Learn Your Special Education Laws, Special Education Rights, and Share IEP Goal Ideas

Feb 23
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by Doug Goldberg

The other day I was shopping in the local grocery store, one that is part of a chain of supermarkets up and down the state.  It was later in the day and it seemed everyone in town was shopping in the same place.  The lines were long, the clerks were trying to hurry, and some customers were anxious.  But the baggers were methodical, calm and worked with smiles.  I began observing all the lines as patron after patron had their bags packed in the same disciplined way by these smiling baggers.

Then I watched the baggers more closely and suddenly I was struck by the fact that all of them  had some kind of disability.   Two had Down syndrome, some had different physical deformities like a crippled arm or extremely thick glasses, and many had problems I couldn’t identify.  But they were all persevering in their jobs - packing the bags carefully, loading groceries onto the carts, and courteously asking customers if they needed help to their cars. They all worked diligently and with kindness.  If a clerk asked one to run and get an item or check a price, the bagger complied happily. 

Later I learned that this supermarket chain trains and hires people with disabilities, helping them become contributing members in their communities.  Because of their disabilities, without this type of support most of these workers would most likely not be able to attend college nor have a chance to get meaningful work.  However, here they all were, independent employees, going to their job every day, taking care of themselves, and even paying taxes.

I try now to have a conversation with the bagger who takes my groceries to the car.  I ask questions such as whether they are going to school, what are their ambitions, what kind of hobbies they have. Every one of them is going to the local junior college, most take the bus to work, and all have a hobby.

It made me think about positive learning attributes and how some of the students I had known with learning disabilities would not measure up to these baggers whose problems were far more serious than most.

It struck me then that learning attributes have nothing to do with learning ability.

Once I began work with a fourth grader who did have diagnosed reading problems.  The very first time he walked into my office, he picked up a crayon, wrote his name on the wall, threw the crayon back on the table, leaned back in his chair, then smiled.  Finally he looked straight at me and said, “Hi.”  This was a student who regularly did not turn in his homework, caused problems inside and outside the classroom, and in general was not participating in his own learning.

Conferences with his parents were frustrating.  His mother kept repeating how hard it was for him to do his homework and how she spent hours trying to help him. She defended his wearisome behavior as indicative of his performance anxiety.  His dad was angry with his son, but was not home during homework hours so had little input on his son’s daily interactions regarding school.  At least that was what he said.

Sadly, these types of parental reactions have been seen in many of the students like the fourth grader I portrayed.  Furthermore, strategies designed by good teachers attempting to help ease anxiety, provide individualized help, and counsel the parents of these students can lead to exasperation by all.   Student learning attitudes, usually formed years before any learning disability was discovered, either positive or negative, will influence life-long success much more than a learning problem ever would.

I have been able to follow the learning paths of many of the students I have worked with for over 30 years.  The ones who are successful are the ones who persevered, worked hard and took their learning seriously.  They realized that they would have to work, and probably work harder than most, to achieve.  No, it doesn’t seem fair, but it’s the truth. They knew their learning patterns and took responsibility for moving forward.

A study published in 1999, Patterns of Change and Predictors of Success in Individuals With Learning Disabilities: Results From a Twenty-Year Longitudinal Study

(Marshall H. Raskind, Roberta J. Goldberg, Eleanor L. Higgins, and Kenneth L. Herman, Learning Disabilities Research and Practice, Vol. 14) reported on a 20 year follow-up analysis of children diagnosed with learning problems at around age 10.  After all indicators were categorized, the authors reported the following:

This study used multiple techniques to determine the specific variables or combinations of variables that are predictive of success in persons with LD. All techniques led to the same conclusion: There exists for these participants a set of personal attitudes and behaviors, the possession of which would predict success. Specifically, the attributes of self-awareness, perseverance, proactivity, emotional stability, goal setting, and the use of support systems were more powerful predictors of success than numerous other variables, including IQ, academic achievement, life stressors, age, gender, SES, ethnicity, and many other background variables. These success attributes are consistent with those reported in year 10 of this longitudinal project and appear to be relatively stable across time. Although different terms have been utilized, several of these attributes and their relationships to success in adults with LD are similar to those reported by other researchers (e.g., Reiff et al., 1997; Wehmeyer, 1996; Werner.& Smith, 1992). 

This multi-year study has been noted by other researchers trying to understand success, reflects what is known generally about learning disabilities and makes several conclusions clear.

  1.  Learning disabled students need to fully understand their learning strengths and weaknesses.
  2. Learning disabled students should be provided with resources to help them progress throughout their lifetime, but they must learn to use these resources personally.
  3. A learning disability is a life-long problem that cannot be cured although compensation strategies can be learned and practiced until they are habits.
  4. Learning disabled students need to be held accountable for their work ethic and perseverance to tasks.  In that way, they will be successful no matter how severe their problems are or under what conditions they arise. 

There are many celebrities and famous people with learning problems, people who persevered no matter what obstacles they encountered.  Although they knew they had a learning disability, these people also knew that it was just one part of them, that yes, they needed help for that particular issue, but they did not let that one concern keep them from succeeding in life.  Albert Einstein, who did not speak until age 4, did not read until age 9, failed in his first attempt at college entrance and lost 3 teaching positions in 2 years said, “It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer. “ Accomplishment required perseverance, dedication to learning, moving forward when faced with obstacles, having goals and taking responsibility for meeting them.

Maybe we should all pay attention to those baggers in the supermarket, doing their work, unrelenting in performing their job tasks, content and confident to do so in spite of their learning problems, and also enjoying their lives.

Carol Murphy, MA, CCC-SLP
Certified and Licensed Speech-Language Pathologist
Board Certified Educational Therapist
Learning Disability Specialist
Owner, Speech & Learning Services
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