Image courtesy of Britt Reints

During the last visit with my cousin, her husband shared an amusing story about fixing their van. He is a mechanic by trade and certainly know what he is doing, but this recent event left him scratching his head. He had gone into a parts store and asked for an alternator for his vehicle. Upon giving them the year and model number, the person working at the parts department looked up the part number for the alternator and promptly found it for him. Taking it home, my cousin’s husband took the time to look up how to install it on that model, switched out the old alternator for the new one, and attempted to start the vehicle. Nothing. Completely dead. He pored over the schematics and checked everything over once again. Still nothing. So, he took the part back and told them it was defective. The man behind the counter, grabbed another one and exchanged it for him. Same thing. Nothing. Back he went to the shop. This time, they started to accuse him of not installing it properly. He insisted he knew what he was doing. They exchanged it one more time. Same result. So, after some investigation, it was determined that the part he had been sold the first time was for the vehicle one year newer and the car manufacturer had reversed the polarity of the alternator. Everything else was the same, but the direction of the current was reversed. The initial problem had led to a series of exchanges for the same part, never checking on whether he was sold the correct thing in the first place.

It makes me think about how we deal with learning disabilities in the language classroom. On the outside, everything looks the same, but the issue comes with how we deal with it. For students with learning disabilities, the information flow is blocked or impeded for some reason and causes a chain reaction down the line. From our perspective, it looks like the student isn’t following the directions properly or isn’t listening. We need to understand what learning disabilities are and to consciously be looking for the signs in the classroom. If not, we may be ‘selling’ our students ‘the wrong part’.

Learning disabilities (commonly referred to as LDs) are a lifelong neurological disorder that impedes the flow of information to the brain. It can take on various forms and severity, but it should not be mistaken for a lack of intelligence. Just as the part that was sold to my relative worked just fine, it was just that the flow of electricity was being blocked to the rest of the vehicle. The car worked, the part worked, the mechanic knew what he was doing, it was just not the correct thing for that situation.

Learning disabilities directly affect oral language, reading, written language, and mathematics (Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, 2002). This means that language classrooms have one of the highest possibilities of seeing the affects of an LD. What we may perceive as a student who can’t seem to learn or isn’t listening in class may actually be an LD.

Learning disabilities are not like a disease that manifests itself in an obvious way such as a sharp pain or difficulty breathing, it is much more hidden than that. In Canada, it is thought that about 10% of the population has an LD, but only 20% of those have been diagnosed. That means around 2.6 million people in Canada alone have an LD and don’t even know it. In the US, that number jumps to over 25 million.

There is no easy way of diagnosing an LD. Teachers are not equipped, nor should they be, to assess and directly counsel students who may have an LD. This should be done by a professional. Having said that, we are often the first person who may notice it and can alert others who can then take it further.

Schools should have policies in place to address LDs and make those clearly known to the teachers. Teachers should also be trained in assisting students with LDs and be aware of some of the tools that are available to help those students. Some of those tools are already in place, such as settings on the computers and websites.

Schools should be aware of the laws related to LDs. In Canada, students need to be given additional time and resources as laid out in the law. Since laws vary per country and even more localized areas, schools should be making these laws known to the teachers and making sure they are being implemented.

So what does it look like when someone has an LD? There are a variety of LDs and ways in which the manifest in the classroom, so that is not an easy question to answer. What I would suggest is to look over the information on pages 28-32 of this document. This will help you become more aware of the issues students with LDs have and ways in which you can help them.

I never intended this post to be a comprehensive look at LDs, but I did want to make you aware of what is likely happening in your own classroom. Last semester, our program had around 90 students coming from various backgrounds. Statistically speaking, 9 of those students may have had an LD and 1-2 of them may have been aware of it. Since none of them told us that they did, it may be that there were less than that or they didn’t want anyone to know. If I look back over the hundreds of students I have had over the years, only one I am aware of was diagnosed with an LD. I am sure there are many more, but no one came forward. I need to be more aware of this issue and be more attentive in looking for the signs. I hope this helped you. I look forward to hearing from you and what you think or what experience you have in this area.

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