Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reading Wonders

I had just concluded my presentation; I was the third in a series of five speakers. The room was set up in the traditional “U” shape, with people sitting around the perimeter of the room and very little space between the chairs and the walls. Unless people were at the endpoints of the “U”, they sat trapped.

I spoke to 50 employment professionals about how low-cost adaptive devices can have a big impact on a person with a disability’s life. I passed around examples to try out and show them how simple some of the devices can be.Pictures an open binder. A person is flipping through the pages showing the different colored transparent dividers in it.

One device is a binder filled with ten different colored transparent sheets between pages of text on white paper. When placed over a printed page, the overlay changes the text’s background color. Changing the background color can significantly improve reading comprehension for some people.

I am not a scientist, so I do not really understand how it works. However, I know is that some people’s brains are not wired to easily read black text on a white paper. Finding the right background color makes it easier to comprehend what he/she read.

As the next speaker started his presentation, I began rounding up evaluations and equipment. I was trying to exit the room as quietly as possible.

A participant got up and began squeezing past 5-6 chairs; inching past each person, she would say, “Excuse me,” or “ Uh…sorry,” or “Can you scoot in a bit?” My initial thought was, she must really have to pee to cause such a commotion.

When she got to me, I noticed she was crying; she took me by the shoulders and pulled me to her. She whispered the following into my ear:

I didn’t go back to school until I was 43 years old... mostly because I was a bad reader. I thought I was dumb in high school. As I got older, I knew I wasn’t, but reading was so hard for me…

When I started taking college classes, I had to read my texts six or seven times to understand what others only had to read once. It was excruciatingly slow and difficult. I had to carry a lighter class load, because it took me so long to read. No one helped me. But, I finally got my Master’s degree.

When I flipped the pages of that binder… and got to the aqua colored overlay…. I felt my brain r-e-l-a-x. My eyes felt less strain too. It was amazing!

Why don’t people know about this?

She endured hardship after hardship as a college student, taking her longer to complete her degree and delaying getting a good paying job because of her barriers to reading. She could have benefited from a number of technologies to support her studies, one being an aqua colored transparent sheet, available at any office or school supply store, to lay over her textbook.

Why Don’t People Know About These Things?

It was/is a very good question. I get a similar reaction (though not often as dramatic) every time I pass the binder around a training room. Everyone is surprised that something so simple could have such a dramatic impact.

Part of the answer lies with the way professionals deliver services. For example, a special reading teacher’s goal is to make students readers; ”curing” them of their reading disability.

Finding assistive technology, even the simplest device, means removing barriers to a task; not fixing “deficits.” Assistive technology changes the setting so it fits the person. Improving someone’s ability to function is the goal, not curing them. It is about access.

Part of the answer also lies in a person’s inability to identify him/herself as someone with a disability. The social stigma that accompanies a disability is a difficult for someone to overcome.

Despite our own disability pride in our bodies and our selves, society does not yet to understand that disability is overwhelmingly a social construct. Rather than identifying with part of a discriminated class, a person with a hidden or unrecognized disability internalizes their struggle and tries to “pass” or hide. If they can pass, they believe life will be easier. Unfortunately, the opposite is true. Hiding limits possibilities and opportunities.

Another part of the answer is that despite the fact technology has revolutionized the way we perform every single task in our lives, from driving to picking paint colors, the application of the revolution into people with disabilities lives falls so short of the mark, it is criminal.

Educators and rehabilitation professionals have not revolutionized the way they teach or deliver services that keep up with the technology revolution.

In most colleges, a person can get a Master’s degree in Speech and Language Therapy, and never touch one of the 250 + devices that aid communication; education focuses is on fixing the speech disability. What happens to a person who will never develop speech skills? Well, everyone assumes he/she has nothing to say.

Teachers can get an advanced degree in special education and never learn about integrating educational or assistive technology into a child’s curriculum. So, when a child becomes frustrated because the material is not accessible, he/she gets a “behavior disorder” label.

Reading specialists rarely use technology. Literacy programs consider it a failure if a person does not learn to read. I have never heard of a literacy teacher saying to a student, “… there are lots of ways to get information other than reading... You’re plenty smart, you just have a disability to print. You have a right to materials in ways that make sense to you.”

I talk to parents almost daily in my work with a state assistive technology program. The stories are all frustratingly similar. They have a child failing all subjects; he/she reading level is years behind their peers. They receive no support other than a resource room teacher that helps them read words, asks the child questions about the materials, and then they send homework home, where parents and the child spend the evening in frustration and tears. As the child falls further behind, he/she gets labeled as lazy, unmotivated or a bad kid.

That little binder of colored overlays hits very close to my own home. When one of my daughters graduated from high school, she read at a 7.5 grade reading level. A 6th grade reading level is functionally illiterate. Despite that, she wanted to go away to college like her peers and sisters.

With a little research and luck we found a community college that focused on student supports and assistive technology services for students with disabilities. In one semester, with a purple overlay, they raised her reading level from grade level 7.5 to 11.5. She still uses it; and it has dramatically changed her life.

What was once painful is now pleasurable. It increased her ability to study and improved her quality of life. In short, she became a reader. What is most remarkable about her story, for me her mama, is she has read enough to know she has a favorite author.

Whether it is a colored overlay, or a book on tape or other technology adaptation, it is my hope and desire for all people who struggle with reading to get to know their favorite author too.


Terri said...

what a wonderful post! I used the example of eyeglasses to explain accomodations to teachers once. They don't "cure" the eyes--just give access.

Chuck said...

I often run into people who, with a little help and some assistive technology could have gone to school, worked, done something with themselves, but they did not know it existed. When I tell them they often think its too late for them to start doing things, but I tell them that it is never to late. I did not know about the transparencies of various colors. Is it a special transparency, or is it just the color that does it? Let me know as I have a person it might help. The do everything in color coding.
When I took intro to special Education, all they way back in 1992, we were never taught about assistive technology. Even now it is not emphasized much. This is shameful. Thanks for the insights.

Big Noise said...

There's nothing magic about the transparencies... I use the ones with a matte finish, since the glossy tend to leave a glare. But some people respond to the the glossy better than the matte. It's just trial and error to find the right color and finish.

I buy mine at staples. They are just 3 ring binder separators. Sometimes I have to buy the transparent 3 ring pocket folders and cut them down to a single sheet.

Anonymous said...

OMFG I gotta check this out! I'll let you know if it helps. In graduate school I found out (quite accidentally) that the pale green Engineer's paper was SO much easier to write and read on ...

I'm a good reader who gets migraines; so does my son. Hmn, I should get a pack and try them out!


Big Noise said...

I'd be very interested to know if you think the overlays have an impact on your migraines... keep me posted!

Tara said...

My mother told me to read this...
It was just excellent. In fact I am printing this out for my college professors to look at!
Tara B. Parrish-Kinnaman