Yalies with learning disabilities find support

Jinjin Sun/YH

Yale is awesome at this,” proclaims Kathryn Olivarius, BC ’11. “This” refers to the programs and policies in place to accommodate students like her; Olivarius is one of the many Yale students with learning disabilities. Both dyslexic and dyspraxic, she says she was “surprised” when she came to Yale by how easy it was to seek out the help she needed, which she says she got “immediately.”

Olivarius talks openly about her learning disabilities and is entirely comfortable explaining the accommodations she receives in her classes here (extra time on exams and permission to take them on a computer). Other students, however, are less forthcoming­—hardly surprising if you take into account the stigma that has historically been associated with learning disabilities. But due to research that has been done in the past few decades, what we know about learning disabilities and how they are perceived in society has changed dramatically—thanks, in part, to work done here at Yale.

Judith York, director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities, says that when she was an undergraduate in the ’70s studying special education, “Information about special education was just coming out to prepare educators for students with learning disabilities in the mainstream classroom.” York says that learning disabilities were “such a new concept” that they were “probably a mystery to most people;” in fact, she adds, it’s hard to even say whether or not people “bought into it or not.” Then, in the ’80s, a big step forward was taken when the first laws requiring schools to have special education programs were passed.

Dr. Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D., estimates that the term ‘learning disabilities’ was coined in the ’50s or ’60s. Dyslexia, on the other hand, was first written about in 1896 in a British doctor’s study of a boy named Percy, who appeared to be highly intelligent but was majorly hindered by his difficulty with reading.

Dr. Shaywitz is the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale’s School of Medicine and one the world’s leading experts on reading and dyslexia. Along with her husband, Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, she co-directs the Yale Center for Dylexia and Creativity, where much of the groundbreaking research on reading disabilities has taken place. In 1997, Congress appointed a national panel, the purpose of which, Dr. Shaywitz says, was to “examine and investigate different methods and approaches used to teach reading, and to identify those that were effective.” Dr. Shaywitz served on that panel, and in April 2000 presented those results to Congress.

“People have always been aware that bright people can struggle to read,” Dr. Shaywitz explains, “but what has happened in the last 15 years or so [is that] we’ve been able to identify the areas of the brain that are used for reading, and, very importantly, how the activation in these areas differs in typical readers and in dyslexic readers.” Brain-scanning technologies allow us to see that in dyslexic readers, the area of the brain that is important for “automatic fast reading” does not function efficiently. What this means, Dr. Shaywitz says, is dyslexic people essentially have to read “more manually,” which, like anything done manually, “takes more effort and more time.”

Due in large part to the current scientific research, dyslexia (which accounts for 80 percent of all identified learning disabilities) and other learning disabilities are slowly but surely beginning to lose the stigma that has long been associated with them. As York puts it, “We’re finding out that there’s a physiological difference, which means it’s no longer a psychological, an ‘it’s in your head’ kind of thing.” She says that since she began working at Yale in 2000, she has seen a change in the attitude toward learning disabilities. For one thing, she used to see “a lot more pushback from faculty than I do today–now I don’t see it.”

She also reports an increase in the number of students with learning disabilities at Yale in the past decade, which she attributes primarily to the “fact that education has changed its ways so more students have been supported to get into a school like Yale.” In an article that profiled students dealing with learning disabilities, The Harvard Crimson cited Howard E. Gardner, a professor of cognition and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, supporting York’s observation: “Fifty years ago, students who were dyslexic were just considered stupid, and they could rarely have the opportunity to benefit from higher learning.”

Jeffrey Brenzel, Yale’s Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, echoed this sentiment, writing in an email, “In the culture at large, there’s been an increase in both diagnosis and disclosure of learning disabilities. A generation ago, a student who struggled with the time required for reading might not have known he was dyslexic, for example. That student in 2010 is much more likely to receive an early diagnosis and intervention, and also be able to perform at the high level commensurate with other Yale applicants and students.” Dean Brenzel says that many students are admitted to Yale with learning disabilities, and credits York with leading what he calls “one of the best offices in the country at providing support and accommodation for students.”

In spite of these changes, learning disabilities still create a good deal of controversy, especially in the context of extra time on standardized tests. As the college application process has become increasingly competitive, debate has raged over whether it is fair that some students get more time on tests such as the SAT or APs. Many critics charge that the privilege is abused by people who have the money to pay for the diagnostic tests; others argue that there’s no such thing as extra time in real life. One freshman, who opposes extra time on standardized tests, says, “I think fundamentally everyone learns differently. If every student were tested, I think a professional could find something different about each student’s learning style and processing speed.”

In her book, Overcoming Dyslexia, Dr. Shaywitz refutes the criticisms of accommodations made on tests for students who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities by citing research that has “compared the performance of learning-disabled and non-learning-disabled college students on timed and untimed standardized tests.” The researchers found that students who had been diagnosed with learning disabilities consistently showed significant improvement in their scores when given extra time. On the other hand, the scores of students who had not been diagnosed either showed very little improvement or even decreased. “If you don’t need the time, and you have it, what do you think happens?” she asks. “You go back and change answers that were right and make them wrong. That’s really important for people to know.” Furthermore, she says, “most of the people I’ve met who are dyslexic would rather not have extra time, would rather not be singled out. Nobody wants to be noticed that way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dr. Shaywitz cites ignorance of what dyslexia actually is as one of the biggest causes of the stigmas associated with the disorder. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, which she and her husband run, is “undertaking a major initiative to increase public awareness of what dyslexia is. Most people think dyslexia is simply ‘seeing letters backwards.’” And that, she explains, is “not true at all.”

It’s hard to say how comfortable students at Yale feel about discussing their learning disabilities among their peers. Although Olivarius seemed almost confused when I asked whether she ever felt like there was stigma attached to her dyslexia, several students declined to be interviewed for this article, and others agreed to be interviewed only on condition of anonymity. One of these students wrote in an email that he does think there are stigmas here associated with learning disabilities. “I’ve definitely been in situations where people, not knowing I had them, expressed their skepticism of whether people at Yale actually had disabilities—there’s a perception that you’re gaming the system if you have extra time.” He went on to say that people think there is such a wide range of cases that qualify as disabilities that “it’s not hard to get extra time or other help.”

Regardless, the support provided at Yale for these students appears to be top quality. Olivarius says she has “no complaints” about the Office of Disabilities, and calls York “awesome.” (Another student compared York to “your ideal, non-judgmental mom.”) Additionally, Olivarius says she has never had any problems with professors or students here, more or less dismissing as ridiculous the idea that she would have ever felt stigmatized by her classmates for her learning disabilities.

Although York acknowledges that she has seen some students with learning disabilities struggle here, she has not seen many students leave Yale because of them. “I credit that to a large degree to the Admissions Office,” she says. “I credit the incredible support of faculty [and teaching assistants] here, who will give extra time and support to the students who might need it. There’s a big network of support.”

Another factor in students’ success might simply be the fundamental differences between high school and college. “High school was so cutthroat,” says one Yale senior, who wished to remain anonymous. “[I guess that’s] where most of the animosity comes from.” The student has what is called compensating dyslexia, which results in a gap between his thought process and his reading and writing speeds. He gets extra time on tests here, just like he did in high school (though he had not yet been tested when he took the SAT, and therefore did not receive extra time). He also takes advantage of the note-taking service provided, because when he takes notes, he “has to look up [at the board] for every word.”

He remembers that in high school, a lot of emphasis was placed on “just getting a task done,” and so his having extra time might have seemed “more unfair” to other students. In college, however, he says the “quality” of your work is “more important than how quickly you do it.” At this point, he explains, all students have “strengths and weaknesses, and are more specialized,” adding, “I’m not going to choose a job where I have to do things really quickly.”

When it comes to providing the support students with learning disabilities need, Yale seems to be doing its part. But as both Ms. York and Dean Brenzel noted, the support students receive early on in their education is crucial to ensuring they get to places like Yale in the first place. Dr. Shaywitz has worked hard to establish teaching methods that are successful with students with dyslexia and other reading disabilities. “Now,” she says, “it’s an area where we actually know what works; the challenge is to get that transferred into what happens in classrooms in schools.” In other words, the hard part is reaching kids long before they arrive on campus. “And that,” says Dr. Shaywitz, “hasn’t happened as much as it should.”

  • Kildonan School

    It is great to see an Ivy League School that is active in teaching students with dyslexia. Oftentimes very intelligent pupils are forced to leave college because their school is unable to work around their disability. Way to go, Yale!