They called Joyce Otterstrom lazy and stupid when she was growing up because she couldn't for the life of her remember her multiplication tables and she couldn't get the hang of punctuation. After awhile she learned that if she sat down quietly and found a seat behind a big kid, the teacher might not notice her.
In high school she told her counselor that she wanted to pursue a career in music, and he told her she wasn't college material. He suggested she try hairdressing.What he didn't take into account was Otterstrom's persistence and her creativity. She flunked out of two colleges at first, but eventually she figured out what she calls her "learning style." She ended up graduating from Brigham Young University with mostly A's, and today she teaches music and plays with Salt Lake Symphony.
Despite her eventual success, though, it wasn't until her own children were diagnosed as "learning disabled" that Joyce Otterstrom finally understood why she had so much trouble at school.
Like other learning disabled children and adults, she wasn't stupid and lazy. She just learns differently than most people do.
Now she has at last come to terms with the way her brain works. "If I could turn around and not be learning disabled and have my children not be learning disabled, I'm not sure I would," she says.
Learning disabled children and adults are usually very creative, and that's a difference that ought to be celebrated, she believes.
Five of Joyce and Craig Otterstrom's six children have been diagnosed as learning disabled. The Otterstroms work hard to keep those children from feeling like failures in a school system that often discourages children with learning problems.
"We found out that our kids are at high risk for drug abuse and crime," explains Craig Otterstrom, who, with his wife, has become active in the Learning Disabilities Association of Utah. Joyce is president of the group this year.
Although Craig Otterstrom had been trained as a teacher and Joyce Otterstrom had herself grown up with learning problems, neither was familiar with the term "learning disabled" when a third-grade teacher diagnosed their son seven years ago.
"I didn't know what in the deuce she meant," remembers Joyce.
Craig Otterstrom figures there must be a whole generation of teachers who are not sure what learning disabilities are - or what to do about them.
The term encompasses many different conditions, including attention problems and difficulties with sequencing, visual symbols, spoken instructions and memory. Taken as a whole, learning disability refers to any handicap in information processing that creates a gap between a person's true capacity and his day-to-day performance.
In other words, a child or adult with learning disabilities can learn - if he is presented information in a way that his brain accepts.
After seven years and five learning disabled children, the Otterstroms say they are finally learning their way through "the system" and offer this advice to parents:
-Suspect that your child has a learning disability if he seems creative and ambitious at home but does poorly at school and has hours of homework at night even though he is only in elementary school.
-Insist on testing. "It's your right," say the Otterstroms. Make sure the test is the right one for your child and that the results make sense to you. The Learning Disabilities Association of Utah (formerly the Utah Association for Children and Adults with Learning Disabilities) can help.
-If your child is diagnosed with a learning disability, you are entitled to sit down with his teacher, a resource teacher, principal and a district representative to work out an "individualized educational plan."
The IEP is designed to fit the learning style of the individual student and can include such arrangements as oral tests, one-on-one instruction and limited homework.
-Be assertive about your child's education and make sure the IEP is being followed.
-Because your child may have felt like a failure since kindergarten, you may need to invest in psychotherapy.
-Look for tools that will help your child learn best. Joyce Otterstrom, for example, can now balance her checkbook because she has discovered the abacus.
-If your child has trouble reading, take advantage of books on tape from the Library for the Blind. You must have a doctor's signature to qualify. Textbooks on tape are also available, for a $25 lifetime membership fee, from Recording for the Blind in Princeton, N.J.
-After-school tutors often work out better than parental tutoring - which can end up as a battle between parent and child.
-Make the home environment pleasant. The Otterstroms take time to have fun doing the kinds of things their children enjoy such as bike rides and hikes in the mountains.
-At home, emphasize the child's strong points and make sure he is enjoying his childhood. Everywhere else people are constantly trying to change the learning disabled child. "Home should be somewhere where the child can go and be appreciated for the way he is."
Don't force kids to learn, specialist says
Suzanne Stevens has a heretical belief: Not all children should be taught to read.
When a child has a learning disability that makes it extremely difficult for him to understand written symbols, he shouldn't be forced to be learn to read, says Stevens, a learning disability specialist from Winston-Salem, N.C.
"We need to understand the emotional damage we do to these kids by making literacy the be all and end all," says Stevens. "Very often we sacrifice the child, and his childhood is given away, just so he can be literate."
Stevens will be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Association of Learning Disabilities of Utah, Oct. 28 at Orson Spencer Hall on the University of Utah campus.
This year's conference is titled "Celebrating the Differences," a notion that Stevens has promoted for years as a special education teacher.
All learning disabled children have natural talents, she says, but these are often overlooked when teachers and parents spend most of the child's waking hours trying to teach him to learn in the traditional way.
"Parents need to devote as much energy toward nurturing (the child's) strengths as in remediating the weaknesses," says Stevens.
Stevens, the author of 10 books, says that at least 10 percent of the nation's schoolchildren have severe learning disabilities. These are generally "right-brain kids in left-brain classrooms," she says. These are also children who don't just fall through the cracks, says Stevens. "These are kids that get hurt."
Parents of learning disabled children need to be assertive about their child's education, she adds. "We need to teach these kids in ways that are appropriate to their learning styles."
For more information about the state conference, call Joyce Otterstrom at 364-0126.