Our society is obsessed with labels. What we call things matter, and there is no denying that whether we focus on clothes, phones and technology toys, cars or the credit cards we use, the association with particular brands conveys a certain clout, and carries a certain status to others. I would argue that the same holds true for learning disabilities and other special needs. How we talk about them really does matter, and the words and labels that we use can result in getting help (or not!) and can certainly trigger powerful emotions.
A process is now underway to rework a very important classification system called the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This guidebook for professionals was first published in 1952 and has undergone four major revisions (and many abbreviated updates). The purpose of this manual is to standardize what is known about a wide variety of disorders and to help clarify what is (and what is not) characteristic of a particular disorder. Yes, there is lots of overlap between different disorders, and over time, some listings have been changed pretty radically (based on growing scientific knowledge), renamed or even dropped completely. What has not changed (and will not change in this next revision) is the attention paid to this classification system by health insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, physicians, psychologists, speech-language pathologists, occupational therapists, and … EDUCATORS! Should the labels and listings in the DSM matter to those of us the LD community? YOU BET!
If you are the parent of a child with LD, look through your child’s evaluation reports, IEP, examination summaries from doctors (a very good thing to do now anyway, at the start of the new school year). Now search for the DSM codes that point to specific learning disabilities, such as: 315.00 Reading Disorder, 315.1 Mathematics Disorder, and 315.2 Disorder of Written Expression. You might also see codes for related or co-occurring disorders such as 315.31 Expressive Language Disorder or 314 Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
Now ask yourself: what does this have to do with my child’s IEP? Or 504 plan? Why do we have two systems of classification, one that determined whether a child has an “educationally handicapping condition” and another that is based on medical and mental health model for determining disordered thinking, learning, and behavior? And what happens when a child ages out of the K-12 world and need to have accommodations and supports in the workplace to address the challenges of LD? Do these two systems complement each other? Will they assure a seamless transition of legal protections from childhood to adulthood based on a well documented learning disability? Labels count!
NCLD believes that changes in the upcoming revision of the new DSM could greatly benefit individuals of all ages with learning disabilities.