The Power of One  

Colorado Works
Literacy Conference
Alamosa - Adams State

October 4, 2001
Leecy Wise
Keynote Address

For a list of links to resources and topics mentioned in this document, go to


•Participate in an overview of the field

•Take a more in depth view of characteristics of adults with LD

•Review other populations who have similar characteristics

•Discuss a few strategies for connecting with those who have lived on the sidelines.


I’d like to begin with reflection today, by having us examine the moments or phases in our lives when we felt most empowerment – when we felt the most hope, recognized our greatest vision, and experienced the most certainty about ourselves.

Power comes from certainty, from some hidden inner source that leads us to out of fear and into action.

What keeps us from living in our power all of the time? When have you felt the least able to meet your obligations or follow your dreams?

Compare those moments of despondency and empowerment. What was the difference?


Let me suggest a possibility.

We feel the most defeated when we experience separation from what we love and are doing. We cease to trust ourselves. Our world feels fragmented, like a puzzle with a bunch of missing pieces that will never come together.

When we feel depressed, angry, anxious, ineffective, different, or afraid, we feel separated from what we believe to be important in our lives.

We feel most empowered - certain about our lives and actions - when we feel the most connected to what we love and are doing. When we feel oneness with others and with whatever we consider our purpose or vision. We feel alive, effective, productive, and unafraid.


The difference between those two perceptions of ourselves lies in the amount of connection we sense with others and with our activities. We want connection. We want to feel an absence of conflict and separation in our lives. That is the power of one, or the power of oneness, if your prefer.

Click on for examples of people and their struggle to overcome the gap.



Who are those people whom we call Learning Disabled? They are most often the children in our society who grow up with the experience of being different, of being underachievers. They are most likely the children who grow up to be adults who live with the experience of never achieving their dreams or meeting their potential.

Why? Because our accepted systems - educational, economical, social, family, government, etc… - are highly structured to process people who are capable of linguistically analyzing, interpreting and producing information that can be similarly applied in our communities.

Our classrooms, board rooms, desk rooms; our testing and assessment instruments; our employment, application, registration, enrollment procedures in schools, hospitals, and offices; our workshops and training experiences; our ways of functioning in the world all emulate a big machine.

Chug, chug, chug – boom-boom - chug, chug, chug.

If you are a swish, zoom, beep, gurgle-dop person, you don’t fit! You are considered different.


 Blue does not match brown or gray. The scale starts at “do” and ends at “ti” and “do”. Ocean water is salty and the sky is blue. Take it or leave it.


Learning Disabled people are really Learning Abled (LA). The so-called LD learn very well. In fact, they are often brighter and more creative than average! They just don’t learn through as many avenues as some others. They don’t have the flexibility of adopting new methods to replace those that don’t work. They are specific learners. They demand that information enter a certain way (Learning Styles) and be processed a certain way (Multiple Intelligences), and there are not two ways about it.

Let’s go through the official definition of LD as stated by Bridges to Practice ( ), the US Team responsible for examining the issue:

Definitions of LD Explained

There are a number of definitions of learning disabilities used in the US and in other countries. Bridges to Practice chose the definition of the National Joint Commission on Learning Disabilities (NJCLD) in its 1994 revision. That definition is presented below in an annotated format to help you interpret its meaning as applied to adults.

Learning Disabilities Defined

Application to Adults

Learning disabilities is a general term that refers to a heterogeneous group of disorders

There is neither one type of learning disability nor one profile for adults with learning disabilities. There are many different patterns of difficulties. For example, one adult may have a serious reading disability, while another may be able to read adequately, but not be able to communicate thoughts in writing.

in the acquisition and use of listening, speaking, reading, writing, reasoning, or mathematical abilities.

Learning disabilities are specific in nature. Learning problems encompass one or more ability areas; e.g., reading or math, but do not necessarily include all ability areas. They do not represent simply a delay in development.

presumed to be due to central nervous system dysfunction,

Although most adults with learning disabilities will not have a medical diagnosis of neurological disorder, the assumption is that there is some sort of difference or difficulty in how the brain works. Current research is shedding greater light on this area.

Problems in self-regulatory behaviors, social perception, and social interaction may exist with learning disabilities

Some adults will have difficulty in self-control, perceiving social situations appropriately, and getting along with other people.

and may occur across the life span.

Learning disabilities may be uncovered at different stages of a person's life, depending on many factors. Some factors include severity of the disorder; academic, vocational, and social setting demands; and educators' knowledge of learning disabilities. The symptoms change over time so that a learning disability in a 7-year-old child looks different from one in an adult.

But do not by themselves constitute a learning disability.

The problems described in self-regulation, social perception, and interaction, although often present in adults with learning disabilities, also occur in persons with other disabilities, as well. There are many reasons for these types of problems other than underlying learning disabilities.

Although learning disabilities may occur concomitantly with other handicapping conditions (for example, sensory impairment, mental retardation, serious emotional disturbance)

A learning disability may be present with other disorders, but these conditions are not the cause of the learning disability. For example, an adult may have a hearing loss along with a learning disability, but the hearing loss is not causing the learning disability. Also, learning disabilities are not related to low intelligence. In fact, most people with learning disabilities are average or above average in intelligence, but the impact of the disability may impair their ability to function well in school, at home, or in the workplace.

or with extrinsic influences (such as cultural differences, insufficient or inappropriate instruction).

Although learning disabilities are not the result of inadequate schooling or opportunity to learn, they are often exacerbated by these factors. For example, individuals with learning disabilities frequently have fewer opportunities to learn in their area of disability; they tend to be challenged less by their teachers and parents. Therefore, by the time individuals with learning disabilities become adults, they are further behind than the learning disability would predict.



What are the characteristics of adults with LD? No two people with LD have exactly the same set of difficulties. To touch on a few, let me ask how would you feel if you...

·       Had excellent verbal ability, but could express thoughts on paper

·       Had mechanical aptitude, but difficulty with reading, writing or spelling

·       Lacked social skills and had difficulty maintaining relationships or making friends

·       Learned well when shown, but could not follow written and/or verbal instructions

·       Felt constantly anxious, tense, depressed and had a very poor self-concept

Additional Characteristics from

·       Cannot organize belongings, time, activities or responsibilities

·       Inability to complete a job application form.

·       Cannot follow written direction and/or remember several verbal directions.

·       Difficulty finding or keeping a job.

·       Difficulty budgeting and managing money.

·       Time management difficulties.

·       Short attention span, restlessness or hyperactivity.

·       Difficulty in remembering and following the sequence of instructions.

·       Difficulty in understanding appropriate social behavior.

·       Poor coordination and spatial disorientation.

·       Difficulty with problem solving strategies.




-fidgets, is restless or easily distracted during interview
-does not seem to listen to questions/information
-interrupts or gets off track during interview
-looses things necessary for intake process
-talks excessively
-can’t concentrate on task (class or work)

Reasoning and Processing

-describes history of making poor decisions
-has trouble relating past experience to present situations
-exhibits delayed verbal responses
-difficulty transferring learned information to practical
-problems comprehending


-has trouble responding to questions related to background
-problems repeating or synthesizing information heard
-difficulty sequencing events such as former job experience
-trouble remembering information read

Interpersonal Skills and Emotional Maturity

-interacts inappropriately during interview
-exhibits signs of poor self-confidence
-does not follow “the rules”

Coordination and Motor Functions

-problems with gross motor functions
-bangs into desk
-slow reaction time
-confuses right and left


-uses short, simple sentences
-has problems explaining things logically
-difficulty participating in staff/team or class groups

Reading, Writing, Mathematics

-difficulty filling out application or forms
-trouble reading information pertinent to the interview
-fills out the application poorly
-displays poor spelling skills
-can’t count money
-difficulty using a calculator
-low basic skills level

High Level Cognitive Functioning

-difficulty organizing and prioritizing information
-problems identifying and planning the next step
-misses appointments or comes on wrong day/wrong time

When reviewing this list, you'll notice that most of us display several of these characteristics at some time in our lives. Tp suspect a learning difficulty or disability, there must be a display of multiple behaviors or manifestations.  These characteristics are usually noticeable during the beginning stages of entry into an organization (i.e., reception, eligibility processes, intake, initial interviews, orientation and/or the first few weeks of class/training).

What causes learning disabilities?

No one knows what causes learning disabilities. There are too many possibilities to pin down the cause of the disability with certainty.

What causes ld? For those of us who work with adults, it doesn’t matter what causes it. What matters is where we go with what we know about each person we meet.


Why do we want to do something to improve our success with learning disabled adults?

When you consider that in some areas of Colorado we have a 50% or higher drop-out rate in high school, you must conclude that even more than 40-50% of those adults are not being served in our systems.

Why should human services, education and employment/training facilities be concerned with informal assessment (if not diagnosis) of learning disabilities for adolescents and adults? 

Research data suggests a minimum of one-third to one-half of the participants eligible for human, education, and employment related services will demonstrate extreme difficulty in basic skills programs, job training, and employment environments.  If these difficulties are not accommodated it is apparent that the learner will encounter extreme frustration resulting in a lack of productivity, and an inability to move toward self-sufficiency, thus a recycling back into the system – ineffective use of resources and services. 

We cannot afford to waste human potential – people with learning disabilities have tremendous potential.  The development of an identification process and appropriate support systems will assist participants who have learning disabilities to be productive, self-sufficient members of our community and we will have taken one giant step toward combating the low wages or high skills issues within the American work force.

Estimates about the number of adults in adult education programs, social services programs, or employment-seeking programs indicate that probably 40-50% of these adults, at a minimum, may have learning disabilities that have kept them from achieving academic and employment success in their lives. ( - Bridges to Practice)

The United States Employment and Training Administration (1991) estimated that between 15-23% of Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) title IIA recipients may have a learning disability. Based on the Department of Labor observations, the percent of adults with LD increases to between 50-80% among those reading below the 7 th grade level (U.S. Department of Labor, 1991).

In studies conducted by the President’s Committee on Employment for People with Disabilities it was found that 10 to 14 percent of adults in the workplace have learning disabilities. (Nancie Payne, M.S.s, Senior Consultant, Payne & Associates)

A survey of 567 adults with learning disabilities conducted by the association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities (now Learning Disabilities Association of America) found that 210 (37 percent) were unemployed. (Nancie Payne, M.S.s, Senior Consultant, Payne & Associates) 

Carolyn Buell Kidder suggests dyslexia affects 10 to 15 percent of the school age population.  Since dyslexics have a much harder time learning to read, they could make up a larger segment of adults who are illiterate – as much as 30 to 50 percent.  (Kidder, 1987)

A recent Department of Labor Research and Evaluation report states that non-empirical studies suggest between 50 and 80 percent of students in adult basic education programs (generally those reading below the seventh grade level) probably have learning disabilities.  

15 to 23 percent of all Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) IIA participants may have learning disabilities (50 to 80 percent of those identified as reading below the seventh grade level); and


What can we do to help ourselves if we have specific learning preferences, or how do we work with people who do? 

Unless you are dealing with an extreme disability, I wouldn’t  worry too much about getting a professional LD diagnosis for someone. It is a cumbersome, expensive, and stressful process. However, in many cases, a person who is finally diagnosed professionally will express a huge, life-held sigh of relief to understand that there is an explanation for this being's behavior and thought.

To those who prefer to avoid the process and expense, it might be a relief to know that even if we can identify the specific learning disability, we would still apply common best practices among adults across the board who desire to achieve higher pay in higher skilled jobs.

What are some good approaches to encourage more people to succeed on their path to gaining confidence and skills?


Connect with every person you meet and get interested in who they are. The power of one to one connection. (Bridges toPractice)


·       Intake – all or  none (Clear Policy) ((Informed Consent)

·       Determines goals and approaches

·       Referrals

·       Check for Checklists on site

·       Observation is a critical component

A partial list of examples of questions (and rationale) which may be helpful in identifying symptoms of learning disabilities in adolescent and adult populations are as follows: (Nancie Payne, 1994)

-Highest grade completed? (educational history/background)

-Number of years in that grade? (educational history/background)

-Were you ever held back a grade? (educational history/background)

-Do you like to read? (visual processing of language)

-Is reading difficult? (visual processing of language)

-Do you like to draw or doodle? (visual-motor processing of symbols)

-Do you like to write? (visual-motor processing of language)

-Is writing difficult for you? (visual-motor processing of language)

-Do time limits bother you? (spatial./time orientation and pressure)

-Do you have trouble following oral directions? (auditory processing and sequencing)

-Do you misunderstand or confuse what people say? (auditory discrimination and processing)

-Do you have trouble listening? (attention and concentration span)

-Do you have trouble concentrating? (attention and concentration span)

-Do you have experience difficulties when learning? (processing disorders)

-How many jobs have you had since school/training? (poor learning/processing fits in environment)

-List your hobbies (significant to understanding learning strengths)


Guide those you want to assist into defining realistic, achievable short-term goals. Remember that LD adults often have a different time concept than many, so be patient in guiding adults through goal-setting steps.


Create self-directed contracts that have people endorse activities to meet their own goals. What does the person like to do, want do do, commit to do? (Accountability/Responsibility = Dependent to Independent Learner)


Redefine what doesn't appear to be working WITH the person, not FOR the person.


("Boa Noite. Tudo bom. Como e que vai. Oi, tudo bem? Oh, como e que vai?") If I were to speak these words to you in your effort to learn the language, what would you hope I would do before asking you to perform? (Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep the same structure. Do not change. Take small segments at one time. What else?)

Adults struggling to conform appreciate the same courtesy.





Help people understand better about how they learn: visual, kinesthetic, auditory. (assessments, observation of body language and word cues)


Try everything until it works. Gardner’s list.

words (linguistic intelligence)

numbers or logic (logical-mathematical intelligence)

pictures (spatial intelligence)

music (musical intelligence)

self-reflection (intrapersonal intelligence)

a physical experience (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence)

a social experience (interpersonal intelligence), and/or

an experience in the natural world. (naturalist intelligence)


Stay in touch. Evaluate progress. Talk. Call. Refer. Don’t give up.


What other people suffer the same experience of separation we impose on ALD’s? They are people who come from Holistic Cultures. Those whom Edward Hall calls High-Context cultures.

  • Establish a balanced system that includes

  • Competition – Cooperation F

  • Self – Others

  • Questioning – Observing

  • Linear assessment - Performance-based assessment

If you were to draw a picture of yourself in relation to everything else in your world, how would you portray it?


Some learners cannot draw those pictures because they perceive themselves as a woven aspect of their environment, not as separate from it.

BUILD INDEPENDENCE (Coaching vs. Direction)





  • Teamwork

  • Community

  • Technology

  • Multi-sensory experiences

  • Performance-based assessment and outcomes


  • Pay Attention

  • Screen if necessary (if the procedure is part of intake, it must be applied to all, not discriminately to a few!)

  • Communicate in different ways

  • Accommodate

  • Provide feedback

  • Assign roles that meet learning preference


All of us seek connection with one another. We want to contribute something of value to our world.

We empower each other through acceptance, involvement and affirmation. The power of one-to-one contact cannot be substituted by rules, guidelines, and group instruction.

Each of us is unique. Everyone has something to offer. I can’t breathe alone under water. I’m disabled that way. I need accommodations – tank, suit, flippers, etc… I need someone from the ocean to teach me how to swim and dive.

We may not have the answers for the people we serve, but we can listen and listen and listen until we understand. We can examine possibilities and resources and share them. We can care deeply. We can move into new ways of doing things. We CAN CONNECT WITH THEM AND AND GIVE THEM HOPE. And we may be the only people that ever have.

If you are here, I know you’ll join me. Let’s keep up the Power of One and make our circle bigger in our agencies, schools, businesses, everywhere, specially in our hearts.

Have a great time as you learn more today!