Mon, January 15, 2024

Disabilities versus Differences: The Language We Use Matters

Jamie Williamson Head of School, The Windward School

Consider a scenario in which parents begin noticing alarming changes in their seven-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 evidence-based medication, diabetes can have a serious impact on one’s ability to live a long and healthy life. If we felt the label of diabetic was too difficult for a child to understand, or that the implication of that label suggested they weren’t going to live a healthy life, then maybe we should soften the language, framing it as nothing more than a sugar sensitivity. While on the surface this may seem reasonable, it doesn’t change the fact that without a proper understanding of what it means to be diabetic, without active monitoring of blood sugar levels, and without the right evidence-based medication, diabetes can have serious and lasting effects on one’s health. Words have meaning. And when we describe something using the best knowledge 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.

Embracing the term learning disability rather than learning difference is important for several key reasons. For one, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act are crucial 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 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 do mathematical calculations.” 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. For students to be considered eligible to receive supports and services provided under IDEA, they need to be ‘classified’ under one of these 13 categories.” However, as IDEA’s definition notes further, “Specific Learning Disability does not include learning problems that are primarily the result of visual, hearing, or motor disabilities; of intellectual disability; of emotional disturbance; or of environmental, cultural, or economic disadvantage.” This clause helps distinguish learning disabilities from other disability categories specified by IDEA. Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD) is by far the largest category of disability within the Individuals for Disabilities Education Act, with nearly half of all disabled children labeled in the category SLD.

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. The term learning differences simply suggests that we all learn and acquire new information differently. Fundamentally, this is completely true. Learning differences are part of the wonderful neurodiversity of people, and they are to be celebrated, not remediated. 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.

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 with interventions. After all, learning differences don’t require remediation, only compassion, flexibility, and an open mind. Learning differences are to be celebrated. Learning disabilities are to be remediated. This is where schools can often confuse concern for commitment. 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 and parents, 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 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.”

Let me state this again: a learning disability has nothing to do with a student’s intelligence. Additionally, because of the lag between the onset of symptoms and achievement test performance, learning disabilities “may not be recognized until the academic demands of a general education classroom become inordinately hard to attain without additional support.” Without a diagnosis that reflects the terminology outlined in IDEA, those supports can become elusive for students who are struggling.

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 shun 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 assigned, 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. When students are given agency to act as partners in their educational journey, the effects can be transformative. 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.

Works Cited

ADA Amendments Act of 2008. Public L. 110-325. 25 Sept. 2008. Stat. 122.3553-59.

Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Public L. 101-336. 26 July 1990. Stat. 104.327

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association,

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Public L. 101-476. 30 Oct. 1990. Stat. 104.1142.

“Learning Disabilities vs. Differences.” Learning Disabilities Association of New York, 2008,

Reiff, Henry B., and Nicole S. Ofiesh. Teaching for the Lifespan: Successfully Transitioning Students with Learning Differences to Adulthood. Corwin, 2016.

Jamie Williamson is Head of School at The Windward School, a school for students with dyslexia or other language-based learning disabilities in 1st through 8th grades in Manhattan, and 1st through 9th grades in Westchester, New York. Learn more at and follow The Windward School on Twitter @Windward_School.

This article first appeared in the 2023 issue of the Parents League Review. Get the current issue of the Review free with a family membership. Or purchase it separately.

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