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The Field of Learning

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Part OneThe Field of Learning Disabilities“There was something wrong with my brain, What had previously been a shadow of suspi-cion that hovered on the edge of consciousness became certain knowledge the year that I wasnine and entered the fourth grade. I seemed to be like other children but I was not like them:I could not learn to read or spell. Throughout my childhood and youth the nature of my dis-order remained mysterious. . .When I was twenty-two it was diagnosed. . . . I was dyslexic. ”—Ellen Simpson, psychotherapist and poet, in her Autobiography} Reversals“Having made a strenuous effort to understand the symbols he could make nothing of, he[Gustave Flaubert] wept giant tears. . .For a long time he could not understand the elementaryconnection that made of two letters one syllable, of several syllables a word. ”—Caroline Commanville in Souvenirs ln times describing the French novelist Gustave Flaubert“I remember vividly the pain and mortification I felt as a boy of eight, when I was assignedto read a short passage of scripture at a community vesper service during summer vacation inMaine– and did a thoroughly miserable job of it. ”—Nelson Rockefeller in TV Guide, October 16, I976“I missed [my nurse] terribly. Every day I wrote her—a short, badly written ill-spelled note:writing and spelling were always terribly difficult for me. . . . I was always recognized, thoughquite kindly, as the “slow one” of the family. . . .It was quite true, and I knew it and accepted it. ”—Agatha Christie in An Autobiography“For years I had hidden from parents, sisters, teachers, friends, even my husband, the factthat I can read on] y a few minutes at a time before becoming confused and exhausted. My prob-lems extend beyond the inability to read well. Although I managed to earn a bachelor’s degreeand attend graduate school, I can neither recite the alphabet straight through nor do I knowthe multiplication and division tables. . .I have difficulty writing down the simplest note. . . “—Roa Lynn in Learning DisabilitiesPart OneThe Field of Learning DisabilitiesOVERVIEW OF THE FIELDA large number of competing theories concern-ing the nature of learning disabilities has left thefield with no universally accepted definition. Thepresent legal definition, accepted by most schoolpractitioners, as stated in the Education for AllHandicapped Children Act of ]975 (Public Law94-142), rules out all known causes of learningdisorders except neurological impairment. Thehistorical roots of the field can be found in theareas of language dysfunction, mental retardation,and perceptual disorder. Recent estimates statethat between 4 and 20 percent of the U.S. schoolage population is learning disabled. Identificationand treatment have traditionally been interdisci-plinary.Definition of “Learning Disabilities”Despite the lack of a universal definition of“learning disabilities, ”the definition exists in thelaw. In Public Law 94-142, a learning disabilityis defined as “a disorder in one or more of thebasic psychological processes involved in under-standing or in using language, spoken or written,which may manifest itself in an imperfect abilityto 1isten, think, speak, read, write, spell or domathematical calculations” (167).Problems of taxonomy and semantics have im-peded defining“learning disabilities” a precise,comprehensive way. In 1968, the National Advi-sory Committee on Handicapped Children offereda definition of the term that is now widely used.This definition significantly influenced the onethat the U.S. Congress used in 1969 in Title VIof Public Law 91-230 and in Public Law 94-142.Congress further defined the term to exclude“children who have learning problems which areprimarily the result of visual, hearing or motorhandicaps, of mental retardation, or of environ-mental, cultural or economic disadvantage. ” It isnot surprising that this definition was greatly crit-icized by some in the learning disabilities field,a field that boasts scores of different professionaland special interest groups.Whether the Federal definition has helped tostandardize the use of the term is questionable.mercerr Forgone, and Wolking ( ]37) found thatthe definitions of learning disabilities used by 42State departments of education were not consist-en t. Among the terms frequently used inter-changeably with “learning disabilities” are thefollowing: dyslexia, hyperactivity, hyperkineticsyndrome, brain dysfunction, brain damage, per-ceptual-motor dysfunction, visual-motor dysfunc-tion, dyscalculia, aphasia, alexia, developmentallearning disability, and others.The lack of agreement in defining learning dis-abilities reflects the variety of theories about thenature, and especial] y about the cause, of suchdisabilities. Over the years, the explanation oflearning disabilities in terms of underlying braindysfunction has been cautiously replaced with be-havioral descriptions. Perhaps defining learningdisabilities is difficult because learning disabili-ties are not a single disorder but a set of disorders.This set 01 disorders may or may not have a com-mon origin. All of them, however, interfere withlearning in the nonretarded population.Two aspects of the present legal definition thatappear problematic are the exclusionary structureof the definition and what is called the “discrep-ancy ” formulation. The definition of learning dis-abilities as not one of a number of other knownimpediments to learning ( 125) has been criticized( 174, 17.5). The definition of learning disabilitiesas discrepancies between actual school perform-ance and intellectual potential (19) has also beencriticized (174, 177).Thus, the definition of learning disabilities inPublic Law 94-142 is far from definitive or univer-sally accepted. Whether such disabilities are essen-tially behavioral or physiological is a question notaddressed by the legislation. The definition in8 ● Health Technology Case Study 25: Technology and Learning DisabilitiesPublic Law 94-142 functions primarily as legalgroundwork for demanding appropriate schoolingfor learning-handicapped individuals.History of the Field: Theories, Terms,and Treatments“Learning disabilities” is a relatively new term.Coined by Samuel Kirk in 1963, the term hascome to function as a label for individuals of nor-mal intelligence, physical intactness, emotionalhealth, adequate instruction, and sufficient mo-tivation who are somehow unable to master


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