The ‘Invisible’ Disability

By The Wall Street Journal - Letters to the Editor
Monday, February 14, 2000

Although this WSJ Letter to the Editor was written more than a decade ago, it still remains timely today. The need for a level playing field in standardized tests continues to be relevant and urgent.

In regard to your page-one article about whether Academic Standards Will Suffer if disabled students get a break:  I applaud your attention to the issue of learning disabilities and find it gratifying that society is becoming more aware of the impact of learning differences from the estimated 15% to 20% of students who must live with them.  However, at the same time, I find it disheartening to read that so many people, particularly in educational fields, remain uninformed of both the nature and the neurological basis of learning disabilities.

When I was in grade school in the 1940’s there was no word to describe my difficulty with reading and writing.  I was 47 before I had a name and a diagnosis for this condition:  dyslexia, the most common language-related learning disability.  As a student, I invented my own accommodations, like relying on Classic Comic Books to read such assignments as A Tale of Two Cities and Ivanhoe.

Fifty years ago, dyslexia and other learning differences were vague and poorly understood concepts whose study was limited to a small corner of the medical world.  Today research into dyslexia and other language-based learning differences is on the cutting edge of neuroscience.  Researchers, using the technology of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are now able to image the working brain and literally see the difference in circuitry of dyslexic readers.

As a result of establishing the Schwab Foundation for Learning, I’ve had the advantage of meeting and speaking with leading researchers in the field of learning differences, such as Dr. Sally Shaywitz, director of Yale University’s Center for the Study of Learning, who has been at the forefront of fMRI research.  Through their work, we’ve learned that people with reading disabilities, such as dyslexia, have difficulties with the most basic step in the reading process: breaking down the word into the simplest sound units.  Bottom line: they simply can’t break the reading code.  And yet they commonly have strengths in problem solving, reasoning, and critical and conceptual thinking.

We also know that reading disability does not go away.  You’re born with it and you live with it, as I still do at 62.  It’s certainly not something that you can outgrow or overcome in order to accommodate standardized tests such as statewide exams or college admissions tests.  Which is why accommodating the student for the test is both reasonable and fair.

To quote Dr. Shaywitz, “The dyslexic relies on context to get to the meaning of a word he can’t read.  As a result, dyslexic readers are disproportionately penalized by standardized, multiple-choice tests that provide scanty context.  Their skills and strengths in areas of thinking, reasoning, problem solving and creating are often more difficult to measure, and yet ultimately far more important.”

How much better it would be for all students if the focus of this discussion were not maintaining the validity of standardized tests, but integrating the research findings that support different ways of learning into our education system.  Until we do, we run the risk of perpetuating the historic stigma of the invisible disability of learning differences and compounding it with the suggestion that students would claim learning disabilities to gain an advantage in testing situations.

Charles R. Schwab
Charles Schwab & Co.
San Francisco

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