Sally M. Reis and Terry Neu
The University of Connecticut
In the last decade, much more attention has been given to the perplexing problem of high ability students who also have learning disabilities. Four books and dozens of articles have been written on this topic and still, problems exist with both identifying and providing special programs for this population. In addition to learning more about how to identify and serve this population, it is important to know how some high ability students with learning disabilities succeed in a university environment. To investigate this issue, The University of Connecticut site of The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented implemented a study involving twelve young adults who succeeded in a post secondary academic environment, despite having a learning disability. Extensive interviews were conducted with both these young adults and with their parents. The interviews and a thorough review of available school records provide a fascinating portrait of the challenges and problems faced by high ability students with learning disabilities.
This article describes one of these students, Joe, a 21 year old junior who is a physics major at The University of Connecticut. Joe’s school experiences are similar in many ways to a number of other participants in the study. He never really had to work in school because he learned quickly. His verbal IQ is over 150 and yet, he had problems in school that began at a very early age. In fact, he had so many learning problems in the primary grades that he was placed in a self-contained special education classroom from grades two through six. During his time in this self-contained classroom, Joe was instructed with students who were mentally challenged and who had specific learning disabilities. He became severely depressed. About this time in his education, he recalled: “It was degrading. I was very resentful of it. I don’t really remember that part of my life that well. I’ve blocked it out. I knew I was different than the other kids.” Joe was retained in fifth grade while in the self-contained special education class. He explained this by saying that he had become a disciplinary problem while he was in the classroom. Joe remembered with considerable anxiety incidents about his time in this class: “They used to send us out to recess with the mainstreamed kids. I remember being sort of alone and being made fun of. They called me retarded.”
As the interview progressed, Joe recalled that school personnel released him from the special education class in sixth grade because they considered him “cured.” He explains: “I was the first student to be completely mainstreamed out of the program in its history. The principal used to come down and observe me and they would bring visitors from here or there to talk to me.”
Joe’s mother was a dedicated advocate for him during all of his school experiences. She faced constant problems caused by her own confusion about how to help her son and the mixed messages provided by school personnel. In parent/teacher conferences, she was told year after year that Joe was so bright that maybe he would outgrow his learning problems. She sought help from private school psychologists and was a constant presence in Joe’s life. She helped him with his homework, monitored his school progress, requested that his teachers modify his assignments, hired tutors, argued with the school district when he was placed in low level classes, and was there to request help and provide support. Through her later efforts, they located a university with a program for students with learning disabilities and supported Joe in all of his efforts.
After Joe was mainstreamed from his elementary self-contained special education class in sixth grade, he was given an IQ test. His scores were so high that school personnel considered him for the gifted program. Joe explains: “After my IQ test in grade six, they told me I had an IQ that made me eligible for the gifted program. So they gave me other tests (achievement tests) and told me that I didn’t make it (the cut-off), but they told me not to feel bad because my learning disability caused me to score lower than normal people. So I would have made it had I not been learning disabled.” Joe’s mother corroborates his memories about his failure to be placed in the gifted program despite his very high IQ score. She relates her memory of the testing for placement in the program: “However, following the IQ test the school personnel told him ‘Gee, sorry kid, you can’t spell, you can’t be gifted’.” Joe’s mother commented on this incident as one of the many times that both parents “responded strongly and negatively” toward the school.
The negative messages and constant mistakes made with Joe and others in this study made the interviewing process difficult, as it was often almost impossible to withhold judgment on the school personnel who so consistently erred with this group of students. Half of the twelve subjects in this study were retained one grade in school and all had repeated negative experiences due to the interaction of their ability and their learning disability.
Because Joe had difficulty both with reading and with handwriting, he was consistently placed in low level classes where he did not have to study very hard at all in order to achieve Bs and Cs. During his secondary years, he attended school in a different district and his parents did not provide records that labeled him as having a learning disability. Joe’s mother was not in favor of having the school personnel know that Joe had a learning disability because of the type of program in which he would be forced to participate. This program model was a self-contained class and Joe’s previous experience had proven to him and his parents that this would not be challenging for him. Accordingly, in both mathematics and science, he was able to participate in advanced classes because his learning disability was not known and because he pursued with complete attention all possible avenues of entry to these advanced classes.
Because of his earlier negative elementary school experiences, no further services were requested from the public schools. In fact, when Joe’s mother decided another assessment should be completed to qualify for admission to a college with a learning disability program, she sought help from outside the schools. Joe explains: “We did it privately. We were not going to do it from the schools because we all assumed if they knew I was learning disabled, I would be booted out of most of my advanced (math and science) classes.”
At this point, Joe became extremely interested in physics because of the physics teacher he had during his junior year of high school. Joe loved physics and received an A+ in the class. “He gave me an A+ because in his words, I knew more than he did about the subject.” When asked how he had learned so much, Joe responded: “I read books on physics. I’ve read A Brief History of Time, Coming of Age in the Milky Way, and others.”
Joe was able to overcome a severe learning disability to delve into physics and read extremely complex topics. Although very involved in a university learning disabilities program, it is now questionable whether Joe will finish college as he is currently on academic probation due to courses he must take outside of his major area. Despite extremely high abilities, Joe carries a great deal of anger about what happened to him in school, particularly his elementary school years. “I am very resentful of my elementary school treatment. I am rather resentful of public education as a whole. I don’t know how else I could feel, but I’m not mad at very many individuals.” When asked if he can reverse his current situation, Joe responds: “Well, I’m working on it now. You see, I think I’ve finally gotten over a lot of the anger I had towards school, and I have begun to start studying. I have begun to be organized about my work.”
Our research on high ability students with learning disabilities has provided a fascinating portrait of the issues that must be addressed if these young people are to realize their potential. The compensation strategies necessary for the students to succeed, the advocacy necessary from parents, teachers, and the students themselves, combined with conditions that enable these students to succeed are all described in the study which will be available from the NRC/GT in 1993.