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Reading a vital skill for disabled

Q: My child is developmentally disabled. Why should she learn to read when computers can do everything for her?

A: It’s important that everyone learn to read in these times, including children and adults who are developmentally disabled. And it’s probably even more important in these digital days as without being able to read, the computer is just a digital daze. Being able to read signs like “Stop,” “Danger,” “Men,” “Women,” etc. is of obvious importance.

Ruth Luckasson, professor in the School of Education at the University of New Mexico, writes in the important book, “Listening to the Experts: Students with Disabilities Speak Out,” of possible violations of human rights regarding these children. Some school policies may violate these rights in many ways, including “not teaching academic skills, preventing access to the general curriculum and necessary supports, not providing education needed to exercise citizenship …”

All schools in the U.S. must provide help for children who are behind in reading (whether disabled or not); Albuquerque Public Schools’ program is described well at If you live in the APS district and believe your child needs additional help with reading, a contact number is available on that website.


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I like the list of goals for reading programs that I found on the Sioux City, Iowa, schools’ website. It does not differentiate between typically developing children and children with developmental disabilities.

In part, the list includes:

  • To diagnose and identify specific reading problems in each eligible student.
  • To supplement and support (not replace) the classroom reading instruction.
  • To foster an enjoyment of books and to encourage reading as a leisure activity.
  • To develop a positive attitude and self-confidence by providing reading success.
  • To help each student acquire the skills needed to function in the classroom.

Children with developmental disabilities, like yours, need reading for many reasons even beyond the great enjoyment that most of us get from that skill. Use of a computer, to fill out a job application, to seek rehabilitation support, to play a game or to write to a friend, requires being able to read and to type. Yes, there are computers that will read words aloud and will recognize and record speech, but the experience is far richer for those who can read the words on all those web pages.

In addition, like everyone else, children and adults with disabilities bump into the medical system at various points in their lives. Often those who have disabilities have more medical problems and so those “bumps” are more frequent and more prolonged.

Understanding what a doctor says is always difficult – we speak that strange language called “doctorese” – so being able to read the printed materials that we hand out is vital. Some progress has been made in writing these materials in simple language, but still ability to read is needed.

I asked Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Public Library Director Dean Smith what the libraries do for patrons with developmental disabilities. Smith noted that libraries deal with people at all levels, from infants (the Main Library just held a highly successful baby shower) to rocket scientists. My observation is that our system’s 130 or so librarians are remarkably good at meeting each patron’s needs at the appropriate level.

Adults with disabilities get many services from the public librarians, Smith observed, including use of the computers, reading the periodicals and finding books on subjects of interest to them. The key issue, he said, is not finding books with relatively easy reading level, but in first finding books and other library materials meeting each patron’s interest.

I don’t use the library’s lifelong learning material, which includes help in getting a GED, but it may be helpful to your child with disabilities.

These are some of the other services that I use and recommend frequently, some of which may also tie your child more closely to the public library and will help her with her reading:

  • Reserving online what I want from the entire collection and having it delivered to my branch to be picked up.
  • Audio books that keep me awake and stimulated while on a long drive.
  • DVDs, many of them educational, on an astounding array of topics.
  • Music of every genre.
  • eBooks to save space when I’m traveling.
  • Reference help when I’m stuck looking for a fact for a column.
  • Story time for children, and perhaps also for adults with developmental disabilities.

The library, and reading in its many forms, is very important in my life. Both should be part of your child’s life too, at whatever level she can enjoy them. And both are deserving of our support.

Lance Chilton, M.D., is a pediatrician at the Young Children’s Health Center in Albuquerque, associated with the University of New Mexico. Send questions to