The semantics of the term “learning disability” is disturbing because it dictates the politics of how we deal with the issue. “Learning disabilities” places blame squarely on the shoulders of the learner. Yet sometimes the problem lies with the teaching. But to even mention the term “teaching disabilities” would evoke an uproar. No teacher or school system would tolerate the stigma of being labeled “teaching disabled,” but children have no choice.
When my son Joshua was diagnosed with “learning disabilities, I was upset. When I was told he might never read, I was incensed. As a result, I sharply curtailed my medical practice for over a year to study his problems and search for answers. What I found was startling.
After observing Joshua in his classroom, and working long hours with him at home, it was obvious to me that he could not learn in the manner he was being taught at school. I was also amazed at how little had changed since the 1950's when I had the same problems. Joshua's class was divided up into clearly distinguishable groups exactly the way I remembered mine. The children occupying the front rows were the best learners, and those occupying the back rows were the worst. Yet contrary to logic most of the attention was showered on the front-rowers though they needed it the least, while the back-rowers who needed it the most were denied that attention. My heart ached as I realized that my son, clearly a back-rower, just like his father before him, had become marginalized in the classroom.
My beliefs were later confirmed when I observed my younger son Aaron in his classroom. He, like his mother before him, was the consummate front-rower. He had taught himself to read and write even before starting school. Yet when he got to school he received far more attention and nurturing from his teachers and the system than Joshua ever did.
I am happy to say that, Joshua, is now a voracious reader. Perhaps that is because I put him in a special school for children with “learning disabilities”, or perhaps it is because I spent the better part of a year inventing new methods to teach him to read. Aaron is an excellent reader, but he does not love reading the way Joshua does nor does he have his brother's profound appreciation of words and the turn of a phrase.
People learn in many different ways and this reality is not addressed in our educational system. Energy is not directed toward finding ways to teach each individual child. The most common justification for this is that such an approach would be impossibly expensive. But the cost of not teaching in this manner is even more expensive because children who are “learning disabled” go on to exact a tremendous toll on society as they age. They grow into adults with a staggering incidence of drug and alcohol problems, commit far more crimes than their non-“learning disabled” peers, and have significant interpersonal and job related problems. No family is untouched.
In sports it is the best teams that win championships. The stars get the least amount of coaching because they need less. The less stellar performers get the most coaching because they need it the most. That is as it should be since championships are won by an entire team and not by just a few gifted players. Also Coaches search for the best way to teach each player individually. The batting coach, for instance, observes and diagnoses each player's swing, then adjusts his lesson plan to the resources of that particular individual. This is very different from how teaching takes place in our schools where all children must learn in the same lockstep fashion or suffer the fate of being stigmatized as “learning disabled” or, even worse, simply be ignored in the classroom.
If our educational system is to win the World Series of learning, then it must change the way it functions. It cannot continue to insist that learning must be done in a particular way and those who cannot learn this way are considered disabled.
My two children are at opposite ends of the educational spectrum. Yet when I consider their possibilities in life I cannot predict who will perform better. One thing I do know, however, is that if one child suffers a lack of self-esteem because of being “learning disabled,” the statistical chances of him failing, rise dramatically, in school and in life.
I have learned a very important lesson from the experience of raising two very different children: sometimes the dis in disability overshadows the a in ability and it should really be the other way around.