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'When Worlds Collide' Looks at Choices and Challenges for People with Disabilities

Who is really learning disabled? Will distance learning determine the future of special education? These and other issues were the focus of the second annual conference, When Worlds Collide: Choices and Challenges for People with Disabilities.

These and other issues were the focus of the second annual conference, When Worlds Collide: Choices and Challenges for People with Disabilities, sponsored by the Center for Opportunities and Outcomes for People with Disabilities, the Center for Educational Outreach and Innovation and the Association for the Help of Retarded Children in New York City (AHRC/NYC).

Professor Linda Hickson and Adjunct Assistant Professors Virginia Stolarski and Gay Culverhouse, along with assistance from Research Associate Ishita Khemka and Conference Coordinator Nektaria Glinou, arranged the two-day conference.

Keynote speakers Professors Marla Brassard and Stephen Peverly addressed Who is Really Learning Disabled? followed by a panel discussion, which included the points of view of a student, a professor, and the director of the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities at TC.

Peverly addressed the question of determining who is reading disabled. There is a continuing problem in defining who is reading disabled, and he noted that this can create an immense variability in who receives services. "We have plenty of data to suggest that what people believe to be a cause of a reading disability or writing disability is not correct," Peverly said. "So we need a much better educated population of evaluators and psychologists. If not, we will end up with a group of individuals who might be ‘over identified' as disabled and others who are ‘under identified' as not."

Brassard added to this discussion by looking at those who are identified as learning disabled in late adolescence through mid-adulthood. She noted that in some instances, the label of being learning disabled is believed to give some college students advantages over their peers, particularly in taking timed tests. These adults who are labeled as having learning disabilities often are accommodated in being given accommodations on timed tests such as law boards. "Key skills in law boards are reading and writing abilities," Brassard said. "You don't have to have great ability to write to be a good lawyer, if you can speak well. The controversial issue in these cases is reading speed."

Harriet Golden, Associate Director for Adult Day Services at AHRC/NYC, and Nancy Ferreyra, Executive Director of the Pacific Research and Training Alliance in Oakland, California, discussed substance abuse situations. Golden focused on the role that addiction plays in the community coping skills of mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults. Studies indicate that people with mental retardation show the same rate of addiction as the general population. Other studies reveal that one of the leading known causes of mental retardation is Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. It is the only developmental disability that is totally preventable. These issues, said Golden, make it imperative that health care providers begin to address addictions in treatment.

Ferreyra shared her insights from "Living Out Loud," a substance abuse prevention program with female adolescents with learning and physical disabilities. Adolescent girls, in general, have a poor self concept, she noted, because of negative attitudes toward physical appearance and a lack of confidence in their ability to live independently. "For girls with disabilities, this experience is intensified because they are often excluded from experiences that develop practical skills leading to feelings of confidence and because they lack role models of successful disabled women," Ferreyra explained.

The final session of the conference explored the role of technology in preparing educators to work with people with disabilities. While many people are enthusiastic about using distance learning technologies to reach beyond the walls of the university to train people, others are worried that quality control will be very hard to maintain. Kay Alicyn Ferrell, Professor and Division Director of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado, spoke about her newly funded federal grant that uses a variety of distance learning strategies to meet the national, critical shortage of teachers of students with visual impairments.

Videotapes of the conference are available at the Center for Opportunities and Outcomes for People with Disabilities x3076.

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