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Learning “Disabilities:” Putting the “D” in Context

About Learning Disabilities

The World We Used to Live In

During the past few thousands of years, society has evolved in ways that are not always friendly to individuals who are in some ways “different” than their peers. Who got labeled as having disorders or disabilities has always been a consequence of a given society’s expectations for how well each person fit in, contributed to the community, achieved some level of independence, and enjoyed success and happiness. Society today is no different, but in many ways, it can be less tolerant, more demanding, and yes, confusing.

In hunter-gatherer groups who lived in wilderness settings, there needed to be a core of individuals who, among other traits, had quick reflexes, sharp hearing and vision, the ability to navigate to and from their village. Those who did not possess these characteristics could assist those who did (although often not without placing themselves and others in danger) or could perform other tasks that did not tap these highly desirable skills. Not everyone could be an expert hunter and while these individuals were valued because of their critical roles as providers, others were equally valued for their contributions to the community.

A Step In the Right Direction

With the introduction of the “3 Rs,” society took a sharp turn toward excluding and discriminating against individuals who were considered not to be “normal” when compared to their peers. As recent as just a few decades ago, children and adults were given labels such as “imbecile” and “moron” and were hidden away in separate settings (e.g., classrooms, school buildings, psychiatric hospitals) and believed not to be worth the effort and attention to teach them skills needed to function in mainstream society. Their disabilities were thought to pose barriers that made it impossible for them to be included in society, living, working and playing side by side with their “normal” peers. The passing of Public Law 94-142 in 1975 (known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ) changed the public’s responsibility to provide “free and appropriate education” to all children, and reauthorizations of this and other laws have only made it better for individuals with disabilities (although we still have a long way to go).

The World We Live In Today

Fast forward to today’s society. Given the value and demand that we place on reading, spelling, writing and math, and the enormous value that is placed on fast and efficient information processing skills, individuals who can’t compete or perform in expected ways are recognized as having a disability, not because they aren’t trying hard enough, and not because they are incapable of contributing to society. Without accommodations, their specific areas of weakness in today’s world create real barriers to their success. Thank goodness we are honest and respectful enough to recognize the value that every individual brings to society and provide protections (through federal law) that ensure their being valued and included as equal members of society.

Our society has come a long way toward recognizing and celebrating every individual for his or her efforts and achievements. The ways that children perform in school are one indication of how well we are doing as a society. The ways that we prepare children for college and/or the workplace is another. And the ways that we recognize and support individuals and families who deal with disabilities every day is yet another.

A Better World?

Could we abandon the “D” word (disability) and just provide services and supports to every individual based on their unique needs? I would like to think so, but reality tells me otherwise.

  • Do we need to ensure protections for all individuals with dyslexia, dyscalculia, and other specific learning disabilities (and other disorders of learning, behavior and attention)? You bet!
  • Do we need to deliver the most effective instructional and behavioral instruction and supports to these children so they are not victims of misperceptions about what they can achieve and held back by ill-informed low public expectations? Absolutely!
  • And are we, as a society, committed to an honest appraisal of what matters most and not shy about using words (like “disability”) that, when used for the benefit of citizens, is a ticket to success rather than a prescription for failure? I certainly hope so!

Sheldon H. Horowitz, EdD is the Director of LD Resources & Essential Information at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.