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Learning disabilities

The term “learning disability” describes a neurobiological disorder in which a person’s brain works or is structured differently. These differences in brain structure affect a person’s ability to speak, listen, read, write, spell, reason, recall, organize information and do mathematics.

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in seven children has a learning disability. Most children with learning disabilities (80%) have difficulty with language skills, including reading, writing and spelling. Even though these children are as smart as their peers, they need additional time and tools to help them read, write and spell.

We can give children that extra time to develop their skills if we identify learning disabilities early. When we identify language learning disabilities in a young child, he or she has more time to learn to read and write with less difficulty.

Tools that help

Tools help people work around their learning disabilities

Learning disabilities can’t be cured or fixed. But with the help of tools, a child with a learning disability can work around his or her difficulties with reading, writing, numbers, spelling, organization or memory.

Children and adults with disabilities can use tools (or technology) to perform everyday activities. Complex, high-tech tools and normal devices are referred to as “assistive technology.” The purpose of tools and assistive technology is to help people work around specific deficits rather than fixing them. Tools help people of all ages with learning disabilities reach their full potential, giving them greater freedom and independence along the way.

Just as a person in a wheelchair needs a ramp to go around stairs, people with learning disabilities need tools to help them work around their difficulties with reading, writing, spelling, numbers or memory.

Tools can be simple or complex

Everyone uses tools. Tools are devices and equipment designed to make everyday tasks easier. People use dictionaries-whether paper or electronic-to spell a word correctly. Color highlighters help people pick out important sentences in long pieces of writing.

People with learning disabilities also need tools. Sometimes standard technologies (such as voice recognition systems) can be used, adapted or designed to help people with learning disabilities perform everyday tasks.

Tools for people with learning disabilities can be as simple as highlighters, color coding files or drawers, books on tape, tape recorders, calculators or a different paper color or background color on a computer screen.

Complex or high-tech, assistive technology includes:

· computers that talk to help people with reading and writing difficulties,

· speech recognition systems that turn oral language into written text,

· talking calculators that assist people with math difficulties, and

· software that predicts words for people with spelling difficulties.

Who uses assistive technology?

The following stories show how children with typical learning disabilities can use assistive technology to perform learning tasks with greater confidence and independence.

I’m free to write

Lisa is a third grader with a learning disability that causes her to have a hard time forming letters. She has a writing disability called dysgraphia that makes it difficult to write words on paper. Because of her disability, she gets behind in her schoolwork and becomes frustrated when she cannot write as easily, quickly or legibly as her peers.

With a software program that translates her voice into text on a computer screen, Lisa can write stories by talking to a computer rather than having to write the words out by hand. With assistive technology, Lisa has more freedom to communicate through writing. She can develop her potential with greater confidence as she improves her written expression skills.

Reading with my ears

José a freshman in high school whose dyslexia means he has difficulty reading printed words on the page and remembering what he has read. He spends much longer on all of his reading assignments than his peers do, and so they think he is not as smart as they are. José is frustrated when he cannot keep up with his friends and often feels defeated even before he starts a reading assignment.

But when he listens to school textbooks and fiction books, he has an easier time understanding and remembering them. With simple tools like books on tape and a tape recorder, José can keep up with his classmates. He feels better about his abilities in school and is more interested in reading outside of school.

With a simple tool like books on tape, José and people of all ages with reading difficulties can read books faster and easier than when they must struggle with print.

Spelling on my own

Raymond is a sixth grader who likes to talk in class and does well giving speeches. But because he has a learning disability, reading and writing are not as easy for him. His learning disability, called dyslexia, makes it hard for him to identify certain letters and words.

Even with years of practice, Raymond’s spelling is still so poor that many times he and others usually cannot read what he writes. Because he has such a hard time telling the difference between letters, a spell checker in a computer word processing program isn’t enough to help.

But a personalized word bank on the computer makes writing easier for Raymond. With the help of his teachers, he can create an electronic list of words he uses often and others he misspells often.

Raymond can select words he needs from the electronic word bank rather than having to spell each of them as he writes. With assistive technology, Raymond is almost as confident a writer as he is a speaker.

More on assistive technology

An assistive technology guide is available. Go to E-ssential Guide: A Parent’s Guide to Assistive Technology . for a free copy or call (650) 655-2410.

A list of assistive technology products is available from the International Dyslexia Association . For a copy, call (800) ABCD123.

A resource called Educational Technology & Learning Disabilities is available from The Learning Disabilities Association of America. For a copy, call (888) 300-6710.

The Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities is a collaborative public awareness effort of the National Center for Learning Disabilities Learning Disabilities Association of America , The International Dyslexia Association (formerly The Orton Dyslexia Society), Division for Learning Disabilities at the Council for Exceptional Children , Council for Learning Disabilities , and the E-ssential Guide: A Parent’s Guide to Assistive Technology .

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