President’s Report: Where Are We Going and How Are We Going to Get There?

The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) annual Conference comes at the end of the LDA Board of Directors year and marks the beginning of the next; an excellent and informative way to transition from one year to the next. The 2016 Conference, held in Orlando, was very well attended and session reviews gave high marks to keynoters and session presenters.  Our heartfelt thanks and gratitude go to Co-Chairs of the Conference Committee, Linda Modenbach and Sandra Britt; Conference Program Committee Co-Chairs Mark Griffin and Jennifer Harkin; and Mark Halpert and Cathy Einhorn, Co-Presidents of LDA of Florida, host state for the conference.  The 2017 Conference and Program Committees, along with LDA of Maryland, are already in planning mode for the LDA Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, February 16 – 19, 2017.  We look forward to seeing you there.

The energy generated at the conference was evident at the LDA Board of Directors meeting where we met with Suzanne Lang and Kevin Hager of Understood.  LDA is one of the 15 founding partners of Understood, an innovative digital resource (website) for parents to help them understand learning and attention issues.  An LDA taskforce was appointed to work more closely with Understood on joint cooperative ventures.

We also planned for the September LDA Board of Directors weekend meeting in Chicago.  For many years federal special education policies were generally clear cut.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) regulations were in place and we knew what to expect. This is no longer the case.  Items on the BOD agenda will reflect the uncertainties of the future and help us examine the changing face of special education and general education; discuss where the condition of Specific Learning Disabilities seems to be headed; review LDA’s Core Beliefs and make decisions as to speaking out on LDA’s positions; and our advocacy efforts on behalf of individuals with Specific Learning Disabilities.

To have a good understanding of LDA’s mission, vision, goals and dedication to individuals with Specific Learning Disabilities, and what we are committed to safeguarding, one must go back 53 years to 1963. This is when LDA was incorporated as a non-profit organization by a group of parents and professionals who realized that children with an un-named learning condition (later named Specific Learning Disabilities) were not getting the type of educational services from the public school system they needed in order to learn and succeed in life.

Members of LDA and the LDA Board of Directors went to Washington DC to advocate for these children with SLD. They petitioned Congress to have these children included in legislation named the Education for Handicapped Children Act (EHA), now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The leadership of LDA encouraged parents and professionals to join LDA and become part of a larger advocacy force that petitioned Congress to place into law a Free Public School Education (FAPE) and an individualized education program (IEP) designed according to each child’s learning needs.  LDA was the first, and at that time the only advocacy agency that supported and spoke for elementary school children with SLD, for their families and for the special educators who taught them.

Where are we now?
LDA national and state leadership is just as necessary now as it was in 1963, but today it’s not only standing firm for EHA/IDEA.  Now we realize that the condition known as Specific Learning Disabilities goes beyond children in elementary school to students in high school and in post-secondary education.  Now we realize that learning disabilities affects individuals across the life span. We advocate for adults with SLD in the areas of job training, post-secondary education, academic, testing, workplace accommodations, and teacher education (both general education special education). We support and put forward LDA’s comments on other pieces of legislation such as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (now referred to as Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the Higher Education Act and the Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

We thought the evaluation/identification/eligibility policies as written in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), were understandable and straight forward.  However, much to our surprise and dismay, State Education Agencies in Tennessee and North Carolina came up with their own interpretations of what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) says about SLD evaluation, identification and eligibility criteria.  If those new state policies are allowed to stand, the whole concept of a specific learning disability as we know it – is in trouble.  Reading back over this paragraph, it is clear that the job of LDA has changed.  In other words our job description has greatly expanded as we continue to work to protect the best interests in all issues that affect individuals with SLD/ADHD.

What is the future of LDA and the future of Specific Learning Disabilities?
It’s all up to us!!!!!!!  We are the experts; we have lived the life and stayed the course.  It’s up to the LDA members and LDA leadership to use our first-rate advocacy skills and share our expertise with decision makers in state and federal government.

Where is LDA going?  
The members of the LDA Board of Directors will help to answer this question at their next face-to-face board meeting.  The fall weekend board meeting in Chicago will give us the time we need to hear, examine and discuss THE BIG PICTURE ISSUES facing children and adults with learning disabilities; to get a sense of the struggles they and their families are facing when trying to access evaluation, identification and services; to hear how Congress, the U.S. Department of Education, State Departments of  Education, and State Legislatures are changing laws and policies that provide access to services and educational benefits for children and adults with SLD.  Perhaps the most important item on the board agenda will be a major concern shared by parents and professionals alike, the erosion of the concept of what a Specific Learning Disability is and the impact it is having on SLD evaluation, identification, eligibility, special education services and protections under the law.

How are we going to get there?  
With the combined efforts of our two exceptional full-time national office staff, consisting of Mary-Clare Reynolds, Executive Director; Stephanie Fedro-Byrom, Operations Manager; several part time employees; and two consultants – Policy Director Myrna Mandlawitz and Director of the Healthy Children Project Maureen Swanson; plus (and this is a big plus) the LDA Leadership Team of approximately one hundred and fifty volunteers who are members of the LDA Board of Directors, LDA Committee Chairs, and members of our seventeen working committees.

As I researched the biographies of members of the LDA Board of Directors, I became more and more impressed with their skills, experiences and accomplishments.  Some members are educators (early childhood, elementary, secondary, higher education, literacy, English language learning, teacher training, administration); others have expertise in psychology, law, finance, leadership, journalism, public relations, marketing,  adult services, job training, non-profit management, public policy, advocacy, nursing, mental health, juvenile justice; and many board members have served as leaders for LDA state affiliates.

Last but not least, some of us are adults with learning disabilities and some have family members with learning disabilities and/or attention disorders.  Each of us comes from a different discipline or aspect of understanding and experiencing the life of individuals with SLD.  Put us all together at the LDA Board of Directors table and I think you’ll find an impressive group of individuals whose combined knowledge and expertise, covers a wide breadth of topics and issues encompassing the life span of individuals with Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) and also touches on conditions that often accompany learning disabilities, such as ADHD.

If you have questions or concerns, feel free to contact members of the LDA Board of Directors through the LDA National Office. Click here to learn more about the people who represent you on the LDA Board of Directors.

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