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Dyslexia Awareness Month and Opening All Options

Part 2 For Disability Practitioners

Written by Trevor Allan

This is the second article in a series of four that celebrates Dyslexia Awareness Month in October and the 20th Anniversary of the publication of Opening All Options, a resource for students with Learning Disabilities. The previous article looked at the background and history of Opening All Options. Opening All Options has been revised several times and this article looks at the section for Disability Practitioners in the current version.

Text. Opening All Options. Specific Learning Disability Resource.  With line drawing of an open book.

Whether you are an experienced Practitioner or new to the field, Opening All Options is a valuable Resource for a Disability Practitioner in Education. The information provided is comprehensive and well researched and provides answers to most questions you may have.

The nature and types of Specific Learning Disabilities are explained in the section headed “What is a Specific Learning Disability (SpLD)?” It looks at some key facts about SpLDs, and some of the potential impacts, then outlines the main types of SpLD – Dyslexia, Dyscalculia and Dysgraphia and follows up with an outline of some SpLD terminology.

It is very important to remember that SpLDs, like most disabilities, have a very individualised and personal impact on each person. While there are many common impacts, the extent, type, severity and nature of the impact will vary from individual to individual, as will the strategies required to address those impacts. Plus each person will bring their own experiences, skills, techniques and management practices to their studies. Also the nature of the courses studied, the teaching, learning and assessment strategies employed will also affect the adjustments and strategies needed to address the effects of the SpLD.

That is why it is so important that each student has a current, or recent SpLD assessment to determine the existence and characteristics of their particular SpLD. What is vital is that the assessment is norm-referenced for their particular age group, because cognitive development and education may impact on the nature of the SpLD. If the previous assessment had been done while the student was under 16, then a new assessment should be undertaken when the student is entering tertiary education. This is explained in detail under the heading “Current Assessment” in the “Guidelines for Assessment” section.

This section also examines the DSM-V classification of SpLDs and then examines the assessment of SpLDs in the Australian context. This includes an examination of the role of the discrepancy between the person’s cognitive abilities (intelligence) and their academic functionality. The section then examines what is involved in a comprehensive adult SpLD assessment. This includes:

  • Assessing Cognitive Function
  • Assessing Cognitive and Information Processing
  • Assessing Academic Achievement
  • A detailed analysis of the results of the testing, including a diagnosis of the impact of the SpLD in an educational context.

A well written assessment will provide clear guidelines to inform the types of adjustments and strategies appropriate for that individual student.

Equally valuable is the section on “Screening for indicators of a SpLD”. This section steps the Practitioner through the process of screening a student who you may suspect has a SpLD for indicators that it may be worth referring the student for comprehensive SpLD assessment. The process is explained and links provided to the sections of the screening tool. This tool is particularly helpful, since it helps determine whether referral for SpLD Assessment is appropriate, and may inform interim adjustments that may be implemented while waiting for the formal assessment process to be concluded. This may assist in addressing some of the disadvantage the student may be experiencing with their studies until the formal assessment is available.

The four steps in the process are:

  • Step 1: Eliminating Factors other than SpLD that could impact academic performance
  • Step 2. Self-Reporting Indicators of a Specific Learning Disability
  • Step 3: Highlighting personal strengths and attributes
  • Step 4: Preparing for formal Assessment

Each step provides relevant information and questionnaires and resources such as an example of a Referral Letter.

The section on “Tips for the New Disability Practitioner” provides excellent advice for a new Practitioner in the field or a valuable refresher for more experienced practitioners. It focuses on the individual impact of the SpLD on each individual, and the need for an informed approach to determining the most appropriate strategies for each student. It emphasises the importance of seeking accurate and current information and points to a range of sources for that information, including the student and academics.

The section on “Personalised Learning – a Framework for Practice” is a clear and concise outline of a successful approach to ensuring that Students with SpLD are able to have the most effective and appropriate access to study. Like many approaches to teaching and learning for people with disabilities, it is also a very effective approach for all students, allowing individual differences to be accommodated and promoting a more flexible and inclusive learning environment. However, given the very individual impacts of SpLDs on individuals, it is even more critical for students with SpLDs. A table outlining the characteristics of Personalised Learning and Practice Strategies provides a very clear and accessible description of Personalised Learning.

The section on “Reasonable Adjustment for SpLD” firstly explains the concept of Reasonable Adjustment as presented in legislation, then looks at:

  • What makes an adjustment reasonable,
  • The role of experts in determining reasonable adjustments,
  • Maintaining Academic Integrity
  • Reasonable Adjustments for SpLD
  • What might be considered unreasonable
  • Strategies for learning vs Reasonable Adjustments

By placing Reasonable Adjustments in both the legal and academic contexts this section provides a sound academic justification for the provision of adjustments for students with SpLD and the legal validity and requirement for the adjustments to be determined and implemented. The list of typical adjustments for students with SpLD helps the Practitioner to consider possible options and the section on Maintaining Academic Integrity and What Might be Considered Unreasonable are helpful reminders of the importance of implementing appropriate and balanced adjustments for students with SpLD.

The section on “Specific Learning Disability and the Education Context in Australia” examines the approach, systems and supports available in the various education systems in Australia. It notes the differences between the Tertiary Education Sector and the School Education sector. While Universities and TAFEs have long recognised the validity of SpLDs and provided adjustments and strategies to facilitate access for students with SpLDs, the School Education sector has been slow to acknowledge the existence and validity of an SpLD diagnosis, and consequently, there is a lack of systems, knowledge and skills in dealing appropriately with students with SpLDs. Consequently, many existing and past students may have been educationally disadvantaged by the system.

The final section is on “Raising awareness of Specific Learning Disability” which looks at various strategies to raise awareness of SpLDs among staff and students of an educational institution to address the general lack of knowledge about SpLDs in Australian society, which may prevent students with SpLD from being identified and having appropriate adjustments implemented. The more the institution can become aware of SpLDs, and the more open and constructive the communication, the more people with SpLDs can be identified, diagnosed and given access to genuine opportunities to succeed in education. An aware, open and supportive environment in an educational institution is the key to maximising this success.

I can only highly commend this resource to all Disability Practitioners in Education. If you haven’t looked at it yet, then I recommend you take the time to do so, you will be rewarded with knowledge and strategies that will enhance your practice and benefit your students. If you have looked at the Resource before, but haven’t done so for a while, maybe it’s time you had another look, and refreshed your knowledge, or maybe even pick up some new ideas. Whether you have a specific question that needs answering, or need to find out more so that you know which questions to ask, Opening All Options is worth taking some time to examine. Dyslexia Awareness Month this October may be just the catalyst to prompt you to engage with this fabulous resource.

My next article will be on the section of Opening All Options – For Academics and Teachers.

Part 1. Background and history of Opening All Options.

September 2019