Saturday, November 24, 2012

Further Probing into the Intricaies of Learning Difficulties

Original NLA Nov. 15, 1997 

I would like to commend Glenn Young for his very thorough response to the various issues I've raised about LD as well as for his analysis of related policy issues.  I won't comment on Glenn's statement in a systematic fashion, because I don't feel that would be useful and wasn't what David had asked of us.  Instead, I will examine some of the relationships among literacy, learning disabilities, and public policy as I understand them.  I am neither an LD nor policy analyst specialist, so I can only speak of these issues, hopefully, as a somewhat enlightened lay observer. 

I do have some background out of which I base my observations.  I managed a literacy program in Hartford, CT for a number of years and had direct contact with well over 1000 adult literacy learners.  Over the years, my colleagues and I at Literacy Volunteers of Greater Hartford developed an extensive small group tutoring program and a collaborative learning environment that spawned student writing anthologies and texts of oral history narratives of adult new readers.  This student-generated literature speaks of a rich complexity of the lives of adult literacy learners in their grasp and analysis of their own past, in their understanding of the range of issues that they currently face, in their discussion of issues of race, class, education, family, work, and in the value, almost to a person, they attribute to adult literacy education. 

This field work has been informed by an underlying belief that all people of reasonable mental capacity are intelligent, and likewise, that all people have profound gaps in their learning and capacity to process information.  This belief is grounded in deep personal experience wherein I have felt much pain in not being able to learn (sometimes) in the manner of many others and have had to find my own way within the context of my own solitude and also with the support of some real significant others.  Does that make me learning disabled?  Sometimes it does, at other times it doesn't.  It depends on the context.  

I have also been deeply influenced by the progressive literature on literacy, particularly the work of Hanna Fingeret, Susan Lytle, Allan Quigley, Denny Taylor and C. Dorsey-Gaines, Elsa Auerbach, and Brian Street, although I am perhaps a bit more conservative in the importance I place on "scaffolding" or the potential bridge building function of the instructor in assisting students to develop new knowledge while building on the knowledge base and experience they already possess.  What these authors point to, and I concur, is the empowerment and agenic ingenuity people do exhibit by drawing on their own intelligence and community and neighborhood resources which may be more viable and nurturing than those of us who live in suburbs might imagine.  That may be the case even though they live in areas that are economically impoverished. 

I, in no way, want to deny the crushing impact of poverty in stifling the potential of many people, nor the potential role of literacy, and an LD diagnosis among those to whom it might apply, as one intervening variable among many in helping people to enhance their lives.  I do want to stress a more wholistic understanding of people's lives as discussed in the ethnographic literature, and the complex ways they (we) make their (our) way in the world.  On such a reading, constructs like LD are viewed more on a continuum that at times and situations have more relevance even for those deeply afflicted than at other times.  I am arguing, then, for a more developmental and contextual understanding of LD in its relationship to literacy and in the broader life challenges people face for whom LD seems clearly an issue.  But I take a more skeptical (rather than atheistic), cautious, probing stance in generalizing to large sectors of the population who may exhibit various LD-like symptoms, but also exhibit much empowering behavior  within the context of their own developmental trajectories. 

I would assume there is a physiological component to all of our mental processing and gaps, but if concepts like LD are culturally based, then logically, so are neurological disorders.  What may be innate is the brute experience of felt inadequacy in facing situations where one is at loss (this is pure speculation, but grounded in a certain logic by which I make my lay observations).  What seems psycho cultural is (a) the knowledge that is viewed as important by individuals within the contexts of their social environments, and (b) the various coping strategies required to move into more productive space (I think Glenn and I agree on this).  Some will have more difficulty than others, and I fully support the claim that for some, the difficulties will be harder, in part, for the range of reasons identified by the LD community. 

Getting (slowly) to David's [Rosen’s] question on what are the policy implications of a psycho-cultural interpretation of LD (and here, I'm really treading on water), is the need for practitioners and scholars to persuade policy makers to support more developmental and empowering visions of adult literacy education which also acknowledge the difficulties many people face in learning.  In my experience, it takes a long time, particularly for those adults reading at lower levels to attain anything resembling fluent, sustainable, independent literacy skills, although the ethnographic literature points to the use of enhanced literacy practices in highly specific contexts whether at work, home, or in the community that is gained in a shorter period of time.  That is development, but some people, including those with LD, may have more difficulty than others in achieving a desired or acceptable (as they and perhaps significant others in their lives define it), levels of growth in their capacity to mediate that part of the social environment that is critical to their lives.  I would like to see policy initiatives such as those that might be based on the Equipped for the Future project (for example) that might help people progressively master the challenges of the critical social roles that shape their lives, which should include support and accommodation needs for the type of learning difficulties (including disabilities) people may face.
For the short term, given the current law on learning disabilities (and I clearly bow to Glenn's expertise on this), greater emphasis might be placed on more developmental and contextual interpretations of learning disabilities rather than a proscriptive legislation that requires, say, a phonics first approach.  For the longer haul, a more complex public discourse needs to emerge on the nature of adult literacy and the relationship learning disabilities, difficulties, differences, styles, multiple intelligences and much else, to it.  Such a discourse would require literacy and ABE instructors, program practitioners, administrators, scholars, the press, and political servants from a broad spectrum to take a good, hard look at this issue.  I can't but help to express some skepticism about the likelihood of this happening, but the forum provided by the NLA is an important critical step in galvanizing a public discussion.  Through such discourse, a more enlightened policy on literacy and LD might emerge.  I am fully aware that many people are already fighting for this cause.

 Thank you for the floor,

 George Demetrion

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