Adults Too Have Learning Disabilities

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Who would've thought that people who have trouble telling or understanding jokes might have some type of learning disability? But, it is true.

Telling or "getting" a joke with all its double meanings, puns, and subtle implications can be a complex task. A person who has trouble processing the intricacies of the spoken language may get thoroughly confused while telling a joke and may be slow to get it or may never get it. So, you see, it is not a laughing matter after all.

People who have trouble reading maps and following directions are often the butt of jokes. They often get lost and arrive late at unfamiliar locations because of navigation difficulties. They would prefer if you gave them a ride to a place rather than pointing it out on a map. These people have a visual-spatial limitation. Following directions such as, "Go east for a mile and then north for 2 miles and look for the signů" may be as difficult as deciphering Einstein's space-time equations.

Remember "Dr. Evil," who didn't know that a billion is more than a million? Many people begin to stare into space when you talk about numbers beyond hundreds and thousands. For example, they can't grasp how big a crowd will be if there were one million people in Time Square on New Year's Eve.

For most people a disability is physical; it is something that you should be able to see. "If there are no obvious physical symptoms, how can that be a disability," they tend to think or, when they think of a learning disability, they think only of dyslexia. The fact is that there are many kinds of learning disabilities. Depending on the degree of their severity, learning disabilities can impose life long limitations. As they accompany the individual beyond the school doors, they stay with him or her across the life span. Many adults don't exactly know the cause of their problem. They may, for the first time, identify their disability at the time when their child is diagnosed for the same condition.

Some who have reading difficulties during school years give up and choose careers that don't require significant amounts of reading or writing. Others who persist and make it to college fight an excruciating battle in completing reading and writing tasks. It takes them hours to finish a chapter of a book, write a letter or answer their E-mail.

Some people have difficulty in understanding spoken speech. They often seem inattentive, unintelligent, or hard of hearing. But, there is no problem with their attention, intelligence or hearing. The real problem is that certain sounds or sentence structures don't make sense to them. They can't process them in same way as others can. Suppose, you couldn't tell the difference between the words "zip" and "sip," how would you interpret the command to "Zip your lips?"

There was a time when many educators believed there was no such thing as a learning disability, that the child has to be either lazy or stupid. No educator would subscribe to that concept today. But, many learning disabled individuals, even today, see themselves exactly as that, "lazy" or "stupid." We have to do a better job of explaining that all learning disabilities are because of the way the brain is wired for processing information from the outside world.

How the brain is wired to process visual, auditory or oral information plays a major role in learning disabilities. Brain imaging studies, such as the MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging), are showing us exactly how that occurs. For example, when reading out loud the brains of normal readers and those of dyslexics react differently. A normal reader's brain is activated both in the visual area and the stored-sounds area, and, therefore, the reader can connect the letters and words to the appropriate sounds. However, in the brain of a dyslexic, the speech area is over activated, and there is very little activity in the stored-sounds area. This makes it difficult to link visual information with appropriate sounds. It virtually amounts to running with one leg in a two-legged race.

According to a U.S. News &World Report, some states estimate that 80 percent of the women on welfare have learning disabilities that prevent them from finding or holding a job. These adults need intensive literacy tutoring. It would be helpful if vocational rehabilitation centers could identify these individuals and verify that their disabilities are valid. They also need supported employment services to identify jobs that can accommodate their specific difficulties and offer remedial services and specific solutions to circumvent the relevant problems.

Many children who are teased and ridiculed today for their learning disabilities are tomorrow's excellent mechanics, athletes, writers, actors, politicians, dancers, and figure skaters.

In the world of Cyberspace, many persons with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) have become CEOs of big companies which reward people who brainstorm ideas at a fast speed and jump from task to task. Their ADHD has become an asset to them.



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