Talking About Learning Disabilities
What You Say Really Does Matter
As a professional working in the field of learning disabilities (LD) I am comforted to be surrounded (at least most of the time) by individuals who understand that learning disabilities are real and who appreciate the importance of timely, well-targeted and effective interventions to address the needs of people with LD in school, at home and in the community.
That said, I cringe when I hear questions and comments such as:
- “He has a what? A learning disability? What's that?”
- “She doesn’t look like she has LD.”
- “I know someone who had it but outgrew it once they got out of school.”
- “If they just try harder they’ll be fine.”
- “Can’t this be treated with medication?”
We’ve certainly come a long way since 1963 when, by most accounts, the term “learning disability” was formally introduced into the mainstream of conversation in the educational community. And we still have a long way to go toward increased awareness of LD throughout the general and educational communities so that misconceptions and misinformation do not interfere with the significant progress we've made in recognizing and responding to LD, especially during the early school years.
Why Talking About Learning Disabilities Is So Important
Simply stated, your choice of words in describing LD can radically change how people think and behave. This was made crystal clear during the past decade when, thanks to generous support by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, two Roper Starch National opinion surveys (1994 and 1999) were conducted.
Through a series of focus groups, questions were asked of parents, teachers, school administrators, pediatricians and students with learning disabilities, and additional research was conducted by member organizations of the Coordinated Campaign for Learning Disabilities (CCLD) and the Ad Council. A useful publication titled Talking LD was published as a compilation of recommendations about how to address the most common issues raised in the public conversation about learning disabilities.
Know Thy Audience
During my childhood, I vividly recall my father reflecting aloud on foolish statements made or actions taken by people in the news. With just enough inflection to make me take notice, he would sigh and say something like “I’ve already made up my mind...don’t confuse me with the facts.” And how right he was! The facts are that:
- Almost three million school-age children across the United States are currently classified as having specific learning disabilities
- 39% of students with LD drop out of high school (compared with 11% of students in the general school population).
Yet there are those who still say that LD is not real! Overturning misconceptions and strongly held beliefs and values is so very important to empowering those who struggle with LD to have a fair chance at success, and having good (and current) data, real-live examples and language that is not overly technical or ambiguous makes all the difference.
Choosing the wrong words or examples can actually do more harm than good. For example, the public press is often quick to share examples of famous people (i.e., celebrities, scientists, athletes) with LD. While this might be helpful to convey a sense of hope and optimism, it is often off-putting and even upsetting, both for individuals with LD and those who teach and support their efforts.
Rather than hearing only about “superstars,” most people would rather hear also about real-life success stories and circumstances that are similar to their own and that help them experience the struggles and triumphs of LD in everyday life.