid attention for about 30 seconds, and then she was “gone off into space.” Her fifth grade teacher’s son was diagnosed with ADD and she noticed similar symptoms in Lindsay. In middle school, Lindsay began taking Ritalin for her ADD. Suddenly, Lindsay started making good grades. She said “I started making a routine for myself. I’d come home after school, have a snack, study, eat dinner, and then study some more. I was determined to make straight A’s.” Lindsay went from straight D’s to straight A’s. Lindsay never recalled having a hard time making friends or feeling left out socially. In fact, her mom told her that she always had a lot of friends compared to her siblings. Lindsay made friends easily. In both childhood and adulthood, she said “People like me …and I’m funny..I’m so sporadic and keep it entertaining so people like to be around me.”
Lindsay’s ADD affects her ability to take tests. For this reason, her SAT scores were low. Lindsay submitted documentation for her disability to Longwood when it came time to apply for colleges. Longwood accepted her into their Plus Program. The program is designed for students with learning disabilities. Instead of going to freshmen seminar once a week like the non-disabled students, Lindsay went twice a week. She also had smaller class sizes. As part of the program, professors were automatically notified and provided accommodations like extra time on tests and separate testing rooms. After graduation, Lindsay stopped taking her medication. She has landed a number of successful positions and recently made another career move. Lindsay’s passion for racing prompted her to apply for a job at a company called RaceIt. Her official title is Sales Representative and she helps sell online registration platforms for endurance events.
Even though the job is in the a field she is passionate about, she still struggles with her ADD in an employment setting. For example, she was trying to put together a PowerPoint presentation for her boss, but couldn’t figure out how to move a text box. Instead of taking the time to figure it out, she sent the PowerPoint to her boss for him to fix. She said that her boss was “dumbfounded” that she didn’t know how to move a textbox in PowerPoint. A few months into her new job, she disclosed her ADD to her boss and requested her office be moved to a separate room. She finds it difficult to make cold calls to potential clients when others are walking by. Overall, I’m amazed at her willingness to take advantage of accommodations even though she isn’t formally aware of the ADA laws that protect those rights. Part of her reframing involves self-advocacy. She knows how she works best and what accommodations are necessary for increased productivity.
During the interview Lindsay said “I was not an athlete growing up, but I found something I like to do and keep to it.” In terms of the social ecologies on the success spectrum, Lindsay doesn’t see herself needing a huge support group. In fact, she reminds me of Chuck Close in that she said “I just cope with it and move on.” She knows she has many gifts and talents and that it’s a continual self-discovery process. She opened up that it’s taken years to improve her self-confidence. Adding to the hardships of ADD as a child, she believes her birth order may have affected how she perceived herself. She was the middle child. Her older sister was gifted in school and her younger brother excelled at sports. In adulthood, she discovered that the triathlons provide the variety she was looking for. For this reason, she is very successful. She also gets to push herself and enjoys “seeing what I’m made of.” When it comes to Ironman races, she says, “It’s all about me that day.. I get to set my own rules. I don’t like being told what to do and how to do it…In employment, I need to have help…triathlons are easier to figure things out on my own.”
After our discussion, I”m even more convinced that development and learning is a lifelong process; learning disabilities evolve throughout one’s lifespan. For Lindsay, persistence, self-determination, goodness-of-fit, and desire developed in adulthood. Just yesterday, Lindsay passed a test to become a level one CrossFit trainer. She requested her own room and extra time to verbally process the information. She texted me after she passed the test and I thought her text perfectly supported Dr. Gerber’s research on highly successful adults with learning disabilities. She wrote, “Yeah! I’m proud! Now I can coach what I love to do – see I’ll find a way to get to do what I really want…even if it takes me a little longer…” Well done, Lindsay!
Prior to learning about adults who have learning disabilities and social skills deficits, I had an image of an adult like Gavin Newsom, who is a politician and has dyslexia. The image consists of a suave “people-person” shaking hands, picking up on social cues from others, and hanging out with friends or even strangers on any given day. The non-disabled adults have no idea Gavin Newsom has a disability because his social skills are outstanding; he’s able to interact with people normally and no one can know about his disability in adulthood unless he chooses to self-disclose. Or, I have friends and family that have AD/HD and operate just fine in social situations. On the other hand, those adults who have social LD lack social perception and cognition; therefore, he or she cannot make sense of social cues (like picking up on facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language). If one cannot make sense of the social cues, then he or she may have a strange response that doesn’t fit the situation. After last night’s class, I now think having social LD may be the most difficult type of learning disability (if you had to rank them) because our society is built on relationships – businesses, education, employment, community programs, friendship circles, marriage & family, etc. There’s not much a person can do without needing to involve social communication. Dr. Gerber mentioned in class that “no one talks in slow motion” and communication is a very dynamic process. An adult who has a hard time processing nonverbal elements of social interaction may not understand what the other person is trying to say or have trouble expressing what he or she means (Reiff, 1999). The invisibility concept is gone when it comes to a person who has social LD because it’s quickly apparent when someone acts peculiar or doesn’t seem quite right. As a result, these types of adults are often left isolated and have limited social circles, which saddens me. I’m such a extrovert and feed off social interaction that I can’t imagine feeling alone, confused, or uncomfortable about fitting in or developing relationships with others. Luckily, there are coping mechanisms and support groups available to help adults with social skills deficits. Now that I’m educated on adults with social disabilities, I can be more sensitive to others who may seem “off” socially and not immediately “write them off” after an awkward encounter. Also, from a parent perspective, last night’s class allowed me the opportunity think about ways I’m explaining basic social norms to my daughter. She’s only a toddler, but she can definitely understand a lot more than she speaks. I like the idea of parents or mentors doing “social autopsies” on their children with social perception and cognition issues. It’s important to break down the very basics to a child or adult with social LD, so she or she can understand what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong in any given situation. In other words, those with social LD aren’t simply going to pick up on the nonverbal cues from parents, instructors, mentors, etc. Thus, sensitive and objective feedback is paramount (Reiff, 1999).
As part of class, we needed to interview two adults. One adult could be from the general public and the other needed to be a supervisor. The assignment objective was to assess their knowledge about adults with learning disabilities, behavioral disabilities, and ADD. We came up with the interview questions as a class, which were the same for each interviewee. In class last night, each student presented their responses. The majority of the interviewees were employed in education fields (both secondary and higher ed). We all concluded that most higher education professionals are highly aware of necessary accommodations available to students who disclose a learning disability. Most in education are also aware of the laws that protect those rights for students. However, those in education find it difficult to decipher sometimes vague Disability Support Services letters. In other words, more training about adults with disabilities still needs to be provided to employers and instructors in order to best serve that population.
Both the class discussions and the readings got me thinking about ADA implementation efforts since 1992 and how much professionals are not widely trained on types of learning disabilities and the kinds of modifications needed. I think most professionals and supervisors want to help and are willing to hire employees with learning disabilities; however, employers are still confused on what that type of service may look like depending upon the individual and disability. I feel as though it comes down to both proper employee training and self-advocacy from employees with learning disabilities.
The concept of “marketing yourself” as a learning disabled adult is probably the most important aspect I’ve learned in this class. After school age years are over, most employees don’t know the specifics about each learning disability. In addition to the lack of knowledge or awareness about learning disabilities, employers generally don’t know learning disabilities manifest themselves in different ways for different individuals. Due to the complexity of the topic, it’s hard to say that employees need to become experts on the subject if they ever encounter a person with a disability; however, I do agree with the notion that some educational training on learning disabilities is appropriate in order to implement better programs and professional development initiatives (Position paper of the NJCLD). The ADA and Section 504 do not outline who is responsible for carrying out the responsibility to prepare businesses and industries for the “many dimensions of learning disabilities in the workplace.” (ADA Response paper). Therefore, there is still a lot that needs to be done to better improve implementation efforts.
Lastly, I feel it’s the job of the employee with a learning disability to self-advocate. They have to have a certain amount of self-awareness (or move through certain stages of reframing) to know what modifications are necessary in the workplace that allow for maximum productivity and efficiency. Both employee training programs and self-aware adults with disabilities is the perfect combination for successful adjustment in any adult context, but especially in an employment or post-secondary setting.
In class last night we focused on extraordinary people with learning disabilities. After each presentation, I kept repeating to myself, “wow, these people are amazing.” Class presentations included successful adults like Diane Swonk, Gavin Newsom, Chuck Close, Jack Horner, and Gaston Caperton to name a few. What I found amazing was their list of accomplishments and unbelievable drive. I didn’t even focus on the learning disabilities last night as much as I did their remarkable intelligence and creativity. For example, Diane Swonk’s ability to do complex, high level microecnomics and macroeconmics and articulate a complicated forecast to the average American. Or, Chuck Close’s ability to paint huge canvas portraits using a grid technique. Regardless of their learning disability, these human beings were incredible to learn about.
Another theme I took away from last night’s class was the fact that these individuals considered their learning disability a gift. Diane Swonk actually credits her dyslexia for her success. Her learning disability allows her to think multidimensionally versus linearly; therefore, she can think in large scale, macro economic terms. This type of high level thinking gets her the title of most accurate forecaster each year by the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, and others. Gavin Newsom credits his dyslexia for remarkable memory retention. He can actually memorize hour-long political speeches in his head. This theme is directly related to Dr. Gerber and Dr. Reiff’s degree of success model because each adult had the ability to “reframe” their disability. In other words, each highly successful adult recognized the disability, accepted it, understood it, and took action. I’m amazed at how comfortable and positive each individual was about their learning disability. They knew who they were, but most importantly, they knew who they weren’t. In other words, they knew their strengths and weaknesses, and decided to capitalize on their strengths. I found myself writing down a quote or two from Diane Swonk’s interview with Dr. Gerber because to be able to accept yourself and play to your strengths are universal truths for anyone to live by. These extraordinary adults’ determination and learned creativity sets them apart from most adults. Finally, “goodness of fit” was another theme to last night’s class. These highly successful adults placed themselves in an environment where their skills and abilities could be optimized (Reiff & Gerber, 1992, pg. 462). Each adult chose environments where he or she could “control their destiny.” Again, their remarkable self-awareness led them to choose the perfect setting to excel.
After reach class, I leave with a whole new appreciation and sensitivity to adults with learning disabilities. I often wonder if I’ve advised a highly successful student with a learning disability and never knew it. What kinds of amazing things are they doing now or going to do after graduating from VCU? Or, could I have advised a student who did poorly in college, but will go on to be the next Chuck Close or Richard Branson? This class has prompted to embark on a case study. I have a close friend who I’ve known since sophomore year in high school who has severe ADD/ADHD. In my next blog, I will write about her experiences as a adult with a learning disability using the degree of success model. She is someone who I consider highly successful despite her learning disability.
In our second class, Dr. Gerber provided us the opportunity to participate in a learning disability simulation. The opportunity was designed to help the class see the issue from the inside out. We defined learning disabilities in our first class, but the opportunity to experience it firsthand greatly contributed to my knowledge and understanding of individuals with a learning disability. In To Kill A Mockingbird (1960), Atticus Finch tells Scout, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it..” (Lee, pg. 85-87). The learning disability simulation allowed me to better understand the emotional insecurity and self-doubt that often accompanies adults with LD. The first activity involved us looking at an image and raising our hands when we’ve figured out what it says. When I saw hands fly up in class, I panicked because I didn’t want to be the last one to raise my hand. I didn’t want to be called out in public. I didn’t want to feel different. Feelings of uncertainty instantly crept into my head. The second activity involved us reading a paragraph that was written backwards. The entire time Dr. Gerber kept pressuring us to let him know when we’ve finished. Again, I stressed about the time it took me to grasp each word. The simulation allowed me to empathize with the 5-20% of the country’s population who are affected by learning disabilities and heightened my awareness of the emotional toll it can have on an adult (LD Online, 2005).
Afterwards, when Dr. Gerber asked us questions about the passage we read, the comprehension piece was difficult because I spent so much time deciphering each word. The simulation reinforced the notion that comprehension and analysis are only possible after each word is decoded and understood. However, I consider myself to have average intelligence, which is similar to those who are learning disabled. I realized that I had the ability to comprehend the passage, but I simply needed more time. Sometimes, that can be all that’s needed for an adult with a specific type of learning disability. Other accommodations exist depending upon the type of disability. The most important way to strengthen self-esteem for adults with LD is to understand the disability and advocate legal rights and services that may apply under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (LD Online, 2005).
We live in a highly competitive society where our success is marked by achievements (i.e. degrees, certifications, academic awards). What kind of a world does this present to someone with a learning disability, especially in the employment sector? I especially enjoyed the reading on successful adjustment for adults with LD. Success means “reframing” the disability in a productive and positive way by “confronting one’s strengths and weakenesses and making adjustments” (LD Online, 2005). Shouldn’t everyone be doing this during each phase of their life? It sounds more like a universal principle instead of one restricted to adults with LD. Nevertheless, the researchers make an excellent point that it’s a continuous process and managing a disability means appropriate assessment and strategy (LD Online, 2005).
Having grown up the daughter of a Special Education teacher, I thought I acquired the appropriate knowledge and sensitivity about those with learning disabilities (LD). After Dr. Gerber’s first class, I now realize I had very little knowledge about the heterogeneity of learning disabilities and the differences among adults with LD depending upon their phase of life (Gerber, 1998). My mother taught elementary and middle school children with learning disabilities in Reading and English. My mom would invite her students to our house for an “end of the year” party. As a kid, I remember playing with her students with disabilities in our backyard. I never knew what their disability was because I couldn’t see any physical signs. I remember thinking they are just like me. The only way I knew they had a disability was because they were in my mom’s class. After I graduated from college, I did some substitute teaching at my mom’s middle school in Henrico County. I subbed for her and got to know her students well. Some of her students were in collaborative classrooms and others were in self-contained classes (depending upon the severity of the disability). I recall observing my mom’s students in P.E. playing basketball one day and thought that the non-disabled students have no idea my mom’s students could only read and/or write at a 3rd grade level. These students should have graduated from high school by now and I wonder what their experience has been into adulthood. I now know that a learning disability in adulthood presents different challenges and issues because “the experience of being learning disabled varies as an individual progresses through various levels of development” (Gerber, 1998). I wonder if some went on to post-secondary education or found employment. I wonder if they suffer from low self-esteem like many adults with LD or if they are the exception.
In my current job as a college academic advisor, I meet individually with over 200 students twice each semester in order to help them achieve academic and career goals. I can count on one hand how many of my students self-disclosed their learning disability (mainly ADD or ADHD). If they did self-disclose, they often treated it as though it was not a big deal. When I suggested they go by Disability Support Services (DSS) to receive appropriate accommodations, those students felt as though accommodations were not necessary. Out of the handful that self-disclosed to me in a meeting, none went to DSS to receive official university accommodations. One student told me they met individually with the instructor to receive extra time on a test and preferred to treat his LD on a class by class basis (in other words, he wanted to take a first test in the course to determine if he could be successful without accommodations). ADLT 688’s class discussions and readings support my experience with students with LD who often don’t know how to constructively disclose their disability, especially after their K-12 years. Adults with LD view their disability as a negative experience rather than a positive motivator for success (Gerber, 1998).
The first class heightened my awareness and increased my knowledge about adults with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. I’m anxious to learn more about older adults adaptive techniques used in employment, family life, social situations, and even into retirement years.