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Our ignorance of learning disabilities is eroding universal right to education

Apr 09. 2019
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By Rina Akiyama, Mark Manns
Special to The Nation

More than one billion people around the world have some form of disability, 93 million of whom are children under the age of 14, according to World Health Organisation data.


Some of the most common and seriously neglected forms of childhood disabilities are learning disabilities, often termed “hidden” because unlike physical disabilities they are not easily identified. In Thailand, an estimated 40,000 children born every year have some form of learning disability, most commonly dyslexia. However, there is limited information on children with such disabilities and their impact on learning outcomes, with many countries in the Asia-Pacific region facing challenges in responding to the needs of these children.

“There are a few misconceptions. [Learning disabilities] are typically associated with low IQ, and they are caused by cultural, environmental or economic factors, laziness and lack of motivation, perceptual and motor disabilities – No,” said Dr Anat Ben-Simon, CEO of Israel’s National Institute for Testing and Evaluation. “[And do] learning disabilities fade with time? Absolutely not.” 

Learning disabilities (LD) refer to a group of disorders that interfere with the acquisition and use of speaking, reading, writing or basic mathematical abilities. These disorders affect individuals who otherwise demonstrate at least average abilities for thinking or reasoning. 

“LD is diagnosed when difficulties in one of the areas – reading, spelling, grammar, calculation, mathematical reasoning – last for at least six months despite tailored help,” Dr Ben-Simon said. “Dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia – these are typical forms of LD. Dyslexia is an impairment in reading, dysgraphia an impairment in written expression, and dyscalculia is an impairment in mathematics. The symptoms for each … tend to closely overlap each other, making them difficult to properly diagnose. For example, many kids with dysgraphia also have dyslexia, and vice versa.” 

Further complicating diagnosis is the neuro-developmental disorder Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is a combination of impaired cognitive skills, such as attention, speed of processing, memory, perception, executive functions and reasoning. “There are major overlaps between these disorders,” Dr Ben-Simon said. “If you suspect there are issues like mental and emotional problems, you have to assess them and see on what degree it causes learning disabilities.” 

According to the International Dyslexia Association, children with dyslexia more often than not suffer from ADHD. IDA data also show that roughly 30 per cent of children with ADHD have learning difficulties to a certain degree. In fact, some children may act up and get frustrated to cover their reading difficulties, which may lead to them being misdiagnosed with only ADHD, overlooking their mild to moderate dyslexic condition.

Proper diagnosis of each student’s disability is essential for providing proper support for learning assessing learning outcomes. “When I first started my teaching career, I did not know that students with LD exist. I used to think that they must be lazy students as they kept making mistakes in writing and reading simple word such as ‘school’. Our inability in knowing or diagnosing students with LD might cause us to think that they are lazy and troublesome students,” said Try Manoellang, a schoolteacher from Indonesia. “Had I not studied the Special Education programme, I might not be able to identify my students with LD and keep on thinking they are lazy students.” 

Diagnosis crucial

Methods of diagnosis include academic and cognitive tests, review of children’s developmental history, documented school achievements, previous diagnostic reports and personal interview results. 

However, diagnosis is only the first stage. Understanding how to accommodate these learners, both in and outside of the classroom, and to measure their learning outcomes is also critical. “Test accommodations should meet three principles: effectiveness and fairness, validity and comparability,” Ben-Simon said. 

Considered are such factors as the degree or severity of LD, the purpose of the test/assignment given, and cost-effectiveness of intervention or accommodation of individuals with LD. 

Accommodating students with learning disabilities requires a detailed process, from diagnosis to assessment, using a variety of tools. This may be too complicated for busy schoolteachers, making it important that both teachers and students with special needs have professionals working at school level to support them with diagnosis and to accommodate learning and testing. 

Schoolteacher Manoellang highlighted the importance of collaboration between teachers and specialists in the field of diagnosing and assessing disabilities. “Although I have studied it, I still have to discuss my diagnosis of the student with parents and the academic team and encourage parents to consult with a psychiatrist, as I am aware that I may make a mistake. Therefore, educating parents, teachers and school staff is essential if we want to accommodate our students’ learning needs in order to ensure their quality learning.”

At Unesco Bangkok, the Network on Education Quality Monitoring in the Asia-Pacific (NEQMAP) works with countries and education stakeholders to build strong linkages between curriculum, pedagogy and student learning assessments in order to monitor education quality and learning outcomes. Unesco and NEQMAP are continuing to work with countries to support the tools, knowledge and capacity needed to improve quality-learning outcomes for students with learning disabilities. As the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “everyone has a right to education”.

Rina Akiyama is a former schoolteacher and intern at Unesco Bangkok. 

Mark Manns is a programme officer for Inclusive Quality Education at Unesco Bangkok.

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