There continues to be substantial misconception about learning disabilities and how to best deal with children who struggle to learn. But misconceptions cannot simply be overturned by confronting them with statistics, no matter how compelling those statistics may be. Learning how to choose the right words and frame messages so that they have the greatest impact should be your priority. Both policymakers and the general public have preconceived ideas about what learning disabilities are, and it is your job to speak clearly and effectively to those concerns while persuasively explaining that it is in our nation's best interest to respect and support the rights of individuals with learning disabilities.
Describing Learning Disabilities
For many people, it is difficult to understand these commonplace, but hidden, disabilities. This is complicated by misinformation and the deliberate distortions of those who claim that learning disabilities are an excuse for poor academic performance.
Clear, consistent and concise language should be used to describe learning disabilities. When working with policymakers, using alternative phrases that exclude the word "disability" such as "learning disorder," or "learning difference" does little to change the perceptions. If anything, alternative descriptions, like "learning difficulties" or "learning differences" can soften the intensity of concern and make the issue seem insignificant.
Because the term "specific learning disability" is used in the federal law that provides special education services (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), advocates should use this term in their communications with policymakers and the media.
The definition of "specific learning disability" in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) is as follows:
- The term 'specific learning disability' means a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell or do mathematical calculations.
- The term includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia and developmental aphasia.
- The term does not include a learning problem that is primarily the result of visual, hearing or motor disabilities; of mental retardation; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage. [34 CFR 300.8(c)(10)]