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NEWSLETTER: Vol. 5, No. 7, April 17, 2000

Managing Graduate School with a Learning Disability:
A Profile of Judy Risch, UW-Madison

by Jennifer Smith

Keeping up with the intense reading load of graduate school can be hard. But what if you have a learning disability that affects your ability to read quickly and understand content via the printed word, a disability that can even make letters appear transposed? This condition, dyslexia, can make an already-tough course of study seem insurmountable. And it is hardly uncommon -- according to recent statistics from the National Institutes of Health, 15-20% of the U.S. population has some form of learning disability, and dyslexia is one of the more frequently-occuring disabilities. On the UW-Madison campus, the McBurney Disability Resource Center works with about 350 students with learning disabilities yearly.

For Judy Risch, 23, technology has been a boon to her success as a graduate student in a dual program at UW-Madison. Risch is enrolled in a joint School of Education/Law School program in which she will earn both the PhD and JD degrees. Hailing from New Jersey, Risch began her studies at Madison in Fall 1998, after completing a teaching degree in special education at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

From an early age, it was apparent to Risch's parents that her auditory learning skills surpassed her reading ability. They frequently read to her, and, at the age of seven, took her for private testing that identified her dyslexia. Although she did not receive many educational accommodations during her grade school and high school years, outside of school, Risch and her family took advantage of materials available through Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFBD), which she describes as "a wonderful service."

During college and graduate school, Risch developed a technology-assisted routine to make her schoolwork more manageable. A key piece of her strategy is software called Kurzweil 3000, offered by the firm Lernout & Hauspie. Useful to students at a wide variety of levels, Kurzweil 3000 is PC-based reading software that reads aloud text brought into it, whether from a scanned document, a word-processing document, or other source. The user can manipulate the reading speed, the software's "voice," and can even set the software to highlight the word, sentence, or paragraph that is being read.

For Risch, the most time-consuming aspect of her study regimen is the initial scanning of her textbooks at the beginning of the semester. However, once the texts are stored on her computer, she's ready to go. Using Kurzweil to read aloud her texts while she follows along on the screen allows Risch to get all of her reading done in a timely manner. Although at approximately $2,000, the version of Kurweil used by Risch is a substantial purchase, she feels strongly that it is a worthwhile investment in her graduate school career.

Other software also plays a role in Risch's learning strategy. A CrossPad (from the Cross Pen Computing Group) allows her to easily load course notes onto her computer, which she can later work with in Microsoft Word or Kurzweil. The CrossPad is a notepad-like device that lets her take notes on regular paper and then converts those notes into a digital format. Spellcheck features on word processing software come in handy, and she can transfer her course papers from Word to Kurzweil 3000, letting the software read them back to her so she can check the flow of her papers and edit them. A flatbed scanner at home makes it convenient for her to get her textbooks into a Kurweil-usable form. She may eventually buy a hand scanner to gain even more flexibility.

After completing her UW degrees, Risch plans to go into educational law with a focus on advocacy for students with disabilities. She will be able to use her first-hand knowledge of being a student with a learning disability and commented that it was unfortunate the some children need to fail a course before educators and others recognize a learning disability. In the meantime, Risch will continue to use her range of technological accommodations to manage the heavy workload of graduate school and maintain her academic success.

Selected Resources on Learning Disabilities:

Heath Resource Center: A division of the American Council on Education that serves as a national clearinghouse on postsecondary educational for people with disabilities.

Association on Higher Education and Disability

National Center for Learning Disabilities

LDOnLine: This site describes itself as "the interactive guide to learning disabilities for parents, teachers, and children" and contains more information on young children with learning disabilities than the other sites listed here.

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