I received a call not long ago. A concerned parent, whose child had been diagnosed with a learning disability. The usual shock, denial, worries, and grief accompanying such a diagnosis was present. So was a lack of understanding. “But my child is so intelligent! Sociable, funny, and amazing at sports. It doesn’t make sense.” And yet it did. This parent just didn’t know it, yet.
The very definition of a learning disability implies an average to an above average IQ. Think about that for a moment, an average to above average IQ. That describes much of our population. Yet for the learning disabled, that average to above average IQ is accompanied by a learning style atypical of the norm. Some are visual learners, others auditory, kinesthetic, or tactile, most of us a mix.
So, what do we do? We take them out of classrooms for remedial learning, we tell them to work harder, to focus more, to pay greater attention; tasks equivalent to scaling Mount Everest for the child who learns differently. Some people think such children should be in separate schools, so as not to detract from the learning of others, a discriminatory belief at best. Digging deeper, we often find that same child, the one with the so-called “disability”, also possesses abilities atypical of the norm.
All of which begs a number of questions. How do we define disability? How do we determine the norm? Is the term “disability” appropriate? How do we characterize the nature of intelligence? Does it lie in the mere process of learning to read and write? Or is there more?
Most would agree there’s more. Yet all too often, children who struggle through school are labeled slow learners, a label they wear with shame, a label they grow to live up to. Perhaps though, it is not the mechanics of learning to read, and spell, and compute that ascertain our intelligence, rather what we are able to do with it once we attain those skills.
Meet Carol Greider. She is a woman with dyslexia. Consider for a moment the first thought that runs through your mind. That she is a woman of great intellect, a woman of accomplishment? Or that she is a woman with a disability? And does the image of that disability invoke pity or admiration? Carol Greider is all of the above, Dr. Greider is her title. She is dyslexic, yes, but she is also a scientist, and one of three winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Is she disabled? Or is it our perception of disability that is disabled?
We revere and honour the DaVinci’s and Einstein’s of our history, yet are blind to them in our present. We see gifts and differences, and label them “disabilities”. We see people, the same as us yet different, and label them “disabled”. How then does the term “disability” adequately portray those with a learning difference? Or does it instead mirror our internal thoughts? We reflect our beliefs through our language, our choices and actions defining those beliefs.
Mankind’s knowledge of the brain has taken off exponentially in recent years, but it is not a knowledge that is of yet widespread, limited mostly to those who work in this field. Some would argue this is typical of new knowledge and ideas. But perhaps it is us, suffering from our own characteristic wariness of new ideas, our fear of the unknown.
A growing number of learning disabilities are being identified and diagnosed, along with the ability to ferret out those who are at risk at an increasingly younger age. Seen in the proper light, this is a boon for those who learn differently. Early intervention is the key for long-term success, hence, early detection the critical step towards that intervention.
Our focus should be on change, on bridging gaps, on increasing our understanding. The more we understand, the more we encourage growth, allowing all individuals to reach their true potential.
We stand on the edge of a precipice, one foot tentatively reaching over the edge, dangling mid-air, thinking, considering. Do we stay on the same path we know, abide by our old ways of thinking, or do we expand outwards?
The choice is ours, and only ours to make. The question that begs that choice is simple. Who is the different one? The learning disabled, or the learning abled? An age-old question, really. Them, or us? If we can answer that question, we have merely exposed our own innate prejudice and judgment. There is no them or us. We are one and the same, human in our form, different in our abilities, each with much to offer, without either, the world a duller place. Perhaps it is time our language reflects that.