David was a delightful child. Everybody said so. But then there would always be a little sigh, and somebody would say, "(sigh) poor David."
David's parents were professionals. He came from what they call a "culturally enriched" background. His brothers and sisters were very smart. David was attractive and charming, but poor David couldn't keep up.
"Don't push him," David's teachers said. David's parents didn't. "Keep him in the vocational track," David's teachers advised. "Don't push him."
David had great trouble in school. But he pushed himself, and he struggled and struggled, but he couldn't learn to read -- at least, not very well. He was always very down on himself. He had a combination of determination and yet always that feeling of "what's the matter with me?"
Yet David's is a success story.
Because despite his reading and writing problems, his determination (and his winning personality) got him into college -- George Washington University. He kept on attending reading clinics and remedial courses until, finally, a counselor, for the first time in his life, told him what was wrong. "You know," she said, "you have learning disabilities."
Barbara Scheiber, who is director of The Closer Look, also known as the Parents' Campaign for Handicapped Children and Youth, tells David's story with some pride.
David is a symbol of hope both to the unnumbered thousands of learning-disabled youngsters and adults as well as to their parents. Scheiber shrugs when she is asked "how many?" "The estimates," she said, "range from 5 to 10 million -- a broad range. People know it should be counted, but before you count, you have to be pretty sure about who you're counting." A colleague of Scheiber's, education specialist Jeanne Talpers, adds that "the illiteracy rate in this country is quoted as being something like one out of four people, but it has never, as far as we know, been broken down as to which ones are dyslexic and which ones are not."
Scheiber and Talpers have recently published "Campus Access for Learning Disabled Students: A Comprehensive Guide," which has just been selected for an award by the President's Commission on the Handicapped.
Through years of dealing with learning-disabled youngsters and their families, and in interviews and studies, Scheiber and Talpers have taken experiences like David's, plus especially innovative approaches to campus assistance, mandated under the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, and put them together in a form especially designed to be accessible to the learning disabled population for whom it was conceived.
One Washington area program that receives particular attention in the Scheiber-Talpers book is that at the American University. Faith Leonard, director of the learning portion of the Center for Psychological and Learning Services, proudly notes that students in the program maintain a grade point average of 2.6, and 70 percent of those enrolled during the program's six years of existence are still in school or have graduated.
Tutoring and special services include word processing -- an especially useful tool because, for reasons not entirely clear, the tactile sensations seem to enhance comprehension. (One student quoted in the guide says, "The spelling check in the computer makes me spell like other people. You can't imagine the relief.")
Leonard teaches a three-credit course in "College Reading," required for some students and "strongly encouraged" for others.
Learning disability" is a blanket term used to describe one or more of a series of glitches in the wiring of the human brain which makes certain kinds of tasks, skills or functions particularly difficult for certain people.
It has been called many things in recent years, depending on what form it takes and the professional bias of whoever is doing the naming, but it is now generally accepted that it is a neurological problem that occurs as brain cells mature and take over specilized functions.
"Dyslexia" is a disorder of the processing of printed information; "dysgraphia," a disorder of writing; "dyscalculia" of arithmatic.
Some children are unable to detect social cues in other people, may laugh at something sad, for example. Some may be termed "hyperactive," or suffering from "attention deficit disorder" or "minimal brain dysfunction."
In his book, "The Misunderstood Child," Dr. Larry Silver likens the various names and invesigators to the six blind men touching various portions of an elephant and then attempting to identify what they feel.
Silver, a child psychiatrist, former acting chief of the National Institute of Mental Health, who specializes in the care of learning disabled children, actually was one himself, and still admits to serious reading and writing problems. (For example, in his book Silver writes of himself, "You should have seen the first draft of this book . . .")
The learning-disabled child is usually not mentally retarded and may often be genuinely gifted -- Auguste Rodin, Thomas Edison, Woodrow Wilson and Albert Einstein were all recipients of whatever was their epoch's version of today's label "retarded."
More and more children are identified these days as having a learning disability -- estimated as occurring in one degree or another in up to 10 percent of the school-age population. But without special assistance, repeated failures and frustrations can make these youngsters potential victims of mental disorders, behavioral aberrations sometimes leading to delinquency and crime.
"In some studies," Scheiber said, "it has been shown that 60 percent of a group of delinquents had been suffering from unidentified, undiagnosed learning disabilities."
The counselor at GW who identified David's problem -- basically dyslexia -- then "became his mentor, helping him," said Scheiber, "to get some of the different kinds of accommodations in school that you need when you have to deal with university professors.
"These are really rather simple when you think about it -- but they can make a big difference. For example, because of David's difficulty in writing, he was allowed to dictate answers to essay questions. He also dictated some of his papers. He was also helped to find students who read books to him. It wasn't that he didn't read at all, but his confidence was so low that he tended to panic."
David's experience at GW was salutory even though that university's program was not specifically aimed at the learning disabled. Still, said Scheiber, "his whole day was preorganized. It was dogged, slogging work, because without that you can't make it. But he had all of these what we call "accommodations."
"One big hurdle was learning to advocate for yourself, being able to say to a professor, 'Hey, by the way, you may not be able to tell by looking at me, but I have a problem which I know how to deal with, but I have to have your help . . .'
"As often as not," said Scheiber, "a professor would say, 'Well, what are you doing here anyway? School is about writing. Don't tell me you have trouble writing.'
"But breaking through that barrier is a very big part of being successful."
Other accommodations universities and community colleges have incorporated for the learning disabled students include:
*Proctored exams. This gives learning-disabled students more time to organize their thoughts.
*Dictated answers. Especially on essay tests, students who may have difficulties in writing may speak with ease.
David graduated from college. It took him five years, said Barbara Scheiber, but he made it. "It was thrilling," she said quietly. "We had some party." Resources "Campus Access for Learning Disabled Students" costs $17.95, and is available only through Closer Look, Parents' Campaign for Handicapped Children and Youth, 1201 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. For more information, call the the HEATH Resource Center, the National Clearinghouse on Postsecondary Education for Handicapped Individuals, 939-9320; or, outside the Washington area, 1-800-54 HEATH.