Disabilities vs. Differences: The Language We Use Matters

Mislabeling disabilities as differences allows schools to avoid the commitment they are required to make to teach their students appropriately.  

Consider a scenario in which parents begin noticing alarming changes in their 7-year-old son. He has developed a ravenous appetite, but despite eating more, he’s losing weight. He is unquenchably thirsty despite constantly drinking water. Previously a vibrant, high-energy child, he is now lethargic. While seeking answers from his pediatrician, the parents are told, “He has a sugar-processing difference.” There is no official diagnosis and no defined path forward. 

If that feels implausible, it’s because it is. Without a proper diagnosis, which would call for active monitoring of blood sugar levels and the right research-based medication, diabetes can have a serious impact on one’s ability to live a long and healthy life. Words have meaning. And when we describe something using the best knowledge that we have and with the right words, those words have immense power. In the medical field, clarity of diagnosis is critical, and this is no less the case in the field of special education.  

At The Windward School, we embrace the term learning disability rather than the term learning difference for several important reasons. For one, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act are critical to the education and overall well-being of students with learning disabilities. Students with learning differences, on the other hand, are not protected by these powerful laws. Words have immense power, and specificity matters. 

IDEA defines a specific learning disability as “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations” (IDEA, 2004). This disability category includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia (a type of language disorder). The Learning Disabilities Association (LDA) notes, “Under IDEA, there are currently 13 different disability classifications. In order for students to be considered eligible to receive the supports and services provided under IDEA, they need to be ‘classified’ under one of these 13 categories” (LDANYS, 2008). 

Conversely, there’s no consensus or research-informed definition for a learning difference, and if there’s no research-based consensus definition, then there’s no consensus treatment. If we allow ourselves to name and define these terms in any way we want, we allow ourselves to decide how urgently we need to respond. When we open the door to naming disabilities as differences, schools are enabled to disregard research, and they avoid the need to respond appropriately. 

The term learning difference simply suggests that we all learn and acquire new information differently, and, fundamentally, this is completely true. Learning differences are part of the wonderful neurodiversity of people, and they are to be celebrated, not remediated. As we say at The Windward School in our vision statement, Difference Is Power. However, this does not in any way account for the significant challenges that students with learning disabilities face as they move through their school careers. Learning disabilities require remediation through a scientifically-validated methodology, and mislabeling disabilities as differences allows schools to avoid the commitment they are required to make to teach their students appropriately. 

Mislabeling disabilities as differences allows schools to avoid the commitment they are required to make to teach their students appropriately.   

Most concerningly, when we describe scientifically verified neurological differences with the catchall term “learning differences,” it serves only to create confusion, limiting momentum in the field of research and in education in general. 

Specifically defining a disorder as a learning disability requires us to harness that concern and commit to doing the work. As educators, making that commitment means employing the right research-based instruction to meet the student’s challenges; it means providing the tools that the student needs to succeed in mainstream settings; and it means helping the student own the narrative, empowering them with the understanding of what a learning disability means and what it does not mean.   

A learning disability, for instance, is not a learning inability. We know that, taught correctly, students with language-based learning disabilities thrive academically and intellectually with unlimited potential. Furthermore, science has proven that a learning disability does not correlate to a low IQ. The American Psychological Association (APA) clarifies that “for diagnostic purposes, learning disability is the condition that exists when a person’s actual performance on achievement testing is substantially (typically 2 standard deviations) below that expected for his or her established intelligence, age, and grade” (APA, 2020). Let me state this again: a learning disability has nothing to do with a student’s intelligence. 

Let me state this again: a learning disability has nothing to do with a student’s intelligence. 

When people say “learning difference” instead of “learning disability,” it is usually with good intention and/or to avoid any possible negative connotation; however, when educators and parents eschew specific diagnoses with the intent to “soften the blow” for the students affected, it often has the opposite effect. Students are left confused about why they are struggling in school, schools are excused from teaching students correctly, and the general momentum in the fields of research and education is interrupted. Ultimately, the term “learning difference” has the damaging potential of denying the scientifically verified neurological reality of a learning disability, thus placing the blame for academic underperformance on the student.  If there’s blame to be ascribed, it belongs to the academic setting that fails to teach the student through a scientifically proven methodology. 

In order to fully empower children with learning disabilities, we have to give them the resources to understand how they learn differently. We have to give them the knowledge that their disability does not define them, and they need to understand that their disability has nothing to do with their intelligence. The Windward School is a testament to what can happen when students are given agency to act as partners in their educational journey. Growth can occur only when one can acknowledge the challenge, remain open to feedback, and be willing to put in the work. Clearly naming and defining the challenge itself is the first step.