Our ignorance of learning disabilities

Jay Mathews
Columnist September 2, 2012

Raising the achievement of students with learning disabilities is hard, expensive, controversial and complex. School systems must pay private-school tuition for students they can’t adequately serve. Educators and parents sometimes disagree on what methods to use. Education writers like me rarely deal with the subject because it is difficult to explain and lacks many success stories.

That explains in part why learning disabilities are so poorly understood, as revealed by a remarkable survey just released by the nonprofit National Center for Learning Disabilities.The representative sampling of 2,000 Americans provides a rare look at the depths of our ignorance.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Forty-three percent believe that learning disabilities correlate with IQ. Fifty-five percent think that corrective eyewear can treat certain learning disabilities. Twenty-two percent believe that learning disabilities can be caused by spending too much time watching computer or television screens. All of those impressions are wrong.

Other mistaken views include the 31 percent of survey respondents who think learning disabilities are caused by poor diet, the 24 percent who blame childhood vaccinations and the more than a third who think those disabilities are caused by poor parenting or teaching in early childhood.

That so many of us know so little is a shame, although the survey shows that at least one disability is familiar to most people. The survey found that 90 percent of Americans know that dyslexia is a learning disability, and 80 percent can accurately define it. This may be because so many of us know someone whose reading difficulties have been blamed on dyslexia or have seen the many television shows dramatizing that disability.

Even though we have not educated ourselves well on what learning disabilities entail, we have been spending increasing amounts of our tax dollars to deal with them. One study by Richard Rothstein and Karen Hawley Miles of the Economic Policy Institute found that from 1967 to 1991 in nine school districts, money poured in to help students with disabilities. Per-pupil spending increased by 73 percent during that period, but only a fourth of the increase went to regular education. The portion of all spending designated for special education in those districts went from four to 17 percent.

Several federal laws, highlighted by the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, gave new rights to adults and children with disabilities. The survey by the National Center for Learning Disabilities shows many of us are still not familiar with them. One third of respondents said hiring officials are allowed to ask job candidates if they have learning disabilities, which is against the law.

Inappropriate humor also lives on. Thirty percent of those surveyed confessed to making jokes about learning disabilities when someone makes a reading, writing or math mistake.

Insensitivity and ignorance about disabilities in schools is evident. The survey found that 34 percent of Americans believe that students with learning disabilities interfere with the ability of other children in class to learn. Forty-five percent of parents of children with disabilities said their children have been bullied in the past year.

In my experience, parents of children with disabilities read everything they can find that might help improve their kids’ educations. Every time I write about special education, I get an unusual number of e-mails from them, sharing their own experiences and research. Sixty-four percent of parents in general said in the survey that their child’s school doesn’t provide information on learning disabilities.

“Better informed parents will recognize markers earlier and become more effective advocates for their children,” said James H. Wendorf, executive director of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The center’s Web site has much to offer, but it would also be good if I covered this difficult issue better than I do, and if we all admitted how much we need to learn about what keeps certain children from learning.

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