Office Diaries

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The Side of Learning Disabilities No One Considers

The time has come to think differently.

It’s always about the kids, right? They have a problem, a defect, a deficiency. Something is wrong with them. They’re not normal. We must fix them! Special classes, “accommodations,” and even worse, drugs. But what if none of those things were what these kids really needed? What if I told you that what they really need are adults who don’t openly or covertly, wish they were or expect them to be, the same as other kids. Just that, right there, would change everything. 

The conversation needs to move past what these kids lack. It can no longer be about what they have to do in order to make up or “compensate” for their shortcomings. It is now time for adults to step up and stop looking at children as faulty and turn the same critical lens on themselves. This is about sharing the responsibility in a relationship that goes both ways. And by that I mean, a responsibility to meet the child in the middle by flipping the learning disability paradigm to one that questions the existence of a teaching disability. It’s only fair. Like I said, it’s a two-way street.

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I think this because I was one of those kids who saw up close and personal how blinkered and out of touch our system is. It is a situation gone askew – one that puts the onus on the kids. Sure, efforts have been made to help them, but they have missed the mark. Children are still being told they have disabilities – when they don’t. They are taught they don’t learn or they can’t learn – when they can.  What the adults mean when they toss a child into the learning-disabled category is that the child doesn’t learn the way the adults in the education system want them to.   

In actuality, these kids tend to have remarkable brains. They are wildly creative, sensitive, often ingenious creatures who have interesting, diverse perspectives. Has it not occurred to anyone that teaching should also be all of those things? For all kids, not just some. It’s not the fault of the child that most teachers, principals and doctors don’t think the same way they do. Yet it’s the kids who pay a steep price for that fact. I, myself, was dyslexic, tagged a “behavioral problem." But what I was, was bored, frustrated and annoyed that my teachers had no imagination. Mind you, this was before someone had the idea to invent ADD/ADHD with the nefarious plan to profit from drugging children for being… well… children. But the underlying distortion is still the same. It is so screwed up.

From famous artists to entrepreneurs, everyone loves to look on in awe at those who overcame academic adversity, to hear the stories of how they struggled in, or flunked out, of school but have gone on to do great things. So what does that say?

It says that something within the system is broken, and it’s not the kids.

The keepers of the system will never admit it, but they don't understand creativity, or the energy that goes with it, and they don’t understand learning. They don’t understand the inherent value of diversity either. They are going to tell you they do. Their egos will get inflamed if you say otherwise.  But they don’t. If they did, the learning disability industry would not have grown to the extent that it has, and, they would not still be calling these kids disabled. 

If educators really want to help the children who they deem have learning disabilities, they need to take a good, hard look at themselves. A failure to engage should not rest exclusively on the child’s shoulders. Teaching and learning is an exchange, a respectful 50/50 exchange. Sadly, we are nowhere close. Ours is a callous system that believes and invests in what a child can’t do rather than in what he or she can. The inability to see a child as he or she is and instead look through a lens of how he or she is supposed to be is never ever going to work.  

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Donna Flagg is the author of Surviving Dreaded Conversations and a New York City-based dancer.

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