Learning Disability or Learning Difference?

Learning Disability or Learning Difference?

Learning disability is a loaded term, and while it has been used for decades, there is a movement to replace it with learning difference. Why not use a term that acknowledges both the challenges and strengths of students?

In the world of education, there is a lot of controversy and confusion about whether it is better to use the term learning disabilities or learning differences. Like so many conflicts, this issue of terminology isn’t black or white. Let’s take a look at the different reasons teachers, parents, and students might prefer one term over the other.

In the SMARTS program, we prefer to use the term learning differences. We believe that students need a term that encourages them to understand how they learn differently; instead of just assuming that they are ‘worse’ when it comes to school work. The Learning Disabilities Association of New York State (LDA) puts it clearly:

Many people prefer to use the terminology “learning differences” or “learning challenges” instead of “learning disabilities.” Some are concerned that the term “learning disability” focuses on an individual’s cognitive weaknesses and isolates them from other learners while the term “learning differences” highlights the fact that they simply learn differently than others do.

Jules Csillag of noodle.com makes the case that using learning differences highlights the positive aspects of how a student learns:

While “Learning Disability” is not pejorative, by definition, it fails to encompass the advantages that can come from having a diagnosed learning disability. For example, individuals with dyslexia have been shown to have better three-dimensional spatial reasoning, understanding of abstract information and connections between concepts, and higher levels of creativity.

This is exactly why we here at SMARTS use learning differences. To support students with learning differences, it is crucial to help them develop an accurate understanding of their strengths as well as their challenges. The term learning difference encourages students to explore both the positive and the negative aspects of their learning abilities.

But what about in legal and formal contexts? This is where the issue gets tricky. Again, the LDA website summarizes the legal aspects well:

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. One of these categories is Specific Learning Disability (SLD). Unfortunately, under IDEA there is no classification of Learning Difference or Learning Challenge.

This legal issue is a major obstacle to replacing the term learning disability. Learning difference has no legal definition, therefore, it does not give students the legal leverage to obtain special education services or supports. In this case, there is no alternative to using the term learning disability.

Another obstacle has to do with popularity. The term learning disability was first used in 1963, while learning difference did not appear until recently. Not only is the term learning disability recognized by state and federal governments, it is the preferred term of many advocacy organizations (including the Learning Disability Association of America). Far more people search online for learning disability related information and resources. So, while learning difference is a more strengths-based definition, the term learning disability won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Every person who has learning issues has the right to choose which term they want to use. I have met students who hate the term learning disability because it makes them feel lesser than their peers. I have other students who feel that the term learning disability legitimizes their struggle since they often need to work harder in school than their peers. If you’re ever worried about what to say, I think the best thing to do is emulate the language of the person you are talking to. If they say “I have a learning disability,” use the term “learning disability.” And if they use “learning difference,” mirror that terminology back.

Which term do you use? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager