When researchers collaborate with individuals with disabilities rather than doing research on individuals with disabilities, they can uncover critical knowledge about disabilities and engage in emancipatory work.
Katie Lewis, assistant professor of special education at the University of Washington College of Education, shared findings of a collaborative project with an individual with a mathematics learning disability (MLD) during the 2018 meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Lewis partnered with Dylan, an individual with an MLD who was incredibly successful in upper division mathematics courses and graduated from college with a degree in statistics, to document her unique experiences learning and doing mathematics.
"Mathematics learning disabilities do not result from a deficit within the individual, but from inaccessible mathematical tools," Lewis said. "Students with mathematics learning disabilities can compensate—drawing on their resources to gain access to otherwise inaccessible content."
For example, Dylan and other students with MLD may draw ½ in unconventional ways and often focus on the fractional complement rather than the fractional quantity when interpreting fraction representations (e.g., interpreting ¾ as ¼). While Dylan demonstrated the same patterns of reasoning as other students with MLD, highlighting the ways in which standard mediational tools were inaccessible to her, she developed sophisticated ways of compensating in order to gain access to otherwise inaccessible space.
"If you think of the problem as internal to the student, then teachers have very little agency to actually meaningfully engage that student in instruction," Lewis said. "But if you think about it in terms of issues of access and the tools that you're using to teach and communicate about mathematics, then that becomes a lot more flexible. You can start making different instructional decisions which have the ability to powerfully shape and change the ways that your students are able to interact with the mathematics."
Read more about Lewis and Dylan's research in "An insider's view of a mathematics learning disability: Compensating to gain access to fractions," published in Investigations in Mathematics Learning.
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