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Learning Disabilities Explained (Again!)

education-disabilities-girl-at-computerIt happened again, this time on a train! A stalled train during my rush hour escape from the city redirected a flood of commuters onto the platform where I board my usual train in a relaxed and unhurried manner. The doors opened, a flurry of jockeying and shuffling toward open seats ensued, and I opened my briefcase to begin my regular routine of catching up on journal reading. Not 30 seconds passed before the passenger to my side, glancing over at my lap, announced in full voice that he had a learning disability.

Then it happened:

“Me too, and my medicine is wearing off. I wish they would turn up the air conditioning. Where is the conductor?”

“My brother was in a special school. He’s OK now.”

“I think having learning disabilities is not as bad as having other problems. One guy I know has it and he’s a better driver than my wife!”

“There’s this kid with it at work and I can never understand what he says. He might be slow or something.”

The conversation around me was, in a word, astounding. After catching my breath, I smiled, introduced myself, and spent the next 35 minutes explaining, giving examples, and answering questions about learning disabilities to a receptive and diverse group of strangers. I’m not sure what, if anything, they remember from this brief encounter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a small spike of activity that evening on the LD.org website.

Déjà Vu All Over Again

I often realize how insulated we (the parents and professionals who work with and support the needs of individuals with LD) can become and how much work still needs to be done to educate the public about the nature of learning disabilities.

In our close encounters with people who struggle with LD, we develop a heightened awareness about how even simple tasks can become hurdles and how even well-meaning comments about seemingly reasonable expectations can prove hurtful and demoralizing for these individuals. Dealing with LD-related challenges day in and day out, it’s easy to forget that this heightened awareness is not common knowledge.

Health Literacy: Case in Point

As I spoke to my new buddies on the train, it occurred to me that it might have been easier for me to explain the meaning and impact of LD had I used an example like reading difficulties rather than choosing to define the term which was clearly foreign to them. Although problems with reading, writing and math are not synonymous with learning disabilities, individuals with LD do share some of the same challenges as those who, for a variety of other reasons, suffer from the impact of low literacy. These individuals struggle to read newspapers and magazines, have trouble deciphering signs and advertisements, are often mislead by “special offers” and are at particularly high risk when it comes to medical care for themselves and their families.

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