Learn differently–you are in good company

Reflections on “October is Learning Disabilities Month”

Charlotte resident Stephanie Hackett delivers an inspirational speech at the Stern Center Building Dedication in June. As a learner with dyslexia, the instructional support she received at the Stern Center was instrumental in supporting her academic achievements then and now as she pursues her graduate degree.

by Laurie Caswell Burke

What do Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, and Vermont’s own Governor Peter Shumlin have in common? They share the common bond of having a learning disability. This brief but wide ranging list of highly successful people clearly illustrates that those of us who learn differently are in good company.

Most people have heard of dyslexia, the most common of learning disabilities, which makes it difficult for intelligent people to learn to read. There are other learning disabilities as well, such as dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and dysgraphia, which affect math, motor skills, and writing, respectively.   But, as made clear by a recent survey of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), these learning disabilities are unfamiliar and confusing to the general public. To overcome that confusion, the best place to start is to accurately define “learning disability.”

A learning disability is more than a difference or difficulty with learning—it’s a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information.  It may affect one’s ability to speak, think, read, or write. A learning disability will vary in how it impacts each individual child, adolescent, or adult.  Currently, 2.4 million students are diagnosed with learning disabilities and receive special services in our schools. Understanding the basic facts will enable you to help yourself, your child, or someone you know become a well-informed and effective advocate for learning accommodations.

In NCLD’s recent survey (www.ncld.org), many of the findings demonstrate that there is still a lot to learn on the LD landscape and confirm the existing confusion around Americans’ perceptions of learning disabilities. This survey of 2,000 Americans revealed some interesting and alarming findings. For instance, 43 percent of Americans incorrectly think that learning disabilities are correlated with IQ; 22 percent incorrectly believe that learning disabilities are caused by too much screen time; 30 percent believe the cause is poor diet; and 24 percent believe that childhood vaccinations can be blamed.  What is evident from these statistics is that more education is needed to better inform people on this topic. “While great strides have been made in the awareness of learning disabilities, these findings underscore the critical need for education,” said James H. Wendorf, the executive director of NCLD. However,  he said he was heartened  by the fact that 75 percent of parents of kids with learning disabilities felt that there was more they could do to help their kids.

So what can we learn from all of this?  Better understanding of learning disabilities is at the core of helping learners cope and succeed in the face of such challenges. Blanche Podhajski, founder and president of the Stern Center for Language and Learning, brings over 40 years of building that understanding and helping learners succeed.  Podhajski has served on numerous National Boards including the NCLD, and her passion for helping struggling learners to find the strategies and tools they need to be successful in life is inspirational. “It has been a privilege to watch smart students who learn differently benefit from brain science, which proves that all brains are beautiful: some are just wired differently,” she said.  “The successes of individuals with learning disabilities are among society’s proudest accomplishments.”

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