Speaking Out

HEAL on Learning Disabilities

As a group of Penn students with learning differences/disabilities, we would like to respond to the May Compass article "Overcoming Learning Disabilities." Chris Harper, the focus of this piece, was one of the founding members of HEAL (Helping to Educate about Alternative Learning). HEAL is a Penn student action group working to educate faculty, staff and students (as well as ourselves) about a variety of learning and teaching methods. While we recognize and applaud the article as an attempt to report on the difficult issue of being learning disabled/different in a college environment, it would be irresponsible not to illuminate several inaccuracies and omissions in the complex story that this article ambitiously tackles.

There are two pieces of misinformation in the article that we would like to clarify for the students and faculty who wish to take advantage of Penn's resources:

1. If you try to contact the "Penn Learning Resource Center" referred to in this article, it is no longer under that name. Due to departmental restructuring since the time that Chris sought support, academic instruction services are now available through Tutoring and Learning Resources (TLR) within the Department of Academic Support Programs.

2. The article says that Cathy "Luna oversees 10 volunteers who help students with learning disabilities." Actually, Luna is one of the staff of professional and experienced Learning Instructors (NOT "volunteers") at TLR who work with ALL Penn students seeking to improve their learning strategies. The Learning Instructors are supervised by Dr. Myrna Cohen, Associate Director of Learning Resources.

In terms of omissions, the article does well to mention Chris's frustration as well as the distinction between intelligence and learning differences; however, for those of us for whom these differences are a personal reality, there are important points that seemed to be lacking if one is to report on this experience. For example, this article mentions that "students with learning disabilities who manage to do well in high school or undergraduate classes suddenly find themselves struggling in college or graduate programs. They are then tested and identified as having a learning disability." What is more, it says that "[Chris] asked professors for extra time on tests, and received it." Generalizations like these do not address the complexities and challenges involved in both the diagnosis of a learning disability and in establishing appropriate accomodations. Being tested for a learning disability often involves personal anguish and self doubt (as well as considerable time and money). Once an appropriate diagnosis has been made, it may take a great deal of energy, time and commitment from both faculty and students to make effective instructional modifications and academic accommodations.

Finally, we would like to point out that one contribution that we, as students who learn differently, can make to the Penn community is to raise questions and encourage discussion about traditional instructional practices. For example, we want to urge our faculty to consider the role that time should play in assessing what students have learned. We wonder if it might not be more beneficial for all students if tests in certain subjects were offered untimed for everyone. We understand that there are situations in which speed is what is being assessed; however, we also believe that unconsidered traditions and logistical issues (e.g. space and proctors) should not outweigh educational considerations when time is not of the essence.

The Compass quotes Professor Kathleen McCauley, who says: "I believe we need to give these students a chance. We have a responsibility. There are a lot of things the University can do." As students with learning differences/disabilities, we agree with Dr. McCauley, and we believe that one of the most important things the University can do is to make sure that the voices of students are heard in the ongoing conversation about learning and teaching at Penn. We thank the Compass for recognizing learning differences as one part of the valuable diversity on our campus, and for giving us this opportunity to be heard. We also invite interested faculty, staff and students to continue this conversation; HEAL members are ready and willing to meet with groups or individuals in the Penn community to talk about issues related to learning, teaching and diversity.

Alyssa Carlberg, CAS '97
Charlie Haitz, CGS '98 and
Cathy Luna, Ph.D. Candidate, GSE (adviser) for HEAL: Helping to Educate About Alternative Learning

Balancing Act

I am writing in regard to the article "Overcoming Learning Disabilities" (Compass May 21/28). I am the nursing school graduate who was mentioned at the end of the article. Because the sequence of events described in the article was somewhat confusing, I would like to clarify why and how I received the accommodations that were implemented for me. It was required that I prove my competence to my professor Dr. McCauley by intensive study through the summer and later by participating in the "mock" clinical (not a crisis drill) that was created for me. It was after this that the one-on-one instruction in a clinical setting was adapted for my needs. I was able to move into a regular clinical setting half way through the semester and finish with everyone else with an eight-to-one ratio of student to teacher. This was not an attempt to make clinical any easier, but to put more structure around me in order that I could eventually form my own structure and finish in a regular clinical setting.

I would like to add that getting to the point of one-on-one instruction was not an easy process. Dr. McCauley and I had to talk and work through it for four months before the mock clinical was formulated and actualized. We both worked very hard and I was able to prove to her that I could be a safe and effective nurse. It was an arduous but necessary process to balance academic integrity with scholastic accommodations.

The Compass article "Overcoming Learning Disabilities" was the first step in letting faculty and students alike know that there are differences in learning and teaching at Penn which are not jeopardizing academic integrity. We need to strive unitedly to create an atmosphere which addresses the issue of learning differences and academic integrity.

Clare McAnany, R.N., Nursing '95


Volume 42 Number 34
June 18, 1996

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