Stephen Smith was such a good-natured kid. No problem at all, really. So, even though he had not yet learned to read by the time he was in the third grade, his teacher just put him in the back of the room and, as she explained it, "let him pretend he was doing what everyone else was doing."

Stephen, now 12, might still be in the back of the class learning nothing if his mother, Linda, had not intervened three years ago.Stephen is proof that it often takes parental insistence and persistence to get a learning disabled child the kind of education he or she deserves under the law.

"I can't stress how important it is for parents to be the child's advocate," says Linda Smith, who is now president of the Learning Disabilities Association of Utah. Especially in light of budget cuts and overcrowded classrooms, she says, "You can't rely on the schools to do it all."

Smith first noticed that Stephen had learning problems when he was just a toddler, but the pediatrician assured her that Stephen was normal. Just spend more time with him, he advised.

She worried about him when he got to preschool, but his teachers assured her that Stephen was normal. Just spend more time with him, they advised. Smith watched him struggle in first grade and second grade and third grade. Spend more time with him, she was told again, but she knew that wasn't enough.

"We were spending three hours on his spelling lists and he was only getting one right."

Near the end of his third grade year, when Stephen was still having trouble remembering his age, Smith decided she would spend $600 to have him tested by a private testing company. When the results showed that her son was severely learning disabled - unable to retain and retrieve symbols - the school system then transferred him from a resource room to a "self-contained cluster unit."

The school had given Stephen a test for learning disabilities, but it was a limited test that did not delineate the scope of his deficiencies. The district was required to give Stephen the more comprehensive testing - if Smith had requested it.

"Now I know I had the right to say, `You haven't told me what I need to know,' " says Smith.

Parents need to work with teachers to make sure the child gets the attention he deserves, she says. If the child can't read, request that he be taught in a different way and be tested orally. If he needs to be at the front of the class because of an auditory processing disability, insist on it, she says.

"Tell the school: `It's a matter of my child learning or not learning.' "

If parents don't know their rights, kids may only be given the bare minimum of services, she says. The problem is even worse in rural areas, she adds. "Literally, parents have been told to move" (to the Wasatch Front) because their home district can't provide the services they need.

Currently there are 19,000 children in Utah considered learning disabled. 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.

"That child can learn. You just have to find his learning style. That's what it all comes down to," says Smith.

After two full years in a self-contained unit, she says, Stephen now can read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. More importantly, he no longer comes home in tears convinced he is dumb. The first time he got 100 percent on a spelling test he ran around the room in glee.

When Stephen was first determined to be learning disabled, says Smith, she grieved as if he had died. "All I could see were his deficiencies." Now she is able to see his strengths - his visual skills and his sensitivities to the feelings of others. Finding strengths and dwelling on them is crucial, she says.

"I'm here to say you'll get through the depression and see there's a rainbow at the end."


(Additional Information)

Learning disabilities conference Nov. 3

"Speaking of Learning Disabilities: Nuances for the '90s" is the theme for the 1990 state conference of the Learning Disabilities Association of Utah Saturday, Nov. 3.

Keynote speaker is Elisabeth E. Wiig, professor emerita of Boston University. Luncheon speaker is Elizabeth Dane, professor of social work at Hunter College.

The conference, which runs from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., will be held in the University of Utah's Orson Spencer Hall. For more information, contact the LDAU at 355-2881.