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The Emotional Scars of Learning Disabilities
and Learning Difficulties

In modern Western society mastery of basic academic skills reading, writing and arithmetic is a necessary prerequisite for success in both school and employment settings and society at large. A large percentage of children suffer from learning disabilities or learning difficulties and therefore don't master – or only partially master – these required academic skills.

The seriousness of such difficulties is hard to exaggerate. Unless the child's problem is dealt with in an adequate manner, what awaits him outside the school gates is probably nothing but a hopeless future. According to Gerber et al., many adults with learning disabilities are underemployed, often stuck in dead-end jobs that do not tap into their true vocational potential. Many others are not finding employment at all, add Zigmond and Thornton in their article, "The future of learning disabilities." They are unsuccessful in their pursuit of further training, and few are accessing the adult services that have been developed to serve them. Many LD young adults have major academic and vocational needs that make it hard for them to live independent lives.

The figures on the salary check, however, might not be the only concern. People who cannot read can also not read instructions on a bottle of prescription medicine, look up numbers in a telephone directory, or read the menu in a restaurant. Being unable to read traffic signs and street names, or maps on long journeys, they cannot travel freely. They cannot read the letters that their children bring home from their teachers or help them with homework. They cannot write to friends or read for pleasure. In fact, they are severely isolated in a reading world.

Choice, in all its facets, is diminished in the life of the reading-disabled person. If he votes, he is forced to cast a vote of questionable worth. Being unable to read important information in print, he can't make an informed decision. He would probably vote for a face, a smile, or a style, not for a mind or character or body of beliefs. Even the printed TV schedule, which provides people with the luxury of preselection, does not belong to the arsenal of options in the life of a nonabled reader. One consequence is that the viewer watches only what appears at moments when he happens to have time to turn on the switch. A lot more common is that the TV set remains in operation night and day. Whatever program is offered at the hour when he walks into the room will be the nutriment that he accepts and swallows.

Learning or reading disabilities can have destructive emotional effects. Persistent learning failure leads to anguish, embarrassment and frustration. "There is something terrifying about sitting at the back of the class and having somebody ask you questions which you know you will never be able to answer," an adult dyslexic told British actress Susan Hampshire, who is also dyslexic.

In describing his feelings about growing up with a learning disability, Nelson Rockefeller, who served as vice president of the United States and governor of the state of New York, recalled, "I was dyslexic, and I still have a hard time reading today. I remember vividly the pain and mortification I felt as a boy of eight when I was assigned to read a short passage of scripture at a community vesper service and did a thoroughly miserable job of it. I know what a dyslexic child goes through... the frustration of not being able to do what other children do easily, the humiliation of being thought not too bright when such is not the case at all."

For some the humiliation becomes too much. In one study, Peck found that over 50 percent of all suicides under age fifteen in Los Angeles County had been previously diagnosed as having learning disabilities. The actual percentage of youngsters labeled "learning disabled" in most school districts in the United States is below 5 percent; therefore, it seems clear that youngsters with learning disabilities constitute a disproportionately large percentage of adolescent suicides compared with the general adolescent population.

In another study, conducted in Ontario, Canada, the researchers analyzed all the available suicide notes (n = 27) from 267 consecutive adolescent suicides for spelling and handwriting errors. The results showed that 89 percent of the twenty-seven adolescents who committed suicide had significant deficits in spelling and handwriting that were similar to those of adolescents with LD.

Behavior problems resulting from their negative experiences are not uncommon in LD youngsters. The strain and the frustration of underachieving can cause them to be reluctant to go to school, to throw temper tantrums before school or in some cases to play truant. Cheating, stealing and experimenting with drugs can also result when children regard themselves as failures.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush, who had a learning-disabled son, noted that "learning disabilities can destroy lives. To get a really disturbing sense of this we need only to look at the estimates of the learning disabled among juvenile delinquents." Results from a study in the U.S.A. by the National Center for State Courts demonstrated that youths with LD were 200 percent more likely to be arrested than nondisabled peers for comparable offences. According to the U.S. Department of Education 60 percent of America's prison inmates are illiterate and 85 percent of all juvenile offenders have reading problems.

Since it brings such devastation in the lives of so many children, no stone may be left unturned to eradicate learning disabilities or learning difficulties. As Richardson states so succinctly, "Literacy gives us the keys to knowledge and wisdom the keys to the Kingdom. Isn't it time now for us all to put our heads together, to work together to see to it that those keys are given to every child?"

  • Reiff, H. B, & Gerber, P. J., "Adults with learning disabilities," in N. N. Singh & I. L. Beale (eds.), Learning Disabilities: Nature, Theory, and Treatment (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1992).
  • Zigmond, N., & Thornton, H. S., "The future of learning disabilities," in K. A. Kavale (ed.), Learning Disabilities: State of the Art and Practice (Boston: College-Hill Press, 1988).
  • Kozol, J., Illiterate America (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1985).
  • Hampshire, S., Every Letter Counts: Winning in Life Despite Dyslexia (London: Corgi Books, 1991).
  • Rockefeller, N., TV Guide, 16 October 1976, 12-14, cited in J. Lerner, Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies (4th ed.), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988).
  • Peck, M., "Crisis intervention treatment with chronically and acutely suicidal adolescents," in M. Peck, N. L. Farberow, & R. Litman (eds.), Youth Suicide (New York: Springer, 1985).
  • Hazel, E., McBride, A., & Siegel, L. S., "Learning disabilities and adolescent suicide," Journal of Learning Disabilities, November 1997, vol. 30.
  • Broder, P. K., et al., "Further observations on the link between learning disabilities and juvenile delinquency," Journal of Educational Psychology, 1981, vol. 73.
  •, website maintained by G. Sagmiller, author of Dyslexia My Life.
  • Richardson, S., "Specific developmental dyslexia. Retrospective and prospective views," Annals of Dyslexia, 1989, vol. 39.
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