Myths, Stereotypes: Higher Education's Learning Disabled Battle

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Myths, Stereotypes: Higher Education's Learning Disabled Battle.

ATLANTA -- For adults, being diagnosed with a learning disability (LD) is either a ticket to a more productive life or a stigma that brings additional hurt and isolation.

Among LD experts, there is a concern that many African Americans tend to associate having a learning disability with the latter scenario.

Such a correlation is hardly surprising.

Surveys reflect rampant misunderstanding among Americans about learning disabilities. For example, a great majority incorrectly associate LD with mental retardation.

Since African Americans, in particular, may be more sensitive to the negative implications of an LD diagnosis, linking them to the professional services that may improve their lives is being viewed by these professionals as a major challenge.

The issue is an urgent one for African-American college students with learning disabilities. It is believed that many of them shun assessment and underutilize support services. Their thinking might be: "The last thing I need is another label that suggests that I can't hack it."

"They don't want to be singled out as different," says RoseMary Watkins, director of the office of disability services and compliance at Emory University in Atlanta.

"If they already are minority students on campus, they already stand out because they're different. They don't want to be seen as different and disabled."

Outreach Critical

Yet, reaching these students could be critical to their success.

On October 19, a national interactive teleconference will focus on assessing the issues facing African Americans with learning disabilities.

The teleconference is sponsored by the Learning Disabilities Research and Training Center at the University of Georgia, which focuses on adults with LD.

The conference hopes to explore, among other issues, the misdiagnosis of African Americans with learning disabilities and the impact of culture on assessment and treatment.

Dr. Noel Gregg, director of the center, says the issue of African Americans and LD is, regrettably, regarded among professionals and consumers as so sensitive that it is almost taboo. One objective of the teleconference, she says, is to crack the ice.

Gregg says, "We need to know, what are the barriers? Do we need to train people differently?"

The problem, she says, goes beyond educating consumers about the advantages of LD assessment and the availability of services.

She says, "I think people who are being trained in the area of psychology and special education and rehabilitation need more training in understanding diversity and its impact in both assessment and instruction.

"With this teleconference, we're simply saying, please, let's open the dialogue -- and not just the dialogue within the African-American community."

Perception/Reality Gap

Surveys reveal that Americans, including educators, are badly in need of enlightenment about LD, which affects an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of the U.S. population.

A Roper poll conducted in March showed that 85 percent of those surveyed responded affirmatively when specifically asked if mental retardation is associated with learning disabilities. When asked the same question, 79 percent of teachers responded in the same manner.

Among Americans with learning disabilities, 44 percent, according to Roper, perceive that they receive less than equal treatment during the school year because of their disabilities.

But here are the facts. Persons with learning disabilities, by definition, have average to above-average intelligence. LD is a neurological disorder that causes otherwise bright children and adults to have trouble learning, because their minds process words or information differently.

With such a gap between perception and reality, it's easy to understand why the learning disabled might be wary of identifying with LD. …