Teaching for the Lifespan: Successfully Transitioning Students With Learning Differences to Adulthood


Henry B. Reiff & Nicole S. Ofiesh

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    To two of the most kind and resilient human beings I have ever known:

    Mary Jane, my greatest blessing;

    Alexia, my dear friend and loving teacher to many children.

    —Nicole Ofiesh

    To my lifelong friends:

    Jim, Scott, and Steve, and to Tom, who died too soon but still keeps me laughing.

    —Henry Reiff


    I was pleased to be asked to write the foreword for what promises to be a most important and valuable book. The authors have quite properly taken on a large and demanding task—focusing on ways to prepare students with varied learning differences for success in school as well as in their lives after school.

    Too often, and for too long, teachers and educational researchers, with the best of intentions, have focused almost exclusively on traditional academic skills and capabilities. The basic academic program and criteria have been seen as a given, never to be challenged or rethought. They have seen their job as fixing what is wrong within a narrow traditional academic focus.

    Often, educators have ignored the obvious reality that there are many facets of work and life that have little to do with traditional school subjects—or with conforming to traditional school-oriented tests and measurements of ability. Those of us who have taken a long look at individuals with dyslexia and other learning differences are painfully aware of the great potential for moderate success, or sometimes very high success, for these individuals in technological innovation, art and design creativity, scientific discovery, and entrepreneurial business.

    By definition, individuals with learning differences may have great difficulties in some areas, but they may also have distinctive capabilities and talents that are valuable in life and work, although these may be largely ignored during the school years. These issues are increasingly important in a time of profound change, as digital technologies transform what is desired in the workplace and how these capabilities are being measured.

    Educators who remain focused on the old world of words and numbers, memorization, and rapid recall risk missing how much has already changed in the new world of computer images and information visualization, where pattern recognition and true design innovation now largely drive corporate success or scientific discovery. Many have obsessed over building 19th-century capabilities when 21st-century capabilities have been largely ignored, remaining undefined and undeveloped.

    I am grateful to Drs. Henry Reiff and Nicole Ofiesh for casting their light on these new realities and the things we need to do in this very different new world. For example, they quite properly focus on a paradigm shift toward a strengths-based model of education. They acknowledge the deep and pervasive role of the newest technological trends. They argue that new instructional approaches should be designed to benefit all students, not just a few. And they draw our attention to the persistent problem of whether students should be taught to own a label that is not well understood by the outside world.

    Learning differences can take many forms, but the history of one of the most common—developmental dyslexia—is broadly instructive. From the time of the earliest researchers (in the 1890s) to Samuel Torrey Orton (in the 1920s) and Norman Geschwind (in the 1980s), the central puzzle of developmental dyslexia has always been the linkage of high ability in some areas with remarkable and unexpected difficulties and disabilities in other areas.

    For more than a century, we have recognized this pattern but have generally focused on only one aspect. With the best of intentions, we have learned much about how to fix the problems that people with learning differences experience, but we have done almost nothing to develop a deeper and systematic understanding of the varied and hard-to-measure talents that they possess.

    An increasing number of us have come to believe that learning from the lives of successful individuals with dyslexia and learning differences can lead to new insights and approaches that will help all students, profoundly transforming fundamental ideas about education and work at a time when computer technologies have turned the world upside down and many of the established professionals seem to have lost their way.

    It is high time for us to begin to recognize and understand and learn how to deal with these puzzling extremes in talent—the unexpected academic weaknesses that often seem to be associated with special capabilities and success in both life and work. Low-level weaknesses should not be allowed to prevent high-level accomplishment. Schools almost never teach or test what these students are good at, but life does.

    Highly successful dyslexics nearly always say that their accomplishments and special ways of seeing come directly from, not in spite of, their dyslexia. We should take them at their word and give credence to what they say. Most conventional researchers and professionals have long agreed that talents are important. However, eventually, they almost always come to focus exclusively on the near-term problems of academic remediation alone. We hope this will change.

    In a time with many future uncertainties, it seems that we badly need the big-picture thinking and original insights that seem to be the signature contributions of the most successful individuals with learning differences. It is a paradox among many paradoxes, but it may be that those who would appear initially to need the most help could, in time, be those most likely to be able to help the most.

    Thomas G. WestWashington, DC, May 2015


    We would like to thank Jessica Allan and the amazing staff at Corwin for their support and assistance in the development of our work.

    About the Authors

    Henry B. Reiff is a writer, public speaker, researcher, and leader in the field of learning differences and the community. He has published numerous articles on adults and adolescents with learning differences and has written or cowritten four books, including Exceeding Expectations: Successful Adults With Learning Disabilities, an American Library Association Top 20 LD Resource. His most recent book is Self-Advocacy for Students With Learning Disabilities: Making It Happen in College and Beyond. He has given presentations and workshops across the country. Currently a regular blogger on the popular website, Friends of Quinn, Dr. Reiff continues to focus on promoting positive outcomes for persons with learning differences. A faculty member in special education at McDaniel College since 1989, Dr. Reiff has served as dean of student academic life and dean of graduate and professional studies for 19 of those years. He is currently professor of education and coordinator of the graduate program in special education at McDaniel. He regularly counsels young adults with learning differences. He and his wife, Jacki, reside in Westminster, MD, with their two children and two dogs.

    Nicole S. Ofiesh is an internationally recognized expert in the field of learning and assessment. Her experiences are diverse and span over thirty years. In her roles as a learning specialist, teacher educator, researcher, speaker, author, and consultant, she works with children, adolescents, and adults. Her work has kept her passionate about creating positive and valid educational experiences! Dr. Ofiesh has held faculty positions at Providence College, Notre Dame de Namur University, and the University of Arizona, and she currently conducts research at Stanford University.Dr. Ofiesh’s work is dedicated to the development of assessment systems that allow all individuals to learn and to demonstrate knowledge in order to maximize performance. She regularly consults with corporations, clinics, and schools (from elementary through graduate school) on program design and professional development. She has served as an expert to the United States Department of Justice, Office of Civil Rights, and large-scale test organizations on testing and persons with disabilities. At the heart of her work is the belief that individuals should thrive, not simply survive. She centers her work on research on the human condition, resilience, cognition, performance, and technology. Dr. Ofiesh began to work with children with emotional and behavioral disorders in 1985 in San Francisco. Many of these children were in and out of prison. It was there that she became familiar with the educational system in the United States and how successful learning experiences can change a person’s life. After returning to San Francisco State University for a master’s degree in learning disabilities, teaching credential, and an educational therapy certificate, she continued to work as a learning specialist with children and adults. She completed her doctoral program at Penn State University in 1997 with an emphasis on transition and postsecondary education for individuals with disabilities. She is a Fellow of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities and author of numerous research articles and book chapters.

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