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Pioneering Presence

Doris Johnson has been a leader in recognizing that children with learning disabilities can make significant progress.


by Patty Dowd Schmitz

When Doris Johnson (GC55, GSESP71) began her teaching career in communication sciences and disorders at Northwestern in the early 1960s, very little was known about educating children who had specific learning disabilities.

Children who would today be classified as learning disabled had limited opportunities for special instruction. They were sometimes grouped with the mentally and physically disabled, the emotionally disturbed and the behaviorally disordered, or they remained in the regular classroom with little or no support. There were a few clinics and special schools around the country but only for families that could afford private services. 

But Johnson, Northwestern professor Helmer R. Myklebust and others (she is quick to point out) believed that there were groups of children who did not fit the traditional special education categories. They had normal hearing and vision, average or above average intelligence and the motivation to learn. What they lacked was the ability to process certain types of information presented to them.

In April 1963, Johnson and many of the early pioneers in the field, including her mentor Myklebust, attended a meeting in Chicago that included concerned parents who weren’t finding adequate solutions for their special-needs children. Out of that conference the term “learning disabilities” was coined, and the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (later the Learning Disabilities Association of America) was formed.

The conference laid the groundwork for changing the way society would view children with specific learning disabilities. It ultimately led to the federal definition of learning disabilities, which in essence states that such children have no primary sensory deficits, mental retardation, emotional disturbance or motor handicaps, yet they have problems processing information. Those problems interfere with one or more areas of achievement, including listening comprehension, speaking, reading written language, mathematics or reasoning.

In 1967, several years after the pivotal conference in Chicago, Johnson and Myklebust published Learning Disabilities: Educational Principles and Practice, a landmark book that became one of the foundational texts for understanding learning disabilities.

For generations, Johnson’s students would call the book simply the “green bible,” a nod to its olive-green cover and its position as the go-to text in the field.

“The green bible still sits on my bookshelf at work,” says Ron Simon (C89, GC90), a 16-year educator of special-needs students and now the coordinator of special education at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill. “It breaks down the learning process more deeply than the commonly held belief that people are either auditory or visual learners.”

Johnson and Myklebust had developed approaches and a structured hierarchy for analyzing processes in terms of input, integration and output. The book also helped students understand the basic relationships between spoken language and written language and other symbol systems.

“It connected the dots between neurological disorders and cognitive disabilities, which are related to how kids talk, read, write, spell, do arithmetic and generally learn,” says James Chalfant, a professor of special education at the University of Arizona. “Of particular significance are the instructional suggestions that Johnson included to help teachers work with kids with these different but specific kinds of disabilities. To this day, after nearly 40 years, I think this is one of the most accurate books on learning disabilities ever written.”

Johnson’s book, as well as her ability to work with various professional and parent organizations, grant her an important place in the history of learning disabilities.

“Doris Johnson was there at a critical time when there wasn’t real conceptual clarity, nor the strength of policy in place to support programming and direction for learning disabilities,” says Don Deshler, a special education professor at the University of Kansas and director of its Center for Research on Learning. “She was able to reach out in two directions — to the scholarly research community and to practitioners and parents. It came at a time when this was very much needed.”

Johnson grew up in a north-central Illinois town, where her high school principal suggested she pursue a career in speech therapy. She received her bachelor’s degree at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., then made her way to Northwestern as a graduate student, intent on studying the speech and language problems of people with cerebral palsy.

“But after I took a course with H.R. Myklebust, I became interested in children who have severe communication and learning problems,” Johnson says. “He also taught courses on language disorders — and he taught us about the importance of differential diagnoses. His courses highlighted the importance of language for communication and thought.

“When I finished my master’s, he asked me to stay on to broaden the intervention clinic and eventually to teach courses in remediation for children with learning disabilities.”

Eventually, Johnson received her doctorate from Northwestern, and she began teaching and working in the clinic, first with young children, then with adolescents and adults.

Johnson, the JoAnn G. and Peter F. Dolle Professor Emerita in Learning Disabilities, has seen the fruits of her labor. “The first two dyslexic students we saw in the early 1960s now have PhDs, both in psychology,” she says. Others have gone on to careers in the arts, music and other disciplines.

During the 1970s Johnson became a respected leader not only in her field but also within the School of Communication’s communication sciences and disorders department. By 1974 she was the learning disabilities program head, a position she held for 19 years.

“Doris ran that program like a family,” says department chair Dean Garstecki. “She was a leader and remained a leader through times of turmoil. It was incredible how all the learning disabilities faculty pulled together around the issues she would bring to them.”

A soft-spoken woman, Johnson seems to have a quiet firmness that puts her students at ease, yet simultaneously pushes them to work to the best of their abilities. She has been described as a true “gentle woman” who has lifelong passions for music, theater and the arts. Her professional demeanor and personal elegance are legendary.

Deshler recalls the first time he met Johnson: “I was a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, and I was assigned to pick her up at the airport. It was late in the spring and as hot as can be, and I picked her up in my un–air-conditioned Volkswagen. She was so elegantly dressed, and there I was, a lowly doctoral student. She was a giant in the field. I was just mortified. My Volkswagen was embarrassing. I had to put a pillow on the seat. But she was so gracious — she didn’t bat an eye. She was just so interested in me, where I was in my program and how I got into the field.”

Johnson led the learning disabilities program at Northwestern until 1993. After she stepped down, she continued to teach and also became the executive director for the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities. She has also remained active in the Learning Disabilities Association of America, which played a large role in raising awareness of learning disabilities and pushing for legislation to strengthen the research base for children and adults with learning disabilities.

But teaching has always remained Johnson’s passion. She is so dedicated to her students, says department chair Garstecki, that if she is invited to speak at a conference in another country on a Saturday, she’ll return immediately in order to be back in the classroom on Monday.

Johnson retired last August after more than 45 years at Northwestern. She plans to continue teaching while working on an early literacy project with several graduate students for the Chicago Public Schools.

“One of Doris’ greatest contributions, even more important than her book,” says Arizona’s Chalfant, “has been the long line of outstanding doctoral graduates who went through her clinic and training program. She has prepared a second, third and fourth generation to take their places in higher education, research, teacher preparation and other positions in state and local agencies in special education to develop effective intervention programs.”

Garstecki says he is always amazed at how dedicated her students are to her. “She really brings them into the family,” he says. “They see her as the Energizer bunny — she just keeps on going.”

Making things better is at the core of Johnson’s interest in learning disabilities. “Each person has his or her own constellation of strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to provide people with the greatest educational, vocational and social mobility possible.”

Johnson has long been interested in the importance of symbols in the learning process and how problems affect an individual’s ability to understand and use various types of information. This has led her to focus on writing systems and on the relationship between language and thought.

Throughout her career Johnson has pursued her interests with zeal because, ultimately, she believes that people with learning disabilities deserve to have choices and options.

“We do not advocate a specific method or one approach to teaching, but rather we try to provide people with thinking skills, the symbol systems of the culture and the awareness of themselves and the world so that they can be a part of as wide a society as they choose.”

Patty Dowd Schmitz (J89, GJ90) is a freelance writer, editor and communications strategist in Barrington, Ill.

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Doris Johnson
Doris Johnson Photo by Bill Arsenault