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Coping with learning disability; Opportunities: With assistance and understanding from the public and private sectors, learning disabled people can make important contributions to society.


ALBERT EINSTEIN, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Schwab -- what do they have in common? They all are famous names in their fields, and each had a form of learning disability.

Schwab, who struggled with dyslexia, was talented in other areas that enabled him to become the founder of a discount brokerage firm.

Einstein -- a chronic day dreamer who had trouble remembering facts and concentrating on basic arithmetic -- gave us the theory of relativity.

The handwriting and spelling errors in Leonardo Da Vinci's manuscripts and journals demonstrated dyslexia-like language difficulties. He overcame this word problem by his strong ability in visual communication, and gave us the science of anatomy.

Why is this important? For one thing, national tests conducted in 1994 and 1998 show that about 10 million children -- 20 percent of the nation's 51 million school-age population -- are severely reading-disabled, and many cannot read at all.

Reading is critical to success in modern society. How many potential creative geniuses -- Einsteins and DaVincis -- have been stigmatized and pushed aside? Too often, learning-disabled children grow up to be underemployed, shunted into routine, dead-end, occupations for life, because they can't read or do not perform well academically. The loss to society is incalculable.

But the world is full of success stories about everyday people who, despite their learning disabilities, excel in their careers.

Henry B. Reiff and Paul Gerber, in their book "Exceeding Expectations," describe how five learning-disabled individuals achieved success in their careers.

One woman, who is on the art department faculty at a major university, could not spell her name when she was a child, and math and reading also were difficult. But Reiff and Gerber say "her strengths rather than her weaknesses" have driven her career. She credits much of her resolve to her parents, who saw her artistic talent and nurtured it. They did not fixate on her difficulties in school; instead, they emphasized her artistic strengths, making sure she had plenty of supplies around the house, praising her work and sending her to a museum school during the summers.

She "is satisfied with her career and professional life," say Reiff and Gerber, adding, "She believes she succeeds because she is willing to try many solutions to any problem. If one doesn't work, she switches to another. This approach has worked beautifully in art." According to G. Reid Lyon, chief of the Child Development and Behavior Branch of the National Institutes of Health, more than "40 percent of fourth-grade students performed below basic levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 1994 and again in 1998.

"More than 10 percent of fourth-grade children could not even participate in the NAEP due to severe reading difficulties."

Lyons says reading disability has become a national problem. He points to studies showing that 74 percent of the pupils who are reading-disabled in the third grade remain so at the end of high school.

Attention deficit disorder has been estimated to affect 3 to 5 percent of our nation's school-age children (between 1.5 million and 2.6 million), according to Gretchen LeFever, a pediatric psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at the Center for Pediatric Research in Norfolk, Va.

Learning disabilities exact a heavy toll on taxpayers. The federal budget includes an allocation of $7.6 billion for education of the disabled, a figure that includes funding for special education for 2.6 million students .

In Maryland in 1998, the latest year statistics were available, 45,927 learning-disabled children were enrolled in schools across the state.

Sheldon H. Horowitz, director of professional services at the National Center for Learning Disabilities, advises parents to look for problems in the following areas to determine whether their children suffer from learning disabilities -- rhyming words; connecting sounds and letters; copying letters and numbers; learning new vocabulary; retelling stories; counting; remembering newly learned information; paying attention; playing with peers; moving from one activity to another; and following directions and routines.

"Early intervention is best, before third grade if possible. Later discovery means that remediation takes much longer, and is more costly," Horowitz says.

He suggests that parents should assist by helping learning-disabled children develop self-awareness. "Early on, parents should identify the problem, give it a name and get help in pinpointing the specific information-processing disorder the child has," Horowitz says. "If the child knows the name of the problem, it is easier to deal with it. No child wants to be labeled. Self-awareness and help in strengthening those skills which are not impaired give the child early successes which help to raise self-esteem."

Special education programs in the schools help learning-disabled children progress from kindergarten through 12th grade. But after that, in the adult work world, they encounter a major loss of support. Many business leaders don't understand learning disabilities and fail to see how the learning-disabled can bring new skills to the work place, Horowitz says.

Sally L. Smith, founder/director of the Lab School of Washington, says a person with a learning disability should capitalize on his or her strengths and do what is possible to avoid work tasks that emphasize the areas of their disability.

Smith says the career development of learning-disabled people is complicated. After discovering and making the most of their strengths, they must learn to accommodate their specific learning disability, to "work around it." They must learn to sell themselves to employers, co-workers and others. Finally, they must be their own advocates and know their protections and legal rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act, for no one else in the company will speak up for them, she says.

Dale S. Brown, a well-known advocate for people with learning disabilities, says they make excellent workers.

"In today's tight labor market, employers will find it more than worth their while to make small changes in the job tasks so they can get value from the employee. For example, many people with learning disabilities outperform their fellow sales associates, but the manager helps them write the reports and input some data," Brown says.

Improving our education system is likely to emerge as an important issue in this year's presidential election. The learning disabled should not be ignored in the political debate. The candidates should be especially concerned about training enough teachers to work with learning-disabled children.

Politics aside, we can help people with learning disabilities by honoring their uniqueness and giving support to their positive achievements. The potential waste of good human talent is the end result of sidelining these individuals in jobs that are far beneath their capacities. We can all be better informed and more aware of the good outcomes that are possible when we encourage people with learning disabilities to have the sustained courage it takes to succeed.

Steven E. Beasley, a Baltimore native and a graduate of the University of Maryland, has been a career counselor for 20 years. Previously, he was a science writer at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

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