Learning Disabilities in the Age of Disruption

Access and Inclusion October 20, 2017

Most likely you managed to make sense of the title above, with a short corrective hesitation. Give yourself a pat on the back. But for young learners with dyslexia, the confusing mirroring of some letters such as b and d, poses a constant struggle to find meaning, to read fluently, and can often trigger a cascade of behavioral troubles.

As we recognize Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, let us work to ensure that those living with disabilities receive the appropriate support they need to reach their potential and to thrive. The field’s leading authority, the US-based National Center for Learning Disabilities, finds that one in five students across the United States have some form of Learning Disabilities (LD). Dyslexia exists among a set of other recognized conditions, mild to severe, that impact language and math processing, executive functioning, motor coordination and attention regulation (such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder). Many live easily enough with mild challenges in some areas, but severe LD can profoundly impact learning and socialization. Sadly, persistent unawareness of LD often leads to unfair conclusions that such individuals are lazy, stupid, have discipline problems, etc. They risk slipping beneath the radar for targeted intervention.
Today, we face an unprecedented level of disruption in all fields of life. Constant advances in technology, including artificial intelligence, with their ‘dazzle effect’, tend to emphasize the need for hard skills and knowledge for success. But new research from the Sutton Trust suggests that confidence, curiosity, social and emotional skills—the ‘soft skills’—are equally or more valuable than conventional academic qualifications, even as labor markets shift towards automation. Similarly, David Deming found that strong social and cognitive skills together are in greater demand than academic skills alone. Ironically, as the world is headed toward more automation, being more closely in touch with being human becomes an asset. 
These emerging realities embracing life skills education seem well suited to students with LD. But how can we also best provide the appropriate specialized support services for them? Inclusive education environments, where students with and without disabilities learn together, offer promising solutions. Inclusive education values diversity and the unique contributions each student brings. Research supports this approach, finding that students with LD have far better academic and social outcomes than they would have through dedicated ‘special education’ models. 
As for students without disabilities, what better way for them to nurture the ‘non-cognitive’ skills mentioned earlier? Interacting in learning spaces with LD peers, they develop empathy, creativity, and resilience. They come to appreciate diversity as part of a whole community. With such wider learning outcomes, more schools should embrace inclusive education.
The theme of the 2017 WISE global summit, in Doha (14-16 November), Co-Exist, Co-Create: Learning to live and work together, is not merely about finding our role to play. It is also about lending our hands to others who face more difficulty fitting into the fabric of society. In the award-winning Indian film Taare Zameen Paar, eight-year-old Ishaan struggles in school and falls into depression when he is sent away to boarding school in an attempt to discipline him and improve his grades. Ram, a new art teacher, notices Ishaan’s melancholia and discovers his dyslexia. Ram comes to break all conventions to rekindle Ishaan’s interest in language and mathematics, and hone his exceptional artistic talents.
I am always reminded of this moving film in discussions around LD. Like many people with LD, the Learning Disabilities Awareness Month often passes with little attention. I encourage you to become an advocate for inclusive education, to raise awareness of LD in your community so that all our young people can find ways to thrive and achieve their dreams. Your small contribution could make a world of difference to an eight-year-old boy like Ishaan. 


A 2017 WISE Research report, Inclusive Quality Education for Children with Disabilities, will be presented as part of the WISE Research Series at the 2017 WISE Summit in November. It explores the ‘Three Rs’ model (Rights, Resources and Research) as a practical framework for advancing inclusive quality education for persons with disabilities.