When do needs become "special"?
April 19, 2010 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Can a line be drawn between learning disabilities and "plain old low intelligence?"

It is common practice at most institutions at which I have taught to offer accommodations to students with learning disabilities. This usually means more time on tests in a distraction free environment, special note takers, etc.

Lately, some students have been described to me as requiring accommodation for "slow cognition," which could be langauge describing a symptom of some other disability, or could be the description of the disability itself.

If the latter, this lead me to wonder, rather abstractly, about the current consensus among professionals as to the distinction between a disability and "regular" slow cognition. Because honestly, wouldn't we all benefit from accommodation for slow cognition?!

P.S. I have absolutely no problem with offering special accommodation to students who "need" it. I'm just not sure how one determines who "needs" special accommodation--which, fortunately, is someone else's job.
posted by reverend cuttle to Education (6 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, we draw that line all the time in school.

I'm a special education teacher and I also do testing that can help determine if a student qualifies for special education services.

Kids have all different kinds of disabilities, as you noted.

I often see kids who have "slow processing speed," and for those kids it takes longer for their brains to process new information as they try to make sense of it and also file things into long-term memory and make connections in their brains. So if a typical kid can accept the pace of classroom information, these kids can take, say, twice as long for the pieces to fit. These kids have IQs within the normal range, it just takes them longer to get everything. Most teachers design lessons to be understood at a pace acceptable for typical kids. If we designed lessons for slower processing, we'd lose most kids. So no, most people wouldn't benefit from an accommodation for slower processing.

There are also kids with Intellectual Disabilities which are IQs considered on the lower end of the scale. They have a disability characterized by significant limitations both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior, which covers many everyday social and practical skills. For these kids, they're not only slower at making all the pieces fit, but they don't have the intelligence capacity to pull the pieces together, so some connections and bits of information will never be comprehended. They just understand less. They also have considerable difficulty with everyday life skills, something kids with slower processing speed don't have.
posted by dzaz at 6:39 AM on April 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: A learning disability affects a specific, narrow area of cognition, while generalized low intelligence affects cognitive ability more or less across the board. For example, a college student with dyslexia (the most common learning disability) may have difficulty reading college-level reading material (let's imagine a mid-level economics textbook) because of a specific deficit in terms of processing written material, but would have no difficulty getting the gist of the material in audiobook format or from lecture, or perhaps if allowed extra time to read it. A person with a general cognitive impairment (let's say a person with an IQ of 70) probably would not be able to understand the material no matter what format it was presented in.

I'm not sure "slow cognition" is a very standard term in the area of learning disabilities, but I suspect it may be referring to what's called "processing speed"--this shows up in psychological testing that is broken down by different types of cognition and cognitives skills (like the Weschler intelligence tests, which has a processing speed subscale). Again, if you give a series progressively more difficult logic problems to a person with a 70 IQ, they may not be able to solve them even given all the time in the world. And if you give a person with a 120 IQ the same test, they may be able to solve them up to a certain point in 30 minutes--but there will still be a point beyond which they just don't grasp the logic involved, no matter how much extra time they are given. A person with a 120 IQ but a processing speed deficiency may take an hour to solve all the problems they are capable of solving, and so a 30-minute time limit on the test would give a false impression of their actual ability to solve the set of problems.

If more = better results for most students, then you would think that pretty much every student would still be in their seats at the end of a 3-hour final, trying to get the best score possible. But in reality, if the test only takes 90 minutes to complete, on average, most students are going to finish up around that time, and book out of there when they've gotten through the test and checked their work. They're not going to significantly improve their scores by sitting around for another 90 minutes going over and over the exam.
posted by drlith at 7:30 AM on April 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

There's a disjunct between the legal definition of 'learning disability' and how researchers in the field understand it. The legal definition in the US is that people with learning disabilities have a disability but aren't retarded (and so, score OK on intelligence tests). This makes sense historically if you consider that the first learning disability identified as such was dyslexia, and the Standford-Binet, the most commonly used intelligence test at the time, was completely oral. (And it stuck out like a sore thumb because the test was oral.)

However, the idea of "plain old low intelligence" isn't actually very meaningful. People who are mentally retarded also have specific, qualitatively different problems. Williams syndrome and autism, both classified as forms of mental retardation, are very specific disabilities, and not very much like each other. And people who are diagnosed with a form of mental retardation, but classified as high-functioning, can score well into the normal range on IQ tests, and do well academically, even though they still have a disability.

So the idea that people who have a learning disability have a specific problem as opposed to other people who just 'generally have less intelligence' doesn't actually make sense, and deciding who qualifies for accommodation is a bit of a mess.
posted by nangar at 7:32 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you want to get really confused, in the UK we use 'learning disabilities' solely for what's called in the US 'mental retardation' (and a lot of people in the UK would class the US term and very offensive) . Things like dyslexia are under the term 'specific learning difficulties'.

Very much divided by a common language!
posted by Coobeastie at 10:25 AM on April 19, 2010

I used to be a teacher. The school at which I taught had two math tracks in their elementary grades, so the top half of one class would take math with the bottom half of the next class. My class thus had fifth and sixth graders in it, and pretty much all of my students who were struggling were in the sixth grade.

Struggles happened for a variety of reasons. One kid was just a punk: too cool for school. Another girl was quite bright but probably had something like ADHD, as she would just sort of float off into la-la-land unless supervised fairly closely. Those two just took some close watching and the occasional well-deserved poor mark to stay on task. But there were two students who really stood out.

One was a boy, thirteen at the time--in sixth grade!--who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities. He'd had chemotherapy for leukemia as a toddler and hadn't really been the same afterwards, but regardless of the cause, he exhibited a set of regular, specific, and downright bizarre errors and omissions. I don't think I have the vocabulary to explain exactly what was going on--I'm not a special ed. teacher--but it was clearly a distinct problem which through the application of certain disciplines and techniques he could largely overcome. Never seen anything like it before or sense. I used to be a learning disability skeptic, and I still think they're overdiagnosed, but this kid single-handedly convinced me that we're talking about something real.

The other girl, bless her heart, was, and I hate to say it, just... not very smart. She had no specific deficiencies. She'd taken numerous diagnostic exams, been worked up by a psychologist, the whole bit. No problem reading, no problem doing arithmatic, no problem focusing or staying on task, she just... couldn't do the work. Nothing wrong with her. She even spent about an hour a day with the special education teacher doing remedial work. Barely scraped by with low "Ds" in half her courses. Failed mine. She wasn't invited back to the school for seventh grade and transfered to a public school.

I think her problem was that we were using a book targeted at advanced sixth graders and on-target seventh graders for our fifth/sixth class. The school at which I taught prided itself on its academic standards, and I think she just wasn't cut out for it. So even though she advanced a grade level when she went to public school, the academics were actually moving back a grade compared to where she was.

I've lost track of her--it's been, damn, five years already?--but I'd like to think that once she was in a more normal environment she could do just fine. She's just in that half of the population which is below average. Nothing wrong with her as such, but this ain't Lake Wobegon.
posted by valkyryn at 10:37 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

in the UK we use 'learning disabilities' solely for what's called in the US 'mental retardation' (and a lot of people in the UK would class the US term and very offensive)

That term isn't really politically correct in the US, either, nor has it been for some time. It might still have legal implications, but I think the education community has shied away from 'retarded' for quite a while.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:33 PM on April 19, 2010

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