Some disabilities are not readily noticed. It might be a weak heart that limits an otherwise strong person. It might be a learning disability that holds back a high IQ from being fully utilized. In communication, intellect and mental development, a disability more often and more easily escapes notice. It includes audio processing, word retrieval, social skills (adaptive behaviors) and developmental traits such as autism. The diagnosed and recorded numbers probably represent only a small portion of the true number of individuals coping with a communication, intellect or mental development disability.
Once again, the support for these disabilities is limited and often the sole burden of the individual. This misses an opportunity to think better and design better for us all. My son is highly dyslexic. First grade is when it was noticed that something was up. Other students were advancing, he was not. His shame was so great that he had painful stomach aches on the way to school. After a neuropsych evaluation (no insurance coverage) we learned of his dyslexia – phew.
Next step, how to school him? I have the good fortune of living in a big city with lots of everything. We have a law that entitles a child to an education for free. If the city is unable to provide it, you may go elsewhere and be reimbursed. The city thought two afternoon sessions a week would be enough for my son. This wasn’t even close to what he needed (at the time he was writing only consonants – no vowels). We pushed and got the system to budge. Now even in our city with lots of everything, there was a shortage of special schools. Each one had huge waiting lists. Here again, it took a big push (and a miracle). At last our son was in a great school that was able to teach in just the way he needed.
It turns out that teaching dyslexic students, and this is an oversimplification, is about coping mechanisms. Can’t spell it? Use your handy spell check or an electronic pocket version. Tough time understanding past, present and future? Extra training for calendar use. And so on. Today, five years later, our dyslexic son is better at coping in the world that his older brother who attends regular school. Why? Teaching for dyslexics required the teacher to rethink the whole learning process. Instead of blazing into trigonometry (which I’m not sure why we still teach it) they used math to teach an abundance of practical applications. In some ways, my dyslexic son is better equipped to move into adulthood than his older sibling.
The point is that when educators, therapists or designers troubleshoot in order to remedy a communication, intellect or mental development disability, they often resolve issues that face us all. The result is better design, better interface and greater ease of use. Fear subsides because we know that if we don’t know, it won’t be hard to figure out.
Six Part Assistive Technology Series:
Assistive Technology & UD, Part I: What Is It – 9/13/10
Assistive Technology & UD, Part II: Physical – 9/20/10
Assistive Technology & UD, Part III: Hearing Loss – 9/27/10
Assistive Technology & UD, Part IV: Vision Loss – 10/4/10
Assistive Technology & UD, Part V: Communication, Intellect & Development – 10/19/10
Assistive Technology & UD, Part VI: Conclusion – 10/25/10