Yalies overcome obstacle of learning disabilities

When Emily Holleman ’08 received her SAT back, her score was lower than she expected. She sent for a copy of the test and found to her surprise that, when penciling in her name, she had written the ‘E’ backwards. But Holleman, who learned she had dyslexia while in first grade, said she has never asked for further medical tests or for accommodations in school. She also said that, with the exception of a few episodes, the condition has never interfered with her academic performance.

“It was never a big issue,” Holleman said. “I could have had extra time but I get impatient sitting around that long.”

Many Yale students diagnosed with dyslexia, however, rely on the University’s special needs services to provide extra time and other accommodations in order to keep pace with their classmates.

Judy York, the director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities, said 68 Yale undergraduates reported having various learning disabilities last year, including dyslexia, and asked for accommodations ranging from extra time on tests to books-on-tape for reading assignments.

Dyslexia, a common reading disorder that according to the International Dyslexia Association’s Web site affects as much as 17 percent of the population, has varied symptoms but often infringes on an individual’s ability to read accurately and quickly. The condition frequently undermines spelling ability and can cause an individual to write letters backwards.

Sally Shaywitz, a professor of pediatrics and child study at the Yale School of Medicine, examines Yale students who believe they may have a learning disability.

“I think what we’ve learned is that people with dyslexia have weaknesses with basic sounds and words,” Shaywitz said. “On the other hand, higher cognitive levels are not affected and may even be incredible strengths. We want to make sure that people who are dyslexic can access their great strengths. There are various accommodations for that, but first and foremost is extra time.”

Vincent Matranga ’08 was diagnosed with dyslexia in second grade and missed most of the school year learning basic reading and writing skills through a special program. He said he avoids taking too many humanities classes in college and needs extra time on all tests to compensate for his difficulty with reading quickly.

“Extra time puts me at the same place with everyone else,” Matranga said. “It gives me to the opportunity to finish tests. I don’t get any extra time for projects and things, but I do have to set more time aside for reading.”

Professors and the officials from the Resource Office on Disabilities frequently tinker with the amount of extra time allotted to students with dyslexia.

“Most students are looking at time-and-a-half as their extra time allotment,” York said. “We’ve had a serious situation when a student was well behind finishing exams so more time allotment was necessary.”

York said she is proud of Yale’s procedures for students with learning disabilities but also noted that some students with dyslexia probably are not seeking accommodations in classes.

Serena Gosden-Hood ’08, who has a condition similar to dyslexia, visual-spatial perceptual difficulty, agreed that extra time and related accommodations would do little for her.

“Extra time was useless in maths and sciences,” Gosden-Hood said. “I wasn’t good enough to need it and it didn’t help my difficulty. I found in maths I couldn’t do the easy stuff but I could figure out very complicated things.”

Gosden-Hood added that students without learning disabilities tend to have difficulty understanding why intelligent people needed special accommodations.

“I would often see pathetic and embarrassed looks in people’s eyes when they heard I had a learning disability, and I would have to explain that it doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent,” she said.

Dyslexic students also have to contend with perceptions that students and parents can manipulate requests for extra time.

Holleman said she shares the belief that not everyone claiming to have a learning disability actually has one.

“There was definitely some B.S.,” Holleman said, referring to classmates at her high school in New York City. “There were people in school who went to a bunch of different places until they were diagnosed. It was kind of absurd.”

Shaywitz, however, said she thinks reports of the system’s fallibility are greatly exaggerated.

“I think there’s a great suburban myth that students or parents pretend they might have dyslexia,” Shaywitz said. “People talk about it but there are no reports and it’s very, very rare that you can find a case.”

York agreed, saying that students would have a tough time cheating on the standardized tests widely applied for determining if an individual has dyslexia.

“You can shop doctors but you can’t fool the tests,” she said.

York said she believes that, regardless of whether or not dyslexic students choose to use the accomodations provided, the support structure is in place and benefits students with learning disabilities all the time.

“I find that the support accommodations are very good at the University,” York said. “For the most part dyslexic students don’t want to be seen as different or treated as different, but they have to have some exceptionality in exam arrangements. But these students work harder than any other Yale students, and I know that for a fact.”

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