Help for Adult `Square Pegs' Columbia Center Assists Grown-Up Learning-Disabled

Article excerpt

OVER THE YEARS, experts have described Terry as hyperactive, attention deficit disordered and dyslexic.

But ask Terry to describe himself, and this is what he says: "I'm a square peg who has spent a lifetime trying to fit into a round hole."

When Terry graduated from a St. Louis area high school in the 1960s, the term "learning disabilities" had barely been coined. His difficulties - now considered a handicap by federal mandate - went unremediated. As a result, he says, he graduated "basically illiterate." "I still don't know my multiplication tables," he says.

Terry (not his real name) met with success in life by becoming self-employed. He worked as a pipefitter, then as a welding engineer at a nuclear power plant. After that, he opened and operated a gourmet restaurant and coffee house. "I became a master at hiding my weaknesses," he says. "Instead of writing up a report, I would dictate it."

Still, he says, there was "lots of pain, tears, loneliness, feelings of isolation" to contend with. And it wasn't until his daughters were diagnosed as learning disabled that Terry realized there might be help available for himself as well.

Help is available today for adults like Terry thanks to the vision of James Koller, director of the SLD (Specific Learning Disability) Assessment and Consultation Clinic at the University of Missouri's Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology.

"Our philosophy is to say that maybe a square peg can fit into a round hole," says Koller. "Many learning disabled people have phenomenal strengths. It's our job to find those strengths, instead of focusing on weaknesses. Then we try to devise strategies to help people circumvent their problems."

Koller's clinic, a national model, was begun three years ago with $678,000 in grants from the Rehabilitative Services Administration Office of Education and the Missouri Department of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Because of its track record in helping people make a successful transition from school to work, Koller and his colleagues are being honored by the President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities Friday in Portland, Ore.

According to Koller, the learning disabled (LD) population is the fastest growing disability group in the nation, and carries the highest risk for school and job dropout. Its members are also the most underemployed of any disabled group.

"Clinic research on a group of gifted LD clients with an average I.Q. of 130 showed that their average salary was 15 cents above minimum wage. These people are pumping gas, working at fast food restaurants . . . obviously, that's a tremendous loss of talent," says Koller.

"Learning disabilities are more than a failure to read, spell and do math in school. LD kids grow up to be LD adults. Ten to 20 percent of the workforce are thought to have specific learning disabilities. And estimates are that the nation is losing $1 billion a year in terms of business revenues due to these problems," he says.

So how does the clinic go about assessing these hidden handicaps and helping people learn to compensate for them?

First, it provides extensive psychometric testing to diagnose strengths and weaknesses. …