Understanding Learning Disabilities

Horizon Academy in Roeland Park, Kansas is a private school for students with learning disabilities. The school tries to raise awareness about learning disabilities in the community so at least one evening each year they present an Adult Learning Disabilities Simulation that I created. It is called “Understanding a Different World-The World of the Learning Disabled.” The principal asked me to help her organize the event this year and to train Horizon students how to present the Student L.D. Simulation to children at local elementary schools.

Twelve high school students met with me to do the training. The Student L.D. Simulation begins with an explanation of learning disabilities. Then the participants are divided into three groups so they can experience what it might be like to have difficulty reading, listening and processing information, and writing quickly or neatly. Each group does an activity for five minutes and then there is a discussion. The activities have been designed so that participants can get a sense of what it feels like to struggle when completing a task. While the participants are doing the activity, the station leader is creating distractions or making rude comments. We want the participants to feel how difficult it is when someone cannot do a skill that other people do very easily. Here are some of the comments that I trained the station leaders to say during the simulation activities:

• This is so easy. (said while eyes are rolling)
• We’re waiting. (sigh, cross arms)
• Are you really trying?
• Hurry, you’re keeping the whole group.
• Look how well this person is doing. Why can’t you do it that well?
• You’re so slow.
• This is garbage. You need to start over.
• You’re the worst in the whole group.

The short amount of time and the pressure felt after hearing the comments really helps the participants internalize the experience. As I trained the high school students I told them that we weren’t trying to be “mean” but we were trying to get the participants to feel the frustration and embarrassment often felt by kids with learning difficulties. Unfortunately, just like Eileen Kushner, many of these high school students had heard similar comments from teachers or their peers.

One shy girl asked if she could share something and then she quietly explained, “When I was in fourth grade my math teacher gave everyone the same worksheet that we needed to complete. I didn’t understand it at all and she was too busy to help me. At the end of the period the teacher told the class that she was proud of all the students who had worked hard and completed their work. The teacher held up my paper that was incomplete and said that I could have finished it if I had only tried harder. Everyone in the class was looking at me and I was so embarrassed. I had tried but I just didn’t get how to do it.” She wiped away a tear.

A boy looked up sheepishly and said, “My religion teacher talked super fast and I had trouble remembering all the information. He’d yell at me when I didn’t do well on tests. One time I hid my religion book in my lap and used it to cheat so I wouldn’t fail again. I still feel really bad about doing that but………”

This training brought back painful memories for many of these students so we had a discussion about how the Simulation would hopefully help students who weren’t learning disabled be more accepting and kind.

Later that night, a few of those same students convinced their grandmothers, parents, and siblings to attend the Adult Learning Disabilities Simulation. We had 48 relatives of Horizon students and community members in attendance. In the Adult version there are six stations and they simulate difficulties in language processing, auditory processing, math, organization, visual motor skills, and reading. The adults participate in each activity for 7 minutes and then they have a discussion for 3 minutes about the strategies and accommodations that help students learn. The adults were pressured to perform challenging activities and that caused them to:

• Give up
• Make fun of another person’s mistakes
• Hide from the teacher so he/she would not be selected
• Feel embarrassed when everyone else could do an activity that he/she could not do
• Act out
• Make excuses to leave the table
• Cheat
• Feel anxious

By the end of the evening everyone at the tables looked extremely weary since it took a lot of energy and effort to complete the activities. We asked for volunteers to talk about the experience. One man came to the front of the room and said, “Until tonight I never realized what it means to have a learning disability. I feel so much more empathy for my son now. I only “felt” learning disabled for 90 minutes and I’m exhausted. My son has to work so hard throughout the whole day so now I know why he comes home and is so tired. I feel badly,” he said as he choked back the tears, “because I was impatient with him. I kept asking him why he didn’t finish his work at school but now I realize that he works slower so he just needs more time. I’ve gained so much more respect for him now. When I go home I’ll tell him how proud he makes me.”

The tired participants didn’t rush out the door but continued to mingle with each other and discuss their reactions. Now they knew what was it like to be “smart on the inside.” Everyone had gained a new sensitivity to the challenges faced by their son or daughter or sibling. They had gained a new understanding about how important it is for students to use strategies and accommodations. To conclude the evening we shared this Chinese proverb:

Tell me, I’ll forget,
Show me, I’ll remember,
Involve me, I’ll understand.


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