What is a learning disability (LD)?
A learning disability (LD) is a disorder that affects the way individuals with normal or above-normal intelligence record, store, organize, retrieve, and use information. Common types of LDs are dyslexia (affects reading), dysgraphia (affects writing), and dyscalculia (affects mathematical calculations). People with an LD can also have difficulties processing information in auditory, visual, or spatial form. The origins and causes of LDs are not known, although many feel it is a neurological disorder.
How is an LD diagnosed?
An LD diagnosis is determined by an evaluation consisting of a battery of aptitude and academic achievement tests administered by a licensed
medical/mental health professional, usually a psychologist or a psychiatrist. This process often includes a medical, psychological, and education history to determine other contributing factors and to gain an understanding of the person’s academic and life functioning. Testing can be expensive and is often not covered by insurance. Testing also
requires a time commitment since the process can take several months from start to finish. Once someone undergoes the battery of tests and other evaluations, a summary report is provided with a diagnosis if applicable and recommendations for academic and vocational settings.
Is poor classroom performance a sign of an LD?
Not always. There are many reasons why some students do not do well in school. While someone with an LD may be experiencing difficulties,such as receiving poor exam grades, in an
academic setting, students without an LD often face the same difficulties. The opposite is also true. Students with an LD graduate with honors, go on to medical school, become lawyers, scientists, and college instructors. Many times an instructor won’t even know a student has an LD. In fact, people with an LD generally have above average to superior IQs, and one of the signs of an LD is a significant discrepancy between a person’s IQ and his or her performance on an achievement test. For example, a person with dyslexia may achieve perfect scores on graduate-level exams but spell at an 8th-grade level. The spelling isn’t due to lack of intellect but to a processing disorder. Thus, it can’t be assumed that every student with poor classroom performance has an LD.
What are the signs that someone has an LD?
Students with LDs generally have been diagnosed at an earlier point in their education, such as in grade school, but this is not always the case. If a student is having problems in a class, the most important step is to have a thorough conversation with that student as to his or her perceptions of the problem. Simply present your concerns to the student. For example, “You’ve been getting Ds on all your exams, and your essays have common grammatical errors.” The student’s response is crucial. Is the student working two jobs plus taking a full course load? Is the student in need of more study and review time? Is the student unsure of why he or she is not doing well and does he or she claim to be putting in adequate time? Some common things to look out for are the following: poor organizational skills, difficulty with short- or long-term memory, discrepancies between what the student knows and how he or she performs on exams, trouble conveying information verbally but not in writing (or vice versa), common yet consistent spelling errors, and trouble understanding what’s been read or said in class.
What should I do if I suspect a student has an LD?
The most important thing to do is to meet with the student and discuss your concerns. Again, state observable facts over speculations. For example, “I’ve noticed you make a lot of spelling errors” is a good way to initiate the discussion. Saying “I think you have dyslexia” can be off-putting to a student or serve as a premature and possibly inaccurate diagnosis. If the student reports having a history of an LD, refer him or her to the SDS office. If the student is uncertain as to why he or she is having trouble in class the SDS office may be able to help figure it out. If there is a suspicion of an LD, the office can talk to the student about this in more detail.
What happens once I send the student to SDS?
SDS staff will sit with the student and help sort through his or her concerns. Questions will be asked to help the student gain further understanding into his or her academic difficulties. For example, “Which specific tasks are easy in your history class, and which are hard?” We ask students directly why they suspect they have an LD. We also ask students if they have ever been diagnosed before.
What can the SDS office do?
If a student has not been diagnosed but has an interest in being tested, we can discuss this. Our role is to provide information as a starting point for the student to further explore this area. We can discuss what to expect out of an LD evaluation in terms of time, cost, process, etc. If the student has been diagnosed we ask the student to bring in his or her documentation for review and discussion. Once the documentation is received, we talk with the student about what services will benefit him or her.
What kind of help is available to a student with an LD?
Help can be divided into two main areas: (1) Academic accommodations (sometimes called adjustments) and (2) learning assistance. Academic
adjustments are required under federal law for students with disabilities. Details as to this process can be found in the section, How to Obtain Accommodations. Common academic accommodations for students with disabilities include extended exam time, use of a computer for in-class essays, books-on-tape, private exam location, tape recording of lectures, and preferential seating. These legally mandated accommodations will be listed on an Academic Adjustment Notice from the SDS office, which will be signed by both the student and SDS staff and hand-delivered to you by the student. Please see the handbook for additional details.
Learning strategies are ways the students can be helped, but they are not legally required accommodations. That means that, while you don’t have to do these things, they can help. An example of a common strategy is meeting one on one during office hours with the student to be sure that he or she understands instructions for assignments. Although this is something any student has the right to request from an instructor, and any student can benefit from. Also, for a student with an LD, this is often a crucial step in achieving academic success. Of course, this meeting has to be initiated by the student.
Should students with LDs be graded differently?
Absolutely not. Students with LDs have a right to be held to the same standards as other student. This includes being graded on the same criteria. As long as accommodations are provided, academic success is up to the student. The accommodation process is designed to equalize the playing field so students with LDs have the same chance of success as other students. To grade students with LDs differently is discriminatory, as is lowering standards in other ways such as requiring fewer or less demanding assignments. However, you can still treat these students the same as others by developing extra-credit assignments, alternative assignments, extensions, etc.
What if a student with an LD is not doing well in my class?
Treat the student as you would any other student who is not doing well. Have a conversation with him or her. See if the he or she is taking advantage of available resources such as the Writing Center. Refer the student to SDS if the student has an LD and needs accommodations.
What if the student is receiving accommodations but is still not doing well?
If a student is not doing well even with accommodations, discuss this with the student and see if there are any suggestions you can make to help the student and/or support services available. Also, notify the Student Disability Services office so they can meet with the student and determine if additional or alternative accommodations may be helpful.
Does the SDS office offer testing?
SDS does not do evaluations, but we can refer students to outside agencies that do if it is appropriate. It is important to note that testing can be expensive and may require planning on the part of the student. Testing also takes time. The student has to research and select an evaluator, schedule an intake, and then go through the testing process. It is not unusual for the process to take several months and to involve multiple visits. Also, there is no guarantee as to the outcome of an evaluation, meaning it may be determine that the student does not have a learning disability.
What if I need more information?
Additional information about working with students with disabilities is available from the Office of Student Disability Services. Any questions or concerns should be brought to the attention of Jason Luchs, director for Student Disability Services, 80 Fifth Avenue, 3rd floor, 212.229.5626.