Approximately one in five children in the United States have a learning and attention disability or difference, according to a 2017 report by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
But for some of these individuals, the term “learning difference” resonates more with them, because of the stigma surrounding the terms “disability” and “disorder.” Identifying with the term “learning difference” can lessen this stigma, but is not protected by some disability protection legislation, according to the Learning Disabilities Association of New York State.
The LDA of New York encourages the use of “learning disabilities” instead of “learning differences” to ensure people can receive any support to which they’re legally entitled.
Marisa Kruidenier, a junior psychology major, labels her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder as a “learning difference.”
“People would see [a disability] as something that is a weakness instead of a difference,” Kruidenier said. “I think the term ‘disability’ is used so that if you’re in certain settings, you may need accommodations.”
In 2013, lawyer and special education consultant Jenifer Kasten defined the terms “difference,” “disability” and “disorder” in an article for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. She questioned if the term “learning difference” is derived “out of pity or a misguided sense of political correctness.”
The term “disorder” is used as a medical term, she wrote, while “disability” is used in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects students’ rights.
Valerie Levy, a freshman English major, said one problem with identifying with a learning difference instead of a disability is professors may be less likely to offer students immediate help.
“Since [my ADHD] is not visible, I have to prove it to every professor or with people I work with and it involves a lot of explaining, especially since very few people actually know just how much ADHD affects everything I do,” she said.
Ross Whiting, an urban education instructor, said his own experience with dysgraphia, a neurological condition that affects fine motor skills, makes activities, like taking handwritten notes, more difficult. Dysgraphia does not impact his ability to type notes on a computer, however, so he uses one to his benefit in the classroom.
“I still experience regular discrimination because people are unaware of how this disability affects me,” he added. “Even though I can use adaptive equipment, I am still doing something different that an authority figure hasn’t accounted for.”
When asked to fill out forms outside of a classroom setting, at places like the Department of Motor Vehicles, Whiting said people get impatient with him if he takes a long time, but despite this, he doesn’t think dysgraphia is a negative diagnosis.
“I think of disability as a normal part of the human experience,” Whiting said. “It’s really just a different way of experiencing the world. It’s not a negative way. It doesn’t make things bad. It’s just different.”
“Once we understand that it’s just different, instead of viewing it as something lacking, people can think of ways to make it so an individual can interact with general society,” he added.