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By Kristin Stanberry , Paul Grossman, J.D.
A: When I decided to return to college, I found it useful to do some reframing, which is to say, I decided to see the world differently. The ancient Jewish philosopher and Rabbi, Hillel, articulated my favorite framework for life, as an individual with a disability. Hillel's advice begins, "Let no one else set your limits." I tell children with learning disabilities, "Don't ever let the guidance counselor tell you what you can or cannot do. You decide what your limits will be." I think developing this attitude in high school is very important. Students with LD must also understand what a learning disability is. Learning disabilities are real, not just something mom and dad made up to explain to their friends why school is hard for you. As the brain scans performed by Drs. Sally and Bennett Shaywitz reveal, dyslexia, for example is an organic, language processing-based disability. Our brains are wired differently from those of fluent readers. It is harder for us to read for a real reason. It's not about being lazy or unintelligent.
We are only lazy when we decide to give up on learning how to compensate for our specific weaknesses and best capitalize on our strengths. Every student has to develop a personal effective learning style. A thorough evaluation, perhaps more thorough than one is likely to receive for free from a school psychologist, is part of coming to understand the peaks and valleys of our thinking and learning skills. Of course, it does no good to get such an evaluation, if no one carefully explains to you the meaning of the test results. For example, I learned that it was critically important to me to never miss a lecture in college, even if I didn't have time to do all the assigned reading.
Also, learn to be your own advocate. The research by Gerber, Ginsberg, and Reiff tells us that the number one issue that distinguishes successful people with learning disabilities is character, whether the LD individual has "fire in the belly." Find the anger in yourself and harness it! Let that anger be the energy that empowers you to study late at night or study twice as hard for a test as the "next guy." Let the anger give you the courage to ask for the accommodations to which you are legitimately entitled.
There is often an alternate route to success. The ability to find those routes is an important predicate to having an LD and being successful. Each high school student should develop a self-service strategy in case of trouble in college. What will you do if, one night, you find out there's more reading to do than you can possibly accomplish? That's exactly what happened to me at Oxford University. I was expected to read a lengthy, complex book every day. The way I got around it was to read the first and the last chapters, skim the rest of the book, and go to the pub at night. Really! I went to the pub because I knew when my professor was going to be there and I could talk to him about each book. This worked because I am an auditory learner and my professor, after two pints, loved to talk.
Hillel's guidance continues, "If I am not for others, who am I?" Here too the advice of Hillel is right on point. I know of no better way for someone to get beyond himself and become a better self-advocate, than to learn to advocate for or otherwise support others. LD students are too often misperceived as engaged in "gaming the system," for a selfish advantage. They are often considered "into" self-victimization. The perception is quite different when the student is known as an individual who works to level the playing field for everyone.
Hillel completes his guidance with the admonition, "If not now, when?" This is so true for LD students in high school. Accommodations in college are a civil right, but one with limits. Not everyone identified in high school as having a specific learning disability will qualify in college as "disabled" and be entitled to accommodations. Even if one receives accommodations they are unlikely to be as robust in college. Students with learning disabilities need to learn the essentials of "self-accommodation" as soon as possible. This means heading for college having practiced self-advocacy in IEP meetings and the classroom, a solid set of independently managed study skills, an individualized approach to learning, and a thorough mastery of adaptive technology.
After "fire in the belly," mastery of adaptive technology, not IQ, not reading fluency is the single most important predictor of success in college. If you're going to use a reading pen, Naturally Speaking, Kurzweil 3000, Inspiration, a spell-checker, don't wait until college to learn how to use it. Start using it now on a daily basis.
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