NLA Listserv October 25, 1997
The discussion on the relationship between phonemic awareness and LD is highly important and one that deserves considerable focus in the general literature and perhaps on the NIFL-LD listserv. (I have copied this message to that listserv). In the following comments I will by-pass that discussion here, acknowledging that it needs to take place elsewhere. Instead, I will concentrate on some broader concerns that I believe need to be factored into any discussion of LD from theoretical, practical, and/or policy perspectives.
The 1993 NCAL report, "Should Reading-Disabled Adults Be Distinguished From Other Adults in Seeking Literacy Instruction," by Fowler and Scarborough states that:
"This study suggests that in practice, if not necessarily in theory, there are fewer differences than traditionally has been assumed between adults with reading disabilities and adults with reading problems that ae thought to stem from lack of educational opportunity or from a gnerally weak aptitude for learning. Consequently, the argument can be ade that much of what has been learned from research on reading is abilities may be pertinent to the identification and development of adult learners generally (p. ii)
The issue is not whether most adults who participate in literacy programs have a wide range of difficulties with reading and writing, but whether the concept of learning disabilities is the master cause of the 40%-80% among those for whom it is claimed that it is
The issue (in my mind) is not even whether methodologies and strategies utilized for LD students may be applicable to others. In one of its Linkages newsletters(not in my current possession), the NAALDC has a wonderful checklist of effective learning strategies to utilize with LD students that would be applicable to most any adult literacy learner (the argument of Fowler and Scarborough).
The issue is whether "learning disabilities" is an adequate and accurate characterization of the learning problems of a large segment of adult literacy students, particularly when any strict definition of LD rests on a neurological impairment of informational processing capabilities. Even symptoms do not a learning disabilities make, but may point to a broad range of factors (genetic, psychological, socio-cultural, historical) that need to be examined before we can make well warranted judgments
about causes of "illiteracy" among adults.
In a recent article, "Adult Literacy, Learning Disabilities, and Social Context: Conceptual Foundations for a Learner-Centered Approach (Pelavin Associates, Inc., 1994), Osher and Webb argue, among much else that "Learning disabilities are a socially created category of rather recent
origin" (p. 4) "that filled a void in American education" (p. 5). They maintain that it is a construct "which focuses attention on some factorsand excludes others" (p. 9). What is excluded, they say, is:
- an examination of the social context of adult literacy education
- references to learning differences or cognitive styles
The dominant view of LD:
"...focuses on factors that are intrinsic to the individual and excludes other disabilities that may co-occur or even produce the difficulties. The definition rules out such extrinsic factors as cultural differences and poor teaching" (p. 10), to say nothing of an irrelevant curriculum or nadequate resources.
The authors make the further point, quoting Gerald Coles (author of The Larning Mystique: A Critical Look at Learning Disabilities. Pantheon Boks, 1987) that:
"(L)Learning difficulties and any neurological dysfunctions associated wth them, develop not from within the individual but from the individual's interaction with social relationships. Brain functioning is both a product of and a contributor to the individual's interactions, it is not a predetermined condition" (Coles, 1987, p. xvii, cited in Osher and Webb, pp. 10-11).
The umbrella concept Osher and Webb favor is "learning differences" in which "learning difficulties" is a subset and "learning disabilities" is an even smaller subset.
This brings us to the important work of Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences, pointing to the diversity of ways that people learn. Gardner states that:
"...a human intellectual competence must entail a set of skills of problem solving--enabling the individual to resolve genuine problems or difficulties that he or she encounters, and when appropriate, to create an effective product--and must also entail the potential for finding or creating problems--thereby laying the groundwork for the acquisition of new knowledge" (Frames of Mind, 1983, pp. 60-61).
In a word, the intelligences are culturally produced rather than a product of individual minds and what is viewed as a disability is also a cultural artifact.
These are the questions I have:
- How would proponents define learning disabilities?
- Does that definition apply to a large or a relatively small portion of the adult literacy learner population?
- Is learning disabilities the major cause of why significant numbers of adults who have attended school have attained limited reading and writing capabilities?
- How would proponents place in relationship, learning disabilities, learning difficulties, learning differences, and multiple intelligences?
- Is there a continuum or a great divide between learning disabilities and other explanations for adult literacy among adults who have attended school?
- Is there a continuum or a great divide between in instructional approaches for those with learning disabilities and other adult literacy learners?
- From a policy perspective can the field advocate away from deficiency toward more developmental models that build on strengths and potential contributions to the culture that adults might make, in part, through enhanced literacy?
I do not deny that learning disabilities is not a valuable concept from theoretical, practitioner, and policy perspectives. I am concerned that the term is a bit loosely used and that considerable clarification is needed on the range of its explanatory power even when stricter definitions pertain.