Learning Disabilities Advocacy
Bobby* is 9 years old and can barely read. He's already been held back once – he's in second grade and should be in third. His mother, Sandy*, pointing out how well he did in math and other subjects where reading wasn't the primary focus, finally requested that he be tested for a learning disability, but his teacher kept putting it off. Finally, when Sandy gave up on the teacher and went to the principal, the teacher became very defensive. She insisted that the fault was Bobby's and that he had behavioral problems. Sandy was absolutely floored.
"I knew that she and Bobby had been having problems, but her obvious dislike of him at that meeting was almost scary," Sandy says. "I told the principal that much of his problem was that the reading was so over his head that he tended to act out when he was bored and frustrated with not understanding the material. His teacher actually said she thought he was just a brat. I left the meeting in tears, thinking about how difficult it must be for Bobby to be in that class day after day with a teacher like that."
Subsequently, the school psychologist was called in for a consultation. His testing determined that Bobby was a classic dyslexic. The school is still working to put adaptations in place for him to adjust to his learning style. However, he's also more than a year behind his peers and has quite a bit of catching up to do before he gets to a point where he doesn't struggle with material that should be easy for him at his level of development.
The Luck of the Draw
Because Bobby is the oldest child in his family and they're new to their rural Pennsylvania school district, Sandy had never heard of the teacher Bobby was assigned for second grade. After talking to other parents about her frustration in getting help for Bobby, she discovered that Bobby's teacher has a terrible reputation when it comes to working with students who need special educational services. Several parents told her they had actually written to the school when their children were going into second grade to request that they not be in her class. The problem is that she doesn't believe in learning disabilities. As far as she's concerned, if you can't do it, it's because you're not trying.
Rob Langston, author of For the Children: Redefining Success in School and Success in Life (Turnkey Press, November 2002), gets almost choked up when told Bobby's story. In second grade, the grade Bobby is in now, Langston scored an 84 on his IQ test. When he graduated from college, his written language skills were still no better than a third grader's. In spite of that, he is now a successful CEO and businessman and founder of the For the Children Foundation. He also serves on the Georgia Board of Education's Advisory Panel for Special Education. Like Bobby, he's not dumb; he's just dyslexic.
"Once, when I was in 8th grade, I misspelled my middle name. I wrote "Willaim" instead of "William." My 8th grade teacher ridiculed me in front of the class saying, 'I don't know how any student can get to the 8th grade without knowing how to spell his own name.' I was humiliated," Langston says. "There have been many other instances since then when I've run into people – often teachers – who don't 'believe' in learning disabilities. The trick to succeeding is to see these moments as a challenge and don't allow them to destroy your self-confidence."
Becoming the Advocate for Your Child
Unfortunately, most kids don't naturally have the confidence to advocate for themselves, and Langston didn't either. What he did have was his mother, who wasn't afraid to take on the school system. Although she had no formal training in learning disabilities, she understood instinctively that her son was very intelligent but the reading- and writing-oriented intelligence tests simply couldn't register his type of intelligence. She passed that attitude on to her son as well, always making sure he never felt stupid. She used that approach with the schools he went to as well, researching teachers for each upcoming year, meeting with them and making sure they understood her son's limitations and abilities.
Langston wants to turn that individualized attention into the rule, rather than the exception. He has become an advocate not just for children with learning disabilities, but also for the idea of a radical change in the education system. This would keep kids like Bobby out of classes where the teacher is unwilling to work with the child.
"The future of education is special education for everyone," Langston says. "In other words, an education that is tailored to the individual whether they have learning problems or not. For example, a child who has maybe only been in this country a couple of years has one issue; a gifted child has another. There's no reason we can't set a precedent."
Right now, Langston says, the process of special education is hampered by a paperwork-oriented approach that creates long waiting lists for testing as well as kicking in well after a child has begun to fail. This creates problems with a child's self-esteem that can seriously hamper his attempts to focus on overcoming the learning disability. Because of this, our society pays on the back end for what we should be paying for on the front end.
"In New York something like 90 percent of all incarcerated individuals are dropouts," Langston says. "It costs $60,000 per year to incarcerate them. What if we took that $60,000 and gave it to the school and told them the money was to make sure that child was never incarcerated? All of a sudden, I bet we could do something. The question is: Do we want to spend that money on the front end or the back end?"
When the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA) was first implemented more than 25 years ago, the focus was on children with more obvious disabilities, such as mental retardation. It has since been refined to the point that it now includes a variety of learning and developmental disabilities. However, as Langston points out, because it is a federal program, there is "enough paperwork to choke a horse." Langston thinks that teachers should be more responsible for the success or failure of their students, and that every student should have an advocate – whether it be a parent, a school aide or someone appointed by the child's county.
He is involved with several programs where parents work as mentors for other parents to help them through the often bewildering maze of special education requirements. What he would eventually like to see is a national parent-mentor program that will offer resources and act as a buffer between the parent and the school in this often emotional journey.
And it is a journey, one that Langston is still on.
"I'm still trying to learn to read and write English properly even today," Langston says. "The future of special education is to understand that no one is learning disabled – they just learn differently, and we need to figure out how best to teach them."
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.