From dealing with memory loss to regrowing brain cells, Veronica Blackman's mind was buzzing with new ideas as she waited for a ride to the airport. Blackman is a teacher in Detroit who works with students from kindergarten to third grade.
“I provide special needs services for kids that have autism, that are cognitively impaired, that are learning disabled,” Blackman says.
Blackman's kids are usually a year or more behind grade level in reading and math, which can happen when students enter the classroom with an undiagnosed learning disability. Researchers say identifying those problems early on can keep them from falling further behind.
Last week in Fort Worth, Blackman was one of about 1,000 attendees at the 56th annual conference for the Learning Disabilities Association of America, or LDA. The group brought together parents, healthcare professionals, academics and educators to learn about some of the latest research on learning disabilities.
"When the conference first started, learning disabilities [were] not as well-known as it is now, and we didn't have the research," says Beth McGaw, president of LDA's board of directors. "We didn't have the practice. Teachers weren't as informed, and so therefore students weren't getting supported."
Learning disabilities are caused by differences in the brain's function or structure. That can affect the way a person processes information. There are a range of diagnosable disabilities – from dyslexia, which affects reading and language processing, to dysgraphia, which can affect handwriting and motor skills. There are also attention and memory disorders that can affect learning, and these issues are more prevalent than you might think. Of the 6.7 million students who received special education in the U.S., 34 percent, about 2.3 million students, are diagnosed with a specific learning disability.
"We attempt to bring attention to all of those and how we can help that person feel that it's ok, that there are other people out there that have learning disabilities - and very successful people," McGaw says, "and there are ways that you can accommodate to be more successful."
She says a student who has trouble memorizing material could benefit from a note-taking system, or a student who struggles with reading comprehension could use audiobooks in place of traditional textbooks. Despite these advancements in understanding though, misinformation about learning disabilities persists.
Learning disabilities are often first spotted in the classroom, but there can be roadblocks. According to a 2017 report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a third of educators said that sometimes, what people call a learning or attention disorder is just laziness. McGaw says those students who get pegged as lazy might be struggling with undiagnosed issues.
"If you're a parent and you have a child who has learning disabilities, you are their first advocate," McGaw says. "So you want to make sure that you embrace it and not try and push it aside, because it's not going to go away."
McGaw's own son was diagnosed with a learning disability at a young age. She says the first step toward overcoming the challenge is accepting that you or your loved one has a learning disability.
"He's now a young adult, and it's been a struggle," McGaw says, "but as time goes on, he's learning."