Learning Disabilities or Learning Styles?
by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, M.S.
“Even when she was 10, Helen Keller remained deaf, blind, and mute.
By 16 she had learned to read in Braille, and to write and speak well enough to go to Radcliffe College. She graduated with honors in 1904.
Fortunately her first teacher had never heard of the term ‘learning disabled.’
Unable to use her sense of sight or hearing, Helen Keller learned first through touch. And the good news is that modern breakthroughs have now provided the tools for all of us to ‘switch on’ to easier learning, even those who may have been labeled ‘backward’ or ‘slow.’
Almost a century after Keller’s graduation, her message to the world is still clear: everyone is potentially gifted — in some way. . .
This is not to deny that some people have learning difficulties. But labeling them ‘learning disabled’ must rank with I.Q. tests as one of the great education tragedies of the century. The very act of labeling adds to the stress. Our research convinces us that any person can learn — in his or her own way. And those ways are many and varied.
Keller’s plight was being blind, deaf and mute. She had to learn within that limited context. Had she taken an I.Q. test, with its linguistic base, her rating would have been extremely low, if she had scored at all. Without Sullivan, she may have been placed in an institution for the retarded, instead of developing as a highly gifted person.” (from The Learning Revolution by Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos, Ed.D.)
If any person could be labeled disabled, it would be Helen Keller. Her story demonstrates what can happen when a label is not allowed to limit a person’s potential or interfere with his/her natural gifts and talents.
Les Brown was labeled educable mentally retarded when he was in school and he believed he was. It took the words of a teacher to help him change his image of himself, and he is now a gifted motivational speaker.
Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four years old and he had trouble learning to read. A teacher described him as “mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams.” He was expelled and was refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. And, of course, we consider him a genius.
What are learning disabilities anyway?
I can’t work DVD players, and computers give me all kinds of trouble. I also get turned around very easily, and lose my sense of direction if I don’t have a map to refer to. I can’t draw and I have a terrible time translating blueprints and diagrams. But no one would have ever thought to label me with one of the “LD” terms because I was good at reading, writing, and math, was very organized, did all my work, and received mostly A’s on my report card.
What is dyslexia?
It literally means trouble with language. We often use “reversals” as part of the definition. Well, back in the DOS days, I could never remember which was the “backward” and which was the “forward slash” for DOS commands, and I reversed them inconsistently. On the other hand, my husband could do whole strings of DOS commands perfectly, but he is a terrible speller and inconsistently reverses letters and letter sequences. Are we both dyslexic? Or do we have simply talents in different areas?
What is ADD?
Is it like when a parent in a workshop asks a question about something that I’ve just covered because he didn’t “hear” it? Or when you get distracted and can’t do your checkbook because your kids are making noise? Or a teacher at a meeting says, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get what you said?” We probably wouldn’t think to label these adults, but with younger people we are quick to do just that.
The problem is we give more weight to reading and writing than to other talents, because we think they are so important, and we apply labels to people who are having difficulty with them. We panic and worry and usually force reading and writing “exercises” upon students, even though this has never worked, as is obvious by the number of adults who are “poor” readers, spellers, and writers. What we as parents and teachers don’t get is that students improve their skills in weak areas much faster and to a higher level when they feel smart and competent instead of dysfunctional and humiliated.
So what does labeling accomplish?
- A person is identified as disabled in some way.
- A program is set up to “fix” the student rather than work with talents/styles.
- The student’s potential is seen as limited.
- Excuses are made for the student’s behavior and/or lack of accomplishments.
It is very interesting to me when #4 occurs. For example, a parent will say, “I can’t expect him to behave in public, he has ADD.” Or a teacher will think, “She probably won’t accomplish much in English, she has such a low vocabulary.” Yet these same people often resist the idea of learning styles/talents, because we shouldn’t be “catering” to students—they have to follow “the program” like everyone else.
In contrast, what does learning style/talent assessment accomplish?
- A person is identified as gifted/talented in various areas.
- A program is set up to work with those talents and interests.
- The student’s potential is seen as unlimited.
- Excuses are replaced with problem solving and collaboration.
In other words, when we see people as capable rather than disabled, we will use techniques that celebrate the uniqueness of each student: techniques that tap visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modes; techniques that reach different personality styles; techniques that make education meaningful and help each student discover the riches, potentials, and dreams inside each one of them.
When this happens we will no longer offer excuses for our child’s misbehavior or inability to “perform” or “get the job done.” We will encourage students to become problem solvers and to use the information about how they operate to take charge of themselves and be accountable for their behaviors. We will help them take responsibility for their actions and take a major role in decision making.
There is no reason for an “ADD” child to run wild in public, and no reason for any student to fail any subject based on a “disability.” If Helen Keller could accomplish what she did, then certainly we can do our children the favor of seeing them as capable, providing the right tools and techniques for them to “switch on,” and allowing them the dignity of becoming responsible for their own actions and behaviors.
This will only occur when students are guided to believe that they are smart and competent rather than disabled.
Homeschoolers can just as easily fall into this trap of thinking their children might have a “learning disability.” If you are using traditional curriculum and it is not working, it is often concluded that there must be something wrong with the student.
I encourage you to resist this thinking and instead find out everything you can about your child’s learning style. Once you have this information and begin applying it, you will get amazing results, just like Helen Keller’s teachers did when they discovered the keys to her learning success.
If you would like help, contact us at 805-648-1739. For a school option that customizes for each child’s learning needs, visit www.solimaracademy.com
©2014 by Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis Mariaemma Willis, M.S., is co-author of Discover Your Child’s Learning Style and Midlife Crisis Begins in Kindergarten. She is co- founder of LearningSuccess™ Institute and Solimar Academy, offering customized programs for homeschool/independent study, and LearningSuccess training for parents and teachers. firstname.lastname@example.org