When a child looks normal, but does not learn well, we sometimes make the assumption that the child is lazy or not focused enough on their studies in school. This common and almost always frustrating scenario is what parents deal with every day when they have a child with learning disabilities (LD) or special needs. And that is exactly what Dane, a sinewy child with pretty white blond hair and the biggest of smiles, faces every time he picks up a pencil or a book.
Kathryn Roset, an Arkansas attorney and parent of five, has faced this frustration for years since her son Dane, now eleven, was a toddler. “When we see a child with physical issues, we understand their learning challenges instantly and hopefully prescribe strategies and technology accommodations that will help,” said Mrs. Roset. “But learning disabilities can be hidden; it becomes more difficult to accept, prescribe and deliver learning experiences in effective ways.”
Dane participates in the Arkansas Virtual Academy (ARVA) which is an online state charter school. ARVA provides students with the K12 curriculum, supplies, a grade level teacher and support services. Dane receives occupational, physical, and speech/language therapies, along with mental health services to assist him. In return, Mrs. Roset functions as his primary learning coach and is required to make sure he fulfills all district and state requirements such as testing and attendance.
From kindergarten to 3rd grade, Dane struggled with speech and comprehension. “He put a tremendous amount of effort into learning, but didn’t receive any results for his hard work,” said his mom. “He would just shut down and cry.” Dane’s family and teachers knew he was not learning like other children, but could not easily find a doctor or specialist to diagnose his disability and prescribe alternatives. “This ambiguity led everyone to be confused as to what might help him learn,” adds Mrs. Roset. Dane was not found eligible for special education services and did not have a formal IEP (Individual Education Plan). For years, learning was one frustration after another for Dane, his family and his teachers.
“Dane’s handwriting was chicken scratch,” said Kathryn. “His motor skills fatigued quickly and no one could tell if he got the meaning of what was said or read to him. I’d try to describe his thinking process as a ‘pin-ball machine’ to teachers and doctors who tried to help us. Information just bounced around in his brain, making noise. Some content stuck and lots got lost in his central auditory system. I did not know that he could learn and process information until we took him on a Florida vacation and out of the blue he wrote ‘DAD’ in the sand. He looked up and said, ‘Mom, look what I wrote!’ That was at the end of first grade and I was determined to find learning resources and educational solutions for my son.”
Mrs. Roset believes most parents are at a disadvantage when it comes to developing an IEP for their child. “I didn’t understand the technicalities of the form, so I relied on a special education expert to help me. That’s when we met Mr. Ayres.”
Dane’s school agreed to pay for a tutor and the family met Bryan Ayres, Director of the Technology and Curriculum Access Center for Arkansas Easter Seals in Little Rock. Mr. Ayres educated them about technology accommodations like reading software and educational resources. In 2009, he assisted Dane’s family in signing up for an individual Bookshare membership through the Arkansas Virtual Academy and downloaded his first digital book onto reading software called Read, Write, Gold, by TextHelp. This text-to-speech software reads DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) file formats. The program highlights words on the computer screen so Dane can hear and see the text read aloud. This ‘multi-modal’ reading experience is beneficial for children with LD and other print disabilities.
Dane’s mother and Mr. Ayres noticed a change. “Dane began to comprehend more of a story and even talk about it with his brothers,” said Mrs. Roset. “Now he asks for more digital stories and wants to know what books are in Bookshare’s library.”
“Prior to the use of assistive technology and Bookshare, Dane would not have been able to read one paragraph,” said Mr. Ayres. “He frequently lost his place and became frustrated and anxious. Now, in 4th and 5th grades, he’s read several novels and can research, plan and write stories and reports with many paragraphs.”
Dane doesn’t rely as much on his mom now to read to him. He can sit by himself and enjoy a book. He is making progress, but has a ways to go. His learning disability has cost him years of undue hardship and frustration and has required research and networking with special education and medical experts to find strategies and technologies to address his learning disabilities. Through his mother’s undeniable strength and unfailing love and lots of help from teachers, tutors, organizations like Easter Seals and Bookshare, and accommodations on his IEP, there is hope for Dane.
“When you have a child with LD, the road is hard and discouraging,” said Mrs. Roset. “Never give up! Through assistive technology and Bookshare, we have seen small victories for our son. Dane now comprehends whole stories and is less frustrated. This year, he gave two presentations about his use of technologies and Bookshare at the ATIA (Assistive Technology Industry Association) conference. Now he can demonstrate his true knowledge. We’ve seen a little beam of light shine through his learning barriers that we felt were almost impossible to overcome. That feels pretty good at this point in time.”
About Valerie Chernek
Valerie is a PR and Social Media professional and long-time teacher advocate. She has written numerous articles about the use of technology in schools to educate children, especially those with learning challenges and disabilities. www.valeriechernek.com / twitter / @valeriechernek
Bookshare (www.bookshare.org) is the world’s largest online accessible library of copyrighted content for people with print disabilities. Through its technology initiatives and partnerships, Bookshare seeks to raise the floor on accessibility issues so that individuals with print disabilities have the same ease of access to print materials as people without disabilities. In 2007, Bookshare received a five-year award from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), to provide free access for all U.S. students with a qualifying print disability. The Bookshare library now has over 115,000 books and serves more than 130,000 members. Bookshare is an initiative of Benetech, a Palo Alto, CA-based nonprofit which creates sustainable technology to solve pressing social needs.