A recent poll examining progress in the public understanding of learning disabilities found both encouraging trends and persistent misconceptions. Conducted in 2010 by Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, this study of attitudes about learning disabilities is the fourth commissioned by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation since 1995.
On the positive side, the findings of this new study highlight improvement in the two following critical areas:
The poll also found that the number of Americans who say they are familiar with learning disabilities is growing although it appears that their understanding tends to be confused and shallow.
For example, a large majority of the general public, including teachers, parents, and administrators, incorrectly associate mental retardation and autism with LD, and just under half link LD with poor vision and hearing. Perhaps even more damaging is the fact that individuals with learning disabilities continue to be stigmatized by old inaccurate labels. Approximately half of those polled believe that LD is the result of laziness, and a majority believe a poor home environment is often the cause.
As the Roper report concludes, this lack of understanding creates serious barriers for children with learning disabilities and has profound implications for how they “are perceived, how their needs are addressed, and expectations about their future potential.” Although the study did not specifically address the issue of public attitudes towards adults with learning disabilities, there can be no doubt that misperceptions about LD create dangerous barriers for adults as well. (You can view the full Executive Summary of the Roper Report at www.tremainefoundation.org ).
Sadly, we have seen first hand how these misperceptions have affected the lives of students enrolled in our ABE programs: adults with LD seeking help from state rehabilitation agencies being sent to job training programs designed for individuals who are mentally retarded; students' self esteem eroded by years of being stigmatized by inaccurate labels; embarrassment and humiliation experienced by adults with LD in work-related and social situations; hesitancy to take advantage of their rights under the Adults with Disabilities Act because of fears about self-disclosure. There are countless implicit and explicit obstacles that face adults whose unique learning capacities are so seriously misunderstood.
As administrators, counselors, and teachers in adult basic education and literacy programs, we have an obligation and an opportunity to do what we can to correct this situation. First, we can be certain that all staff members who interact with students in our programs have a basic understanding of learning disabilities and their impact on the lives of adults who experience them. There are many sources for this information. The first two chapters of our book, Unlocking the Potential of Adults with Learning Differences were designed for this purpose and directly address the prevalent public misperceptions brought out by the Roper study. Readily accessible information is also available from Learning to Achieve www.lincs.ed.gov and at websites such as www.NCLD.org and www.LDonline.org
Perhaps the most important thing we can do is to help our students better understand their own strengths and weaknesses and provide simple explanations whenever possible as to the causes of their struggle with learning. We have found that whether or not they received special education services, many adults with a history of LD have accepted stereotypic and inaccurate labels about themselves, taking the blame for their school failure. Others want to hide their learning problems, hoping to avoid the humiliation and shame they felt in school. In either case, matter-of-fact and accurate information can help them move beyond these debilitating and embarrassing misconceptions and encourage them to seek the resources they need to move forward in their lives.
We should also make our students with LD aware of their rights under the Adults with Disabilities Act and provide opportunities for them to become familiar with “reasonable” accommodations that can help them surmount specific difficulties. Hopefully, in this way we can better prepare them to self-advocate and thereby become powerful agents for change on their own behalf.
Since most adult basic education and literacy programs have a significant number of students with learning disabilities, we cannot ignore the results of the Roper study. If we make it a priority to “set the record straight” whenever possible, we can do our part in dismantling the barriers that misconceptions about learning disabilities impose on the lives of our students.