Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

The Profession of Learning Disabilities: Progress and Promises

Academic journal article Learning Disability Quarterly

The Profession of Learning Disabilities: Progress and Promises

Article excerpt

Abstract. An earlier version of this paper was presented as the 14th Annual Distinguished Lecture at the 23rd International Conference on Learning Disabilities, October 21, 2001. It focuses on the status of the field of learning disabilities, including the accomplishments as well as elements of the unfinished agenda that are needed to move the field forward. Drawing on the contributions of the greatest generation of special educators, the paper discusses how these foundations provide a basis for future developments in the field.


In considering perspectives to be developed for my presentation at the 2001 Conference of the Council for Learning Disabilities (CLD), I was reminded of an incident that happened some years ago. During the height of my running career, I was running with four colleagues one day when we came to a blind corner and a driver ran a stop sign and almost plowed through all five of us. Once we had caught our breath, we evaluated the situation and realized the varied resources of our group should a crisis have struck. We had in the group: a cardiologist if there was need for that form of intervention; a plastic surgeon whose skills would potentially have been very timely and important; an attorney who certainly could have made the driver regret this action for a significant period of time; and a business manager who could make sure that everyone received their just due. We all thought we were quite clever coming up with these roles and expanded on them at length.

Then the question ensued: What role does a special educator play in an instance like this? My thoughts ran to rounding up the usual suspects: establishing present levels of performance; developing annual goals and short-time objectives; establishing and writing transition plans; and perhaps the more exotic: implementing perceptual-motor training (angels in the snow) or a behavior change program using differential reinforcement of low rate for stop-sign-running behavior. But my colleagues came up with the more obvious: What a special educator could do is be the witness to the event.

Being a witness relates to the focus of this paper. I welcome the chance to have an opportunity to share my perspectives on what I have witnessed through 30 years in the field of special education, and in particular, in the field of learning disabilities.


At the turn of the millennium, I exercised an editorial digression for one of the few significant times since assuming the senior editorial responsibilities for the journal Remedial and Special Education. Enchanted with the lists in the popular media (e.g., Time magazine) identifying the top 100 individuals to do almost anything within virtually all disciplines, it occurred to me that one place where no such list had appeared was in special education. Hence the publication (Polloway, 2000) of a manuscript listing influential persons in the development of the field of special education. Fifty-three individuals were on the list ranging from A to Z (from Nathan Azrin and the development of toilet training programs for individuals with severe disabilities to Naomi Zigmond and her work with adolescents with learning disabilities).

There are two discernible subgroups within the list. The first consists of the true pioneers of special education including, for example, Jean Jacques Itard, Sam Kirk, Lloyd Dunn, William Cruickshank, Burton Blatt, and Doris Johnson. These were individuals committed to advocacy, who virtually created fields of research and practice where they did not exist and made among the first significant contributions to the literature in many areas of concern to teachers, college and university faculty, community service providers, parents, legislators and persons with disabilities. Without these individuals, it's unclear where we might be today. …

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