Learning Disabilities: A Label That Hurts
By Thomas Armstrong
Latebloomers Educational Consulting Services P.O. Box 2647 Berkley, CA 94702
Fifteen years ago, nobody had heard of "learning disabilities." Now it is said to "afflict" several million children and adults in this country and billions of dollars have been spent in an attempt to treat this condition. However, no one has ever been able to say for certain what a learning disability really is or what causes learning disabilities. Many authorities feel that learning disabilities are the result of biochemical malfunction or neurological damage in the brain. Yet the research has been inconclusive. Training programs have been set up across the country in an attempt to treat learning disabilities. Many of these approaches have come under heavy criticism for not being effective in helping children with their learning problems.
So why do we have learning disabilities? I would claim that it is a convenient "educational disease" which explains away more complex problems underneath the surface: problems such as poor teaching methods, the hurried pace of the curriculum, stress in the classroom and a variety of other non-medical factors. The tragedy is that the burden for all of these ills falls squarely on the back of the child who must wear the LEARNING DISABLED label for all or most of his school years, and who begins to believe, with the experts, that there is something wrong in his brain.
Increasingly, parents are beginning to see the shortcomings of "learning disabled programs" in the public schools. Some parents have responded by taking their children out of special education programs, out of school entirely, and have begun to home school them. In the past several months, I have heard from many parents around the country who have successfully done this. Frequently the parents have reported that their child was extremely unhappy in the special education program, felt like a "dummy", and was treated like a baby with simplistic worksheets and dull exercises, and was losing ground academically on a daily basis. After "unschooling" these kids, parents unanimously reported to me that their kids began to prosper, taking an interest in reading, writing, and math, but on their own terms, not according to a learning disability specialist's idea of what was best for the child. What impressed me most about the letters I received was in incredibly positive perceptions which these parents had of their children. One mother wrote "I never really believed that Amy had a learning disability". Another parent, speaking of her child who was being evaluated for learning problems wrote, "They (the public school teachers), have never really asked what David can do." The parents listed the many achievements, skills, interests and talents which their children had begun to manifest since beginning homeschooling. This scenario stands in stark contrast to the special education teacher's frequent complaint, "It's so hard to get Johnny motivated." If the child is doing boring worksheets and drills, being treated to condescending behavior modification programs, and perceived by the adults around him as "disabled", naturally he is going to be unmotivated.
I have a master's degree in learning disabilities and taught in the schools as a learning disabilities specialist for several years. Yet, I do not believe in learning disabilities. I don't think I ever really did. However, while in the environment, I learned to act like I did. I should clarify what I mean by this. I don't believe that there is any inherent disability related to learning in children. How could this be? Anyone who has watched a young child at play will see a curiosity, an excitement, a wonderment toward life. Love of learning is the inherent factor in growth and development. Yet the excited child who enters first grade bubbling over with curiosity is not the same child who six weeks or six years later drags himself to school and huddles dejectedly over his desk counting the hours until the dismissal bell. Before we spend more money trying to find out how to cure learning disabilities, I think we need to discover why it is that our public schools have become such deadly uninspired places. In the course of trying to inject some creativity into my own classroom teaching, I was soundly criticized for not adhering to district "guidelines". I attempted to bring song, dance, crafts, and other art into my classroom. Yet the benefits of these activities were rarely acknowledged by the administration, even when they were wedded to basic skills.
I would like to affirm the efforts of all home schoolers who have taken their children out of special education programs in public schools. You have done the right thing. Don't be mislead by "experts" who say a child with learning disabilities needs special instruction which only a trained professional can supply. If you are a parent, you are a trained professional. You have been trained by years of love, caring, patience, trial and error, giving, sharing attention, and understanding which you have offered your child. Don't let the MA's and Ph.D.'s take that away from you.