Pet Therapy and Learning Disabilities

This is a guest video blog from Lila Katz in celebration of LD Awareness Month. All month, we are celebrating stories of #ForcesforChange and #ForcesforLD. This brief documentary-style video explores Lila’s experiences with learning disabilities and how pet therapy has helped her and other students with disabilities.

Watch the full video blog here.

Lila is a senior in high school in NYC. She has dyslexia, ADHD and dysgraphia. She is an intern and pet therapist with Pets Together, a virtual pet therapy platform, and an intern with Make it Home, creating art and helping to furnish homes for families transitioning out of crisis and homelessness. She is the youngest of three sisters, is obsessed with her dogs, TJ & Rocky, and loves to create videos, draw, paint, write songs and dance.

Higher Education Can Help Bridge the LD Employment Gap

The learning disabled (LD) community faces a number of competing obstacles and opportunities.

While the overall employment rate is at its highest in years thanks in part to a marked labor shortage, the percentage of disabled people who are actually employed remains low —very low— by comparison.  In fact, the disability/LD employment gap is more like a chasm: the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities is more than twice that of those without disabilities. 

It need not be this way. There are a number of wind-at-the-back movements that would point towards greater opportunity for people with disabilities at work. Functional approaches designed to better address learning needs, such as assistive technology, are very common in schools and becoming more common in the workplace. Software such as Grammarly and Dragon Speech are inexpensive, easy to learn, and can make a dramatic difference in the writing quality and speed of those with learning disabilities. Additionally, cultural shifts in the workplace include better recognition of the value that people with disabilities bring to companies. There is a growing awareness, led by Google and SAP, that LD and other neurodiverse people can contribute to diverse thinking based on their unique life experiences.

Despite promising progress, the movement does face significant headwinds in the form of rampant stigma and process friction in obtaining accommodation that de-motivates students from disclosing. A foundational issue is the challenging transition that young adults face to employment. The path starts with a high school graduation rate for students with LD that falls 10 percentage points lower than the national average, leading to lower college enrollment and persistence, and significant challenges for many students transitioning into employment.  In other words, even if a person with LD is able to successfully navigate one step, the next is likely to come with a  new set of obstacles to overcome.  

Let’s look at the data more closely:

  • Students with disabilities have a high school graduation rate of 67.1%, compared to a national average of 84.6%. 
  • Those with learning disabilities attend four-year colleges at half the rate of their peers
  • Only 17% of college students with LD take advantage of disability services or learning resources at their institution 
  • In 2020, 17.9% of people with a disability were employed, compared to 61.8% of people without a disability. 

There are many solution areas to this friction, and higher education must play a more central role. While there are many highly effective disability centers on campus, higher ed can take an active role to cut a smoother path from high school to college to work to help the transition and reduce the friction. The Rise Act attempts to address many of these issues.

Instead of continued low-to-no educational attainment and limited career mobility, imagine a different scenario  — where high school students are encouraged to apply to colleges that are proactive in reaching students with learning disabilities and supporting their success through on-campus and virtual services. Imagine that those colleges identify and partner with employers interested in recruiting more college students with LD. What might happen to the LD employment gap if more institutions worked with both students and companies to ensure career success through individualized support and even building an infrastructure for LD at work (such as disability employee resource groups)? 

If higher education extends its reach laterally on campus, below (to high schools), and above (to employers), we can reduce friction for students in need. This puts University LD/Disability centers in the center of the conversation as strategic assets that not only can drive enrollment, and students success, but build relationships with community partners —all of which can drive social mobility and reduce the gap.

Kevin Rockmael has been a leader in the education ecosystem for more than 20 years. Currently, he is a Sr. Principal at Guild Education. Kevin has driven innovation at a number of leading education organizations, including Entangled Solutions, Kaplan, Intrax Cultural Exchange, and the UCLA Riordan MBA Fellowship program. He currently resides in Berkeley, CA.

Forming a Disability Identity as a Dyslexic

Is the learning disability of dyslexia, a disability? Well, of course, disability is right there in the name. But for much of my life, this was not a simple question to answer. If you had asked me at 10 if I, a dyslexic with ADHD, was disabled, I would have struggled to answer. I would have told you yes, dyslexia is listed as a disability in the DSM and is covered as a disability under IDEA and ADA. I was even in special education for my dyslexia. But did I personally identify as disabled? The question of whether a person is disabled can be complex. For many, a diagnosis does not automatically lead to identifying as disabled. Instead, disability can be a chosen identity.

Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, adults growing up told me I should not identify as disabled. I was told I was “differently abled” and to not categorize myself negatively (as in disabled). What was happening was I was being introduced to the societal views of the disabled and their perceptions of how to navigate this ableist society: by distancing myself from the term disabled. They wanted this so I would not be treated in the negative ways the disabled were. 

I quickly learned how society viewed the disabled. I saw differences in how my disabled versus non-disabled peers were treated. I remember kids making mean remarks because I got pulled out of the room for reading instruction and for the way I read, for which I was embarrassed. I remember a girl teasingly asked: “why can’t you read?” I explained I had dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it hard for me to read. She responded laughing, “so you are stupid and disabled?” I did not know how to respond. I tried to repeat what adults had told me, explaining I was not disabled. “No, I am `differently abled,’ not disabled like other disabled people,” but this explanation failed to make sense to me or this girl teasing me.

Slowly, I learned to distance myself from disability. I was solid in my identity as a dyslexic with ADHD, which I knew were disabilities, but I was not disabled, at least not like other disabled people. But I knew this was incongruent. I knew I was disabled. How could I ignore my identity as a disabled person when disabled is literally in the name learning disabled? The point of this was to make me fit in better, but it did the opposite. Instead, I felt like I fit in nowhere. I was neither disabled nor non-disabled; I was learning disabled, disabled with the qualifier of learning disabled. But I am thankful that I grew up with other learning disabled peers—the one space where I did fit in. This played a big part in maintaining my positive identity of being learning disabled. I may not have had a positive disability identity, but I had a community where I felt I belonged. In having this community, I was able to find joy in that part of myself that was dyslexic with ADHD. And this community continues to be important to my sense of self.

However, there were times where I could not avoid disability. I was inherently surrounded by and categorized with the disabled, whether I identified as disabled or not. While dyslexia is mainly a hidden disability and I usually passed as non-disabled, that was not always the case. When people perceived me as disabled, there was a noticeable difference in the way they interacted with me. I will always remember at 16 a girl my age walked up to me and started talking to me in a baby voice: raising her pitch, elongating her sounds, and lowering her vocabulary. This confused me before realizing she had perceived me as disabled and was thus infantilizing me. My knee-jerk reaction was to distance myself from disability and remind her that I was taking the same classes as her. She immediately changed her tone, turned red, and apologized. This was not the only time I had been perceived as disabled and as a result infantilized, but this experience stuck with me. I was unable to avoid the question of where I fit in with disability. Why, when infantilized, did I distance myself from disability instead of questioning why any disabled people were being treated in this way? Additionally, if she had been so embarrassed to treat a non-disabled person in that way, why did she think it was okay to do this to disabled people? This was around the start of the true deconstruction of my internalized ableism.

It was not until 18, 11 years into being diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, that I would identify as disabled without hesitation. To get there I had to deconstruct how I saw disability and how I saw myself within disability. I had to piece out if I really was not “disabled” or if I just saw disability negatively and did not want others putting their perception of “disabled” on me. I deconstructed by learning from the actually disabled community. I read on disability from disabled perspectives. I learned about disability history and culture. I questioned the views I held. This work radicalized the way I saw disability and myself as a disabled person. I learned there is an expansive disabled community, one with history and belonging. Disability is neither fully positive nor negative, but dynamic. I grew to self-identify as disabled with pride. In doing so, I have gained self-confidence in showing up as myself, felt validated in my experiences, and continue to learn and grow.

The disabled community is diverse. There was a time while I deconstructed where I worried I was not disabled enough to call myself disabled, and that I was in some way invalidating the experiences of other disabled people by identifying as disabled. However, I can recognize my experiences as a dyslexic with ADHD are not going to be the same as all others in the disabled community. I can recognize the privilege in my ability to “pass” as non-disabled given the invisible nature of my disability. Additionally, the privilege I hold in having different support and access needs as compared to other disabled people. However, by recognizing these differences, we can create one unified disability community. There is little reason for us learning disabled people to distance ourselves from the disabled community. When we as learning disabled people distance ourselves from the disabled, we further marginalize the disabled community and push the idea that disability is negative and to be avoided.

When we stand together, we as disabled people make up a large part of the population. Yes, we can further categorize ourselves into our specific disabilities, but we must also come together as a disability community. Despite disability being in the name learning disability, it took me longer than it should have to get to this point. Today, I am dyslexic with ADHD, I am disabled, and I maintain no reservations in the pride I hold in these identities.

This blog was written by Rachelle Johnson, one of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council members.

Self-Worth at the Heart, Encouragement in the Veins; Times of Value Kept Me Going

When attempting to draw conclusions as to why I have been spared from many of the unfavorable statistics encountered by large percentages of people with learning disabilities, I have been able to explain it in part by the self-worth I was taught to have for myself and the times I have felt valued in school. 

Navigating formal schooling hasn’t been an easy task for me, I’ve had several hits to my self-esteem when I’ve underperformed and I have had a disproportionate amount of stress and anxiety regarding passing classes and scoring well enough on important tests. It often felt like I never was really standing on solid ground or that I was living in a world not made for me.

Thinking of all the snags I had hit that had beaten down on me over the last 18 years, all I could think was “this is where my dyslexia catches up to me,”. His response, however, was surprising, and exactly what I needed.

Early on in my first semester of college, I had a professor hold me back after class to instruct me that I should start using the reading and writing center, as he found my writing skills not on par with what they needed to be to succeed in college. I had barely passed the writing proficiency needed to graduate high school and I started to break down when I told him of my learning disability. Thinking of all the snags I had hit that had beaten down on me over the last 18 years, all I could think was “this is where my dyslexia catches up to me,”. His response, however, was surprising, and exactly what I needed. 

He told me that while the other students were more proficient writers, I had a deep way of thinking that was unteachable and that I should not get caught up on that. His comment and others like it helped pull me through hundreds of hours of writing papers that were often marked down due to grammar, organization, or because I couldn’t articulate an idea clearly. When critiques were mingled with words of praise, when educators showed an interest in me, who I was and what I had to offer, it engaged me and challenged me to push myself to further my contributions both in written thought and through my participation on projects. 

But I have been spared the worst of it in part due to my sense of self worth, even in discouraging times.

I did not feel like learning disabilities and the experiences of people with dyslexia were completely understood by my teachers and professors, but it made a difference when they would take an interest in me. As a person with dyslexia in this society, I run a higher risk of dropping out of high school or college, struggling with mental health issues, enduring law enforcement actions, experiencing poverty, and more. All of those are statistics that show the grim reality faced by people with learning disabilities. But I have been spared the worst of it in part due to my sense of self-worth, even in discouraging times. I would not have been as well off as I am if it was not for the supportive words and actions of some of my educators. 

There will always be more we can do to promote the welfare of people with learning disabilities. We need more research to be done, better teaching practices to be implemented, and to devise strategies that can address the social issues we face. Making these changes can lift up students with disabilities and change their lives, and the lives of all students. Caring educators enhance and improve the experiences of students. If it weren’t for the educators who taught me, the life experiences that prepared me, and the self-worth I developed throughout my life, I might not be here today to write this blog and to fight for systemic change for students with learning disabilities.

This blog was written by Kayla Queen, one of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council members.

What We are Learning from Leading States about the Importance of Equitable Whole-Child Education Policy

Since March 2020, the pandemic and extended periods of distance learning have shined a spotlight on the critical role that schools play in providing for the social, emotional, and health needs of each child, in addition to their academic development. This is especially true for our students with disabilities who experienced challenges accessing critical services and supports in a distance environment. This fall, most students will return to in-person learning. Supporting students to succeed means supporting districts and schools that promote their physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and academic development — all at the same time. It has never been more important to attend to students’ holistic development in equitable and effective ways.

With close to $200 billion in federal aid authorized for recovery, state and local education agencies have an unprecedented opportunity to support schools in improving education for all students. This is especially true for students with disabilities who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. In An Urgent Imperative for States: Developing Whole Child Policies to Support an Equitable Education for Students with Disabilities, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), with guidance from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), highlights several states leading the way to support whole-child learning and development inclusive of young people with disabilities and their families. These states provide examples for other states looking to strengthen equity-focused whole child education.

For example, the brief highlights Ohio’s vision for education inclusive of all students. In the state’s strategic plan “Each Child, Our Future,” the Ohio Department of Education goes beyond simply mentioning the importance of better meeting the needs of students with disabilities as part of their vision. Ohio State Superintendent Paolo DeMaria directed the Office of Exceptional Children (OEC) to develop a complementary plan focused on realizing this vision for students with disabilities. This plan “offers robust recommendations, tactics and action steps to ensure students with disabilities benefit from the vision and core principles heralded in Ohio’s strategic plan.” Since 2018, as part of the state’s strategic plan, Ohio has been involved in CCSSO’s Advancing Inclusive Principal Leadership State Initiative to support school leaders in cultivating inclusive and equitable learning environments that promote the academic and social success of each learner, with an emphasis on those with disabilities. A team comprising state, district, and school leaders across Ohio will provide district and school leaders with training on inclusive practices in preparation for the return to school this fall.

Another example is from Massachusetts, where the state education agency developed the Educator Effectiveness Guidebook for Inclusive Practices, which aims to “enable educators to create a place for all students to thrive in general education settings.” The Guidebook highlights strategies that improve academic and social-emotional outcomes for all students and emphasizes educators’ roles in establishing an inclusive learning environment. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) disseminates the guidebook on its website to support educators in implementing evidence-based best practices for inclusion (such as Universal Design for Learning, Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, and Social and Emotional Learning). DESE also provides an aligned virtual course for general and special education teachers to guide their work implementing the practices along with a companion guide for principals and school leaders.

New York has established teacher preparation program requirements in an effort to ensure all educators are prepared to serve students with disabilities. The Empire State requires all general education teacher candidates to complete coursework and practice requirements aligned to specific professional standards that address students’ learning differences and needs before entering the classroom. Teachers are required to complete coursework focused on “understanding the needs of students with disabilities, including at least three semester hours of study for teachers to develop the skills necessary to provide instruction that will promote the participation and progress of students with disabilities in the general education curriculum.” And registered teacher preparation programs must include at least 100 hours of field experience prior to student teaching, at least 15 of which includes “a focus on understanding the needs of students with disabilities.” All of this is done in an effort to ensure that the educators who are serving students in general education settings are equipped with the knowledge, skills, and mindsets to do so effectively.

While still in the early stages of implementation, the New York State Education Department is also advancing a Multi-Tiered System of Supports-Integrated (MTSS-I) initiative by leveraging the funds from a federal grant to develop a statewide MTSS-I framework, establish a MTSS-I Technical Assistance Center, and provide direct supports to districts in the delivery of tiered interventions focusing on the whole child.  

A long-standing leader in whole child education, the Michigan Department of Education has implemented a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) framework to promote the academic and behavioral success of each child since 2000. The state established the MiMTSS Technical Assistance Center to support inclusive practices using the MTSS framework in districts across the state. Over the past year, MDE has also been involved in a nine-state network to integrate equity-focused social emotional learning into their MTSS model in partnership with CCSSO and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). American Institutes for Research (AIR), CCSSO, and CASEL developed a toolkit with best practices and lessons learned from leading states to support state and district leaders in advancing an integrated MTSS framework that supports the whole child.

There are bright spots across the country where states have implemented whole child policies inclusive of students with disabilities. Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan are just a few of the states highlighted in the NCLD brief as leading on this work. With recovery and school reopening underway, states have an incredible opportunity to support whole-child learning and development for all students — especially young people with disabilities.

Kaylan Connally serves as Program Manager, Student Expectations at the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) where she supports states’ efforts to develop and implement policies and practices that promote equitable outcomes for all learners, with a focus on students with disabilities.

Lindsay Kubatzky is the Policy Manager at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). Lindsay conducts research and produces various written products related to the many current federal and state policy challenges and opportunities facing the 1 in 5 children who have learning and attention issues.

This blog post also appears on CCSSO’s State’s Leading Blog.

Obstacles in High-Stakes Tests for Those With Learning Disabilities

A lot of people have misconceptions about what it means to have learning disabilities and attention issues, thinking that people with these challenges cannot thrive academically or professionally. But by definition, people with LDs have average or above-average intelligence. The barriers they face when taking entrance and professional exams are nothing to do with academic or professional ability. 

People with learning disabilities think and function in ways that match their unique strengths and weaknesses. But when they’re required to perform according to the predominant way of thinking and doing, such as standardized tests, their abilities can’t shine. Accommodations make it possible for them to show their skills and knowledge in ways that work for them. But the process of receiving accommodations can be an obstacle.

One of the most common issues is providing documentation of a learning or attention issue. Testing agencies such as The College Board prefer documentation in the form of a psychoeducational evaluation. But people often find that their most recent psychoeducational evaluation is considered out-of-date. Sometimes, these evaluations are written with an “expiration date” despite the unchanging nature of learning and attention differences. Students in areas with shortages of qualified evaluators have received accommodations without formal testing, and therefore don’t have a psychoeducational evaluation. For example, private schools are more likely to accommodate their students without formal documentation. Twice-exceptional students also often receive accommodations without evaluation — and they may not want to jeopardize their current school accommodations by being evaluated. Many would rather take their chances with entrance and professional exams.

Evaluations may be cost-prohibitive, especially for those of lower socioeconomic status. Those who live in poorer school districts are disproportionately affected, as students in these districts rely on public schools for identification and documentation. Yet these school districts face low budgets, understaffing, and lack of training in identifying those with a learning disability. This may mean that students who should have been able to receive a free diagnosis, documentation, and support through their school face barrier upon barrier. And as a history of past accommodations is a key component for making a strong case when requesting testing accommodations, having no such documentation makes it harder to get testing accommodations.

Time constraints can be a frustrating issue, too. The length of time needed for the evaluation process (from getting an evaluation appointment through receiving and submitting the results), limited test dates, and limited slots for those in need of accommodations on specific test dates all add to the problem. Those who seek accommodations must meet the deadline for requests and present documentation by the deadline for their desired test date, which can be a month to two months before the test. The College Board indicates that it then takes around seven weeks to approve or deny a request.

There also is a lack of clarity about what accommodations are available, what requests are often accepted, what metrics are used in determining the need for accommodation, and what will happen if a request does not go as planned. For example, The College Board website states that they will consider all reasonable accommodations. What is a “reasonable accommodation” is a contested point. So applicants start strategizing.

Some applicants decide that they’ll just apply to test-optional schools and avoid the whole issue. Those who want to apply to a school that requires a test, may request less than what they really need, hoping to secure some degree of accommodation approval and avoid interference with their timeline. And others approach test accommodations with the mindset of accumulating all the accommodations they can get, figuring it’s better to have them and not need them than to need them and not have them.

However, since requests are approved and denied on an individual basis at the discretion of the test provider, there is little (other than ADA guidelines) to enforce equity, and even less for test takers to base their strategy on. With no promises that an accommodation will be granted or necessarily be an accommodation that is helpful, many students decide to skip this time-consuming process and use their time and energy in different ways. If additional studying isn’t enough to compensate for challenges in test taking, some may end up reconsidering their goals. In other cases, extra study may enable a test taker to get a pretty good score without accommodations, but this student will still be at a disadvantage regarding scholarships, fellowships, and other opportunities where these scores are considered. And many students will experience steeper effects of perpetual marginalizations. 

Another issue is the viability of the test themselves. GPA is a better predictor of college success than test scores. It could be that GPA is a better measure of work ethic. And teachers have a certain degree of freedom to implement assessments that reflect the skills, abilities, and knowledge of their students.

While entrance exams were created to be an objective measure of aptitude, some bias still remains. Students who do not fit the profile of traditional college students are not served well if we fail to ask “How has our understanding of these tests changed over time?” and “What changes need to be made now to fit our improved understanding?” With privilege embodied and perpetuated in these tests, social stratification persists. Higher education and its resulting civic engagement have been made less attainable for some of those who could benefit from it the most: those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those with learning disabilities or other disabilities.

While initiatives to make these tests more equitable are vital to the needs of those traditionally marginalized, they don’t fully address the implicit bias these tests embody. If new versions are not specifically designed to tease out the triumphs and potential of specific populations, the meaning of entrance exams will remain lost.

This is an installment in the series Learning Disabilities and High-Stakes Testing. High-stakes testing is used for admission to postsecondary educational institutions or career licensure exams. This series confronts issues pertaining to high-stakes tests for the 1 in 5 people with learning and attention issues.

Written by Young Adult Leadership Council Member, Kayla Queen.

NCLD’s Recommendations for Education Recovery Fund Investments

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unique challenges for students across the country, especially students with disabilities. To support schools across the country with getting students back into classrooms and making up for lost instructional time, Congress passed a relief package that included more than $125 billion in federal aid to districts and schools. States and districts have significant flexibility in how to spend the funds that they receive. 

State and local education agencies are now tasked with developing plans and making significant decisions about how to invest these federal funds. This is a critical moment for states and districts, as they have the opportunity to invest in key areas that will truly respond to the needs of students and families. They must be committed to creating lasting change that is accessible, inclusive, and equitable for all students.

NCLD has created a new resource to help states and districts meet this moment. Investing in Lasting Change: How States and Districts Can Use Recovery Funds to Support Students With Disabilities details four key areas for states and districts to prioritize: 

  1. High-quality, accessible, and inclusive academic instruction 
  2. Inclusive and culturally responsive social-emotional learning 
  3. Effective progress monitoring and accurate evaluations for specialized instruction 
  4. Meaningful family support and engagement

This report provides recommendations for immediate steps states and districts can take to support all learners as well as additional resources and experts they can consult as they develop a long-term plan to transform learning for all. 

While the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the many challenges facing students with disabilities and other marginalized students, there is a unique opportunity to create lasting change by investing in priorities that both include and support students with disabilities. Ensuring that all programs are equitable and inclusive is the first step to enabling all students to reach their full potential.