Learning is a complex system of receiving, processing, storing, and expressing information. We learn through our senses by taking in information accurately; by incorporating it with other information we’ve accumulated; by storing it and retrieving it from our memory; by expressing it back when we want to, or are asked. In a learning disabled person the neurological system appears to be intact. That is to say the eyes see, the ears hear, there is an ability to articulate. But information does not always come in and go out smoothly. Everyone can experience these irregularities: saying a word is “on the tip of my tongue” but not quite being able to express it, thinking it’s Friday when it’s only Thursday, being told to turn left but turning right instead. People who have learning disabilities seem to experience these irregularities with greater frequency, with more areas of daily function being affected and with greater potential for negative impact to their overall lives. Sometimes the frustration is pervasive; sometimes we mistrust our abilities, because we can’t always “see” errors even after we’ve checked for them.
Not enough is understood about the “how” and “why” involved in these difficulties, but more information is being gathered, researched, and debated all the time. We are approaching an era where people with learning difficulties can access strategies to facilitate their intellectual potential like never before, if (and it is a big “if”) they can maintain their personal sense of value despite the frustration associated with progressing through our educational system.
In the presence of a strong sense of personal worth we can forge ahead despite difficulties, we can maintain a sense of emotional balance within ourselves despite the fact that we may not assimilate with ease.
Our system of education is struggling too. It displays all the characteristics of a disability in its own right. It has not been able to see that it has hurt generations of children in the past. It has lacked vision to understand the learners who tried hard yet progress still eluded them. It has exhibited intellectual paralysis when confronted with the invisible barriers that impede the educational progress of children with learning disorders. And it still continues to struggle today to recognize as well as utilize the unique latent potential that these children can present.
Our educational system does not exist in a vacuum; it’s an extension of the culture that funds it. In fact, the word culture is defined as ” the concepts, habits, skills, arts, institutions of a given people in a given period or civilization.” These concepts, habits, and skills create a social climate. This atmosphere of general thinking can systematically be hostile, neutral, or nurturing. The platitudes of a culture reveal a lot about the values that make up its social construction: “Time is money, you can never be too rich or too thin, and he who hesitates is lost”. In our modern culture there is tremendous social value placed on money and time. We use assimilation as the method through which we all agree to pursue those values that the culture holds in high esteem.
Current standards of primary and secondary education place significant value on learners who can regurgitate data with speed and accuracy on demand. Learners who are capable of such performance are rewarded with consistently positive validation. That’s understandable: the performance of these children enhance the culture’s sense of well being from teacher to school administrator to politicians. There is only one problem with this paradigm; the young intellects who are not able to comply within the narrow context of this process can easily become lost in the system and run the risk of believing they’re not worthy of intellectual investment.
Children with learning disabilities present an uneven intellectual profile. They can perform to an extraordinary degree in an isolated area and weakly in others. They display a pattern of learning that is irregular and complex. They may be able to comply with standards one day and not another. They don’t give back to us the reassuring sense they are assimilating on schedule. They can pull down a school’s academic performance statistics. They can serve as grist for a politician’s mill. They can become the objects of parents’ shame.
Yet history has born out the incontrovertible fact that children who are irregular learners, who struggle with learning difficulties may hold intellectual advancement that is of significant benefit to the whole culture. Einstein and Edison are two examples of great minds whose latent intellectual potential wasn’t evident in their early academic performance.
Einstein was not able to gain employment as a physicist until after he published several papers including his Theory on Special Relativity while working as a patent clerk. Initially he performed so poorly in school his headmaster stated “it doesn’t matter: he’ll never make a success of anything,” to his father.
Edison left school at age seven. In his writings he states; “I remember I used to never be able to get along at school. I was always at the foot of the class. I used to feel that the teachers did not sympathize with me, and that my father thought I was stupid” Edison was instructed at home by his mother. At age twelve he left home and began working. At age fifteen he held a job as a railroad signalman during the night. He secretly invented an automatic check-in signal from an alarm clock to streamline his hourly check-in duties and was fired when his superiors discovered the reason for his impeccable punctuality. This innovation later served as a basis for Edison’s automatic telegraph.
These men struggled at the rudimentary levels of the academic process. These men could not have been the only ones in their class to exhibit problems with learning. Somehow they managed to persevere and fulfill their intellectual potential. Their histories are consistent in that somewhere they held on to a strong belief in their capacity to be more, to do more, than first indicated. Somehow these men secured the access to explore information their minds craved. Someone older saw something of merit in their abilities and took the time to invest in them emotionally as well as intellectually focusing as much on their strengths as their weakness. Each possessed ability for risking failure in order to achieve success. Each structured a working style to accommodate their weakness and strategize around their difficulties. Each became accepted by the culture as “special” in a valuable way, and was able to refrain from many superficial aspects of assimilation.
These are the great minds we know of, what of the ones we never got to know? (Current averages hover around 10 to 14 percent for those who will fit the profile of a child struggling to learn.) How many minds that held answers to great issues have been in our midst and were shut down from the frustration of not learning with ease? Was there another soul across the hall from young Einstein, perhaps a girl with learning problems whose family, school, and culture saw no reason to try and penetrate the difficulty she exhibited? Who can say with certainty where the child will come from that possesses the capacity for an idea that leads to the cure for cancer or AIDS?
As a culture we need to understand that the child who struggles to learn may ultimately have something profound to teach us. For the greatest hazard a young mind with learning disabilities will ever confront is not the disability itself but our fixed assumptions in the presence of that disability.