The State of Learning Disabilities: A New Report

Advocacy report on learning disabilities - awareness

This report, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, is now available for reading and can be downloaded.

The National Center for Learning Disabilities, a leading advocacy group, just came out with a report, The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. That figure, one in five, or 20 percent, refers to the number of students who have a learning disability, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dyslexia. This population is very much misunderstood; all too often, these children are (mis)labeled as lazy or unmotivated or just not as smart as their peers. More often than not, these labels are untrue. Not only are these students at risk of failing school, but also they all too often struggle finding or keeping employment and are disproportionately represented in the prison population.

Despite one in five students having some sort of learning disability, according to this report, only one in 16 receive proper special-education services with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and only one in 50 receive services under Section 504.  This detailed report covers the following:

  • The neuroscience, stigma, and federal laws concerning these students
  • How to identify struggling students
  • Supporting academic success
  • The social, emotional, and behavioral challenges these students face and pose
  • Issues regarding the transitioning to life after high school
  • Recommended policies.

The report provides summaries for each state, with “key data points and comparisons to national averages in several areas such as inclusion in general education classrooms, disciplinary incidents and dropout rates for students with learning and attention issues.”

The bibliographic citation for this report is:

Horowitz, S. H., Rawe, J., & Whittaker, M. C. (2017). The State of Learning Disabilities: Understanding the 1 in 5. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.


College for Students with Disabilities: An Update



A forthcoming New Jersey conference, Sunday, October 23, will addresses strategies for learning with LD and ADHD.  A myriad of workshops are offered to help parents, professionals and students discover more about learning disabilities and attention issues.

This week also saw an excellent Huffington Post article: “Beyond IEPs: Learning Disabilities Go to College”


Celebrating the Power of Assistive Technology


It’s time to revisit a fine 2014 blog post from Edutopia on what assistive technology can do for students with learning disabilities, offering them access to the wonders and benefits of education.  This blog post is also notable for links to other informative and inspiring videos, well worth watching.

So, here it is:

5-Minute Film Festival: The Power of Assistive Technology


Two Developments in Special Education This Week


portrait of a young boy at school working on a laptop computer screen

First, in our backyard, a bipartisan bill sponsored by State Senator Diane Allen to establish a special education ombudsman passed.
Here is the statement of the bill’s sponsor, .

In national news, the No Child Left Behind Act (a title appropriated from Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund) is no more. This week, in a bipartisan vote, the Senate passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).  The new legislation received praise from the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), as well as President Obama

Cooking: A Fun and Useful Activity for Individuals with Disabilities

Almost as enjoyable as eating a satisfying meal is preparing one.  It’s not only fun, it can also be an educational activity.  What’s more, involving individuals in choosing and preparing the very food they eat is important for their physical health and emotional well-being.

life skills cooking independence disabilities

Cooking is not only fun, it can also be an educational activity. What’s more, involving individuals in choosing and preparing the very food they eat is important for their physical health and emotional well-being.

Life Skills
   Cooking and preparing food is a life skill, an essential part of independent living.  In addition to cooking, planning, preparation, hygiene, and clean-up activities are important parts of life.  Activities before, during, and after the actual cooking offers practice in the following life skills:

  • Allowing individuals to select what they want to eat will become an important part of their lives.  However, they will need guidance.  Nutrition is an extremely important issue: numerous studies and surveys show that people with disabilities are much more likely to be obese and their nondisabled counterparts.  As in special education, it is critical to consider each consumer’s individual abilities.  For example, a consumer with significant cognitive disabilities may need to select among two or three choices; picture prompts can be very effective and helpful.  Individuals with higher-functioning cognitive skills can apply lessons on nutrition, such as planning a balanced meal, using Choose My Plate, formerly known as the Food Pyramid.   The next step will be to create grocery lists together.
  • Time spent at the grocery store can be a satisfying scavenger hunt, with an element of logic thrown in (e.g., “In which department do we find the butter?”).   Previous conversations on nutrition can be reinforced by reading product labels.  Of course, in the end (literally and figuratively), any shopping experience affords practice with the mathematics of money.
  • Food Preparation. From reviewing recipes to cutting vegetables to actual cooking (e.g., baking, frying, and boiling), individuals learn the ABCs of preparing a meal.
  • Math and Measurement. Mathematical concepts are taught and absorbed in real-life contexts.  In addition to handling money at the store, individuals will learn about volume measurement (as well as what tools are best, for example, measuring spoon or measuring cup), and time.
  • Food Handling, Safety, and Hygiene. Instruction in food preparation should include other important skills: safety (for example, how to handle knives and hot objects) and hygiene, both personal (e.g., proper hand washing) and food-handling protocols (e.g., using separate cutting boards for vegetables and meat to avoiding bacterial cross-contamination and washing pots and utensils properly).
  • Working Together. Individuals learn much and derive considerable satisfaction from working together and benefiting from tangible team accomplishments.

General Tips
   The following are guidelines to keep in mind when teaching individuals with disabilities cooking and food preparation:

  • Give the individuals as much independence as they can handle. Visual or verbal prompts may be necessary; the type and level of the prompt will depend on each person’s abilities and challenges.
  • Pay attention to sequencing. Giving directions that can be followed easily is the most challenging aspect of teaching people with special needs.  “Lessons” must accommodate the cognitive and ability of the individual, his/her interests, and talents. In most cases, it is best to present steps one at a time.
  • Make it multisensory—sight, touch, smell and, of course, taste. Through questioning and the sense of taste, the consumer will determine, for example, how much seasoning to use or whether the mix of ingredients is a good one.  The individual gains independence not only learning a valuable skill, but also by being involved in making decisions.
  • Finally, show that making mistakes is OK. We all make mistakes, and that’s a good practical life lesson, too, especially for younger individuals.  Furthermore, the unintended result can be a tasty surprise!

In Sum
Cooking and associated skills are taught and used in a real-life context, which makes them much easier to learn and retain.  In addition, much of what people learn in cooking they can apply to other situations.  The individuals acquire a great deal of personal satisfaction through independence.

ADA 25: A Quarter Century of Advocating for All People with Disabilities

A half century ago marks the passing of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 (amended in 1973 by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act).  Twenty-five years later, and 25 years ago, the most important piece of civil rights legislation, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.  The date was July 26, 1990.  The title sheet signed read, “One Hundred First Congress of the United States of America, at the record session. An Act: To establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability.”

ada25 logo

     According to the federal government, the ADA “…prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life.”  The ADA mandates the following:

  • Title I: Equal opportunity and nondiscrimination in employment
  • Title II: Full access to government facilities and services, including transportation
  • Title III: Full access to all places of public accommodation, including commercial establishment
  • Title IV: The ability to use all forms of telecommunications technology, including telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDD) and video relay service (VRS).
  • Title V: Forbidding any coercion or retaliation in enforcing the provisions of ADA.

ADA also sets standards on accessibility for government and private buildings of public accommodation, including wheelchair ramps, entrances, and playgrounds.

ADA gained strength in 1999, after a Supreme Court case, Olmstead v.L.C., ruled that people with mental illness have a disability; they now had the right to live in least-restrictive setting, often community residences rather than state-mandated institutions.  Often known simply as “Olmstead,” the legislation “requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities and to ensure that persons with disabilities receive services in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs.”

ADA 25 Slogan

Let’s Celebrate!
In 2000 and 2001, the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of American History curated an interactive exhibit, “The Disability Rights Movement.”   The display documented years of civil protest to raise awareness, the right of self-determination and autonomy, parent activism and advocacy, how children with disabilities have been treated over the years, the role of technology (in communication, mobility) in ensuring full access for people with disabilities, and how the ADA set out to guarantee those rights people had been fighting for.

This year, ADA 25 celebrations are being held in the nation’s capital and throughout the country.  The ADA Legacy Project and ADA National Network are dedicated to tracking these events.  A gala of the arts in the nation’s capital is the 25/40 Celebration.  And in New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio declared July Disability Pride Month.  An interesting and noteworthy event in recognition of ADA 25 is [dis]ABLED Inside Out a photographic documentary to portray and focus on the abilities and individuality of people with a disability. Leopoldine was born in Paris, France, but came to the US to study law.  She has been very impressed by the fact that all public places are accessible to her and her wheelchair.  The Inside Out project has become a worldwide movement.  Another online effort is the DisabilityVisiblity Project, inspired by StoryCorps, to give people the chance to tell their own stories in their own voices.

On Tuesday, July 21, President Barack Obama, praised the progress of ADA in a rousing speech, declaring “A new American Independence Day.”  The President also recognized the importance of the work we still need to do to live up to our promise of employment for persons with disabilities.

A Brief Look in Time
   Over the first century and a half of U.S. history, life for most people with disabilities was fraught with misery and challenges.  During that time, nearly everyone with a cognitive disability was consigned to a life sentence in a state institution.  A pioneering investigative reporter named Nelly Bly wrote Ten Days in a Mad-House; this gripping 1887 account exposed the horrors of these asylums.  Helen Keller was one of the lucky few and very much the exception.  In 1899, a studious lady from upstate New York named Elizabeth Farrell left a comfortable middle-class life and traveled to the fetid slums of New York City’s Lower East Side.  There, she met Lillian Wald; both women established the Henry Street School, a highly progressive boarding school to teach children, where students with severe disabilities could learn and develop practical vocational and household skills.  It was her tireless advocacy that laid the foundations of the special-education laws of today.

The history of disability rights in employment in the U.S. goes back to 1920.  President Woodrow Wilson signed the Smith-Fess Act, which provided for World War I veterans disabled in action.  However, during this time the eugenics movement gained acceptance.  Authorities and scientists alike called for the forced sterilization of “feebleminded, insane, depressed, mentally handicapped, and epileptic people.”  The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 called for sheltered workshops for all people with disabilities, not just the blind.  Although much progress continued to be made in the decades that followed, particularly in the area of special education, a comprehensive law offering access to all people with disabilities to all aspects of life was needed.  Former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin set out to correct that when he authored ADA, as he stated in a powerful speech.

  The Great Depression brought about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Social Security Act of 1935, which provided families with money to help support a loved one unable to make a living independently (and extended in 1960, with the Social Security Disability Insurance to provide for people with all disabilities).

Yet, despite all the good ADA has done, a large proportion of people without jobs are those with disabilities.  More than two-thirds of American adults with disabilities are “striving to work,” according to a national employment survey being released just before the landmark legislation protecting their rights turns 25.

Yet, despite all the good ADA has done, a large proportion of people without jobs are those with disabilities.  More than two-thirds of American adults with disabilities are “striving to work,” according to a national employment survey being released just before the landmark legislation protecting their rights turns 25.

It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Part V – Social Skills in the Community

   In Part I, I gave an overview of a book that, despite its 10-year anniversary, is still highly relevant.  Kids Need Love When They Deserve It Least: A Review of It’s So Much Work to Be Your Friend, by Rick Lavoie.  As I concluded, “Social miscues become “teachable moments.”  Or, to quote, Mr. Lavoie, “Kids need love most when they deserve it least.”  This sentiment, as well as the use of the term friend in the title, reflect Mr. Lavoie’s deep compassion and understanding of children, seeing issues from the perspective of the child, for which he has earned fame and respect in his early PBS videos, How Difficult Can This Be?: The F.A.T. City Workshop and When the Chips Are Down.”   In Part II, I covered how Mr. Lavoie explores why these children with learning disabilities and accompanying social skills deficits “do the things they do.”   In Part III, I discussed social skills on the home front, especially dealing with siblings.  Part IV reviewed social skills in school settings.  In this, the final section, Rick Lavoie examines social skills in other public places, along with how to meet, make, and keep friends.

Appropriate Social Skills in Public Places
   Every day, a child interacts with many people in the community, from family members to adults and peers in school to total strangers.  Each setting has its “social contract,” a Hidden Curriculum of unwritten rules.  One of the greatest challenges children with social skills deficits face is dealing with transitions, which is why these are the times of the greatest number of behavioral problems.  This problem is present in school; in the community it is even greater.  It is important for children to have the opportunity to interact with people in the community to practice and develop skills, gaining greater confidence and flexibility in novel and unfamiliar settings.  However, it is important to prepare the child for the novel situation and outline expectations and guidelines.

Meeting, Making, and Keeping Friends
   Making and keeping friends require many social skills, especially equity, sharing, and mutuality.  Most important, starting and nurturing a friendship is a process, not a product.  This process involves three stages:

  • Exploratory phase – Two people recognize they share interests, skills, or backgrounds
  • Trust stage – The two people have to have confidence in each other during this fragile phase.
  • Compatibility stage – Acceptance becomes solid and the friendship becomes one of mutually beneficial sharing.

Parents can help children in various role situations; playing board games is a particularly effective way to demonstrate negotiating, taking turns, following rules, sharing, having patience, strategizing, and being gracious in both victory and defeat.   Moreover, parents must take the time to talk with their children about this important topic.  In this respect, parents need to be supportive and nonjudgmental, creating a space in which the child feels safe to undertake that difficult step of sharing feelings.

Children with weak social skills often need assertiveness training:  Mr. Lavoie has conceived of the ASSERT method:
A   Attention:  Have the other person’s attention.
S   Soon, Short, Simple:  Be quick and succinct.
S   Specific:  Explain what act is of concern.
E   Effect:  Explain how the act effects you.
R   Reciprocity:  Define what roles both parties play.
T   Terms:  Arrive at an agreement as to the responsibilities of each party.

In every school, there are children who are popular; most of the others strive to be like them or at least be in their circle.  However, the largest group of children in school comprises those Mr. Lavoie call the controversial children.  These children have a group of friends but rarely go beyond that circle of peers with similar interests, neighborhoods, and activities.  Then there are the isolated children, those who are on the periphery of most social gatherings, and the rejected children, those spurned and bullied by others.  In a large survey, boys prefer those who participate in sports, though athletic prowess is not a requisite.  They value trust and responsibility.  They enjoy peers with similar interests and hobbies.  Sports and girls are popular topics of conversation; personal topics are not.  They do not like peers who are bossy, or aggressive.  Girls talk about school and confidential matters.  They value humor and friendliness, the last presenting a significant challenge to girls lacking social skills.  Girls place a high value on sensitivity and sincerity, among one another and in boys.

Positive and negative behaviors, whether actual or perceived as such, translate into reputation, either positive or negative.  Here, the guidance of parents and teachers can be especially valuable; these adults should show public acceptance toward these rejected children, highlighting their hidden talents.

The concept of friendship is often foreign to these children with social skills difficulties; in fact, they may have trouble understanding the definition of friendship and all it entails.  They need to start with comprehending the levels of friendship, starting with acquaintance, the casual relationship.  The second level is companion, those who share common interests.  The next level is genuine friendship, which involves reciprocity, the “give-and-take” of a balanced friendship.  The last level requires care and cultivation and avoiding pitfalls, such as being overly possessive, jealous, or demanding.  The assistance and support one demands must, in time, be “repaid.”  And a friendship must never be merely a source to acquire or borrow money or valued objects.  Among the challenges in genuine friendships are the following:

  • The ability to read a social situation
  • The ability to understand and complement the emotions of the other person
  • The ability to pace relationships, avoiding being overly aggressive
  • The ability to recall earlier experiences one should have learned from
  • The ability to predict the consequ3ences of social behavior
  • The ability to compensate for social miscues and admit to one’s mistakes, apologizing appropriately, and taking the necessary steps to correct the error and assure that it won’t recur.

Children with social-skills deficits will need the support and understanding of the adults in their lives.

Among adults who have been able to build successful lives, having overcome childhood challenges in their social lives.  The traits and attitudes by which these individuals have succeeded in achieving lives of stability and fulfillment include the following:

  • Self-awareness—an understanding of abilities, strengths, and weaknesses
  • Proactivity—the steps one takes to achieve social or vocational goals
  • Perseverance—being goal directed and not giving up in the face of obstacles.

These individuals had effective emotional coping strategies.  Even given all that, they had strong support systems.  They were able to cultivate these networks.  However, children with learning disabilities and social skills deficits will need such support systems to start them on this difficult, yet critical path.