Daily Archives: October 20, 2009

Learning disabilities, a silent struggle | By Jay Balagna

When Eric Thornley was five years old, he was diagnosed with dyscalculia, a specific learning disability that inhibits a person’s learning of math. Coupled with a speech impediment, he quickly fell behind the other children in his class.
The now-19-year-old history and international affairs major is forced to spend more time studying and working on assignments than the average student.
“I’m not like the typical college student where I sign up for a fraternity and go out and party,” Thornley said. “I have to spend a lot more time on my schoolwork to keep up.”
Thornley is one of more than 400 students at the University of Nevada, Reno with a diagnosed learning disability, according to information from the Disability Resource Center.
Students with learning disabilities make up the second-highest portion served by the Disability Resource Center after psychological disabilities, Mary Zabel, the center’s director, said. The psychological disabilities include attention deficit disorder, accounting for the higher number, Zabel said. UNR’s learning disability rates largely fit with the national trend.
Specific learning disabilities are neurological disorders that affect a person’s ability to learn in various ways. “Learning disability” is an umbrella term used to refer to a number of different disorders, said Christine Cheney, a professor of special education at UNR and the chair of the education specialties department.
Included in the list of learning disabilities are dyscalculia; dyslexia, a reading and language-based disorder and dysgraphia, a writing-based disorder, as well as other, less-common handicaps.
Most people with learning disabilities are given a general diagnosis and not told which disorder they have, Cheney said.
“Generally, in the school system, we don’t tend to break it down and just say people are learning disabled,” she said.
That approach has the advantage of preventing decreased expectations for a student in any specific area, Cheney said. It sometimes expands those decreased expectations to all subjects, though.
“For the most part, people see this as something that can be overcome,” Cheney said. “There is the risk some people will just give up, though.”
Thornley said his learning disability affected him through grade school and into college.
“When I was younger, my first year of grade school was in a special education program which was a little disheartening,” he said.
The next year, Thornley was assigned to a regular classroom but still had to work to succeed in school with his disability.
As the years went by, he began to find himself wondering why he couldn’t achieve the high grades his older sister had earned in the same subjects. As he slowly came to terms with his dyscalculia, he began to realize he would have to start taking more responsibility for his education if he wanted to succeed later in life.
“Lowered expectations can often be a problem (for students with learning disabilities),” Cheney said. “Sometimes families and teachers can help too much and students can kind of get a learned helplessness.”
Those feelings of helplessness keep many students with learning disabilities from college educations, she said.
“There are a lot of capable students out there and the message is getting to them more and more that college is an option,” Cheney, whose son has a learning disability and is a UNR graduate, said.
While Thornley tries to do as much as he can on his own, he still needs help in some areas. His freshman year, he took a year-long Math 120 class offered through the Disability Resource Center. Now that his math requirement is completed, he uses only the alternative testing and note-taking services offered through the center.
The alternative testing is the same test given in the classes, but in a longer allotted time period and in the Disability Resource Center, Thornley said.
Another student in the same class provides the note-taking service by agreeing to take his own notes on carbon-copy paper in exchange for a $100 stipend toward the next semester’s tuition, Zabel said. Note-takers are screened by the Disability Resource Center to make sure their handwriting is legible and they are not on academic probation, she said. The money automatically is reduced from the following semester’s tuition.

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