Thursday, July 8th, 2004
Â© 1997 Richard Wanderman
How could I ask such a question? Many people feel that dyslexia is not a learning disability but simply a learning “style” or “difference” that isn’t dealt with well in school, and so, ought not be associated with other conditions which are possibly more disabling.
If this is so, then what exactly is a learning disability?
Looked at another way, using “learning disability” as an umbrella term might mean that anything that gets in the way of learning could be called a learning disability.
If I go to school mildly depressed or distracted by a zit and have a tough time paying attention, then for the moment, I have a learning disability.
Okay, we can beat the semantic issue to death. But there’s more….
Maybe the problem that many people have with “learning disability” is that there’s a difference between using it in an absolute way and a relative way: some “learning disabilities” have an absolute affect on cognition, and others don’t.
Possibly part of the reason this issue exists at all is that one set of folks in this group does not want to be associated with another (and this is directly related to “spin.”
Specifically, the folks who have isolated their “learning disability” as “dyslexia” don’t want to be associated with the folks with other kinds of learning disabilities, like attention deficit disorder, autism, mental retardation, and Down Syndrome (the absolute group).
This seems like a class issue: some people want to make it known that they are better or smarter or have more potential than others.
The rationale is that school and other services ought to deal with these groups differently.
But, wouldn’t you agree that the variability in human performance (not potential) means that a dyslexic with high potential might be performing at the same level or lower than a person with a more severe cognitive disability?
So, now we’re back to “potential” and what many people are saying is that people with dyslexia have more potential than many or all of these other groups.
Potential is not the same as performance.
I have a good friend named Tom. He has Down Syndrome. Tom is independent, funny, polite, wise, and I enjoy being with him. We chop wood together, dance together, enjoy Christmas dinner together, and relate in as many meaningful ways as I do with other friends who I see about as often as I see Tom.
I don’t know what Tom’s potential is, but even if he’s pushing his own envelope (operating close to the limits of his potential), it doesn’t diminish what he does with his life and how it affects the people around him.
I have known dozens of young people and adults who are classified (or talked about) as “bright dyslexic” who have the most retarded social skills, have incredible cases of learned helplessness, and are not performing anywhere near what the people around them think their potential is.
And, we build all sorts of excuses and rationalizations and even institutions to deal with this.
Why? Because the “bright dyslexic” has more potential.
And just where is this potential? In school-related tasks, of course.
But, who would I rather have at Christmas dinner?
I have no problem as a dyslexic adult placing myself in the same camp as Tom. We both have “differences” in our brains that make it hard for us to get along in this most unforgiving, frightened, and judgmental society. And, both of us are doing our best to get along, and in the process have built lives for ourselves that we enjoy sharing with each other.
In this light, “potential” seems more and more like a class issue: an effective spin to rationalize what isn’t happening but might.
Can you tell that I am angry about this idea? I am.
I’ve always identified strongly with groups with cognitive differences who our society has marginalized: people with mental illness, and people with various kinds of cognitive disabilities.
When I was 27 and “coming out” as an adult with a learning disability I never found a community of dyslexic or LD adults, but there was a very active and vocal community of people with mental illness called The Madness Network. I needed a support group to join, even if the issues it was concerned with didn’t directly apply to me. I subscribed to the Madness Network News for many years and reading it helped me focus some of my views on the problems of growing up with a learning disability in the United States.
Later, as I started to attend CEC, LDA (ACLD back then), and Orton Dyslexia Society conferences I noticed that these professional groups, supposedly built to support the LD and dyslexic community, marginalized the people they were supposed to be serving.
Have you ever attended the youth and adult panels or strands at one of these conferences? This is not a put down of the folks who attend, it’s a put down of the larger organizations: these “support” groups seem like tokens thrown in to keep a few vocal people quiet. I just couldn’t identify with the groups or the way they were convened.
The Madness Network had a focused, angry message that better represented my feelings, so I never participated in a panel at LDA or Orton, preferring to be part of another group. I did attend LDA and Orton, but as a “professional” presenter.
So how does my personal history affect my ideas about dyslexia being a learning disability?
People with differences, in this case cognitive differences, can get support and help from one another. Instead of being concerned with differences we ought to be concerned with common experience and put some energy into sharing that experience.
But, because intelligence-related issues are so important in our society, we feel the need to categorize cognitive differences and build a class system based on intelligence, or educability.
It seems to me that this need is based on the mechanical parts of the cognitive differences and how they affect teaching and learning, not on the emotional issues involved in having a cognitive difference, which many of us share.
Sacred cows make the best hamburger.
– Mark Twain