Removing the Disability Label from Dyslexia, Asperger’s, Autism, ADHD and Other Cognitive Diversities
A child being unable to learn to read at the ‘normal’ rate is only an issue in a literate society. For the vast majority of human existence an inability to learn to read was not an issue at all. In fact if you go back, say 10,000 years, an ability to read would be abnormal. There could be considered to be something wrong with a person who looks at lines and shapes and deludes themselves to believe that they are hearing words in their head from those marks. One could conceive of groups of stone age shamans getting together to discuss the emergence of this new disability that causes otherwise healthy looking people to sit still all day making marks on stone walls that clearly show no skill in drawing animals in the ‘normal’ way. What could have caused this new disability? How do we treat it?
Whilst we can understand how people who think differently have been seen as being disabled in the past, in this article we want to examine this in detail and show a better way.
Society is cursed with the idea of the ‘normal’. All people are fundamentally ‘self-centred’. By this I mean that, since we are the voices in our own head and no other, we naturally see and measure the world from our own perspective. This means that what we do we see as normal. When we look at other people, we compare them to ourselves. If their behaviour, language or way of thinking seems quite similar to ours, we consider them normal. What we are familiar with defines the standard. Groups of people do the same.
When a group of people share enough in common, we consider the group to be cohesive and to have a ‘culture’. People from that culture then look at other cultures and compare. If there is a good degree of commonality then we find the foreign culture non-threatening and agreeable. If the differences are too great, we all too quickly label it wrong, dysfunctional or broken.
This tendency to categorise as normal or abnormal is inherent to humans and, argue about its appropriateness or not, is something we must live with to some degree. The real problem with the idea of normality is that the institutions that we create then do the same thing. Medicine, in the broadest sense, does this, and while it is not the only human institution that does so, it is the one that is relevant to this article.
Medicine and Disability
Medicine, as a subset of science, tends to group things to allow for collective discussions. A major part of this is looking at variations in a characteristic across a population of people or objects, and measuring the variations. A bucket approach is often used, where a range of close variations will be put in the same bucket. In this approach not everything in the same bucket is the same, just everything within a certain variance will be lumped together. This fact is often forgotten.
This grouping is then taken further. We identify what we consider (usually with incomplete information) as the bucket which contains the most things as the ‘normal’ and everything in the other buckets as ‘not normal’ or ‘abnormal’. Now also inherent in our thinking, if we are not very careful, is to consider the abnormal as dysfunctional or broken in some way. And things that are broken need to be ‘fixed’.
When it comes to the ability of people to do some task or operation, or to think or behave in a particular way, the language naturally moves to ability and disability. You have the ability to focus and block out distractions. You have the ability to read a sentence at a particular level of difficulty. Or you don’t.
People’s abilities are amazingly diverse. When you look at the whole range of human capability it is stunning just how diverse we are. From people who can sing with perfect pitch to those who can see mathematical equations in their head and perceive the beauty of the equation as a measure of its fitness, from those who can look as a piece of machinery and identify the likely faults to those with the finger dexterity to craft amazing pieces of jewellery, we are amazingly diverse.
Abilities are often not unique. By this I mean that just because someone can read well this does not mean that they cannot also enjoy a movie or listen to a speech. Each of us is a sea of abilities that we have to varying degrees. The degree to which we demonstrate an ability can also vary over time, either due to practice and study, changes in maturity or changes in our body energy, body chemistry or the situation we are in. I’ve always said that everyone is on the spectrum somewhere. Now that’s not to denigrate people with a spectrum diversity, but rather to show that everything is a matter of degree. I was recently diagnosed as ADHD (in my early 60’s), and the psychiatrist who did the diagnosis explained that he considered me to be 40% ADHD. This was still enough for a clinical diagnosis of ADHD, but I felt was a wonderful way of explaining how my test results measured up. In my own work on human intelligence I view abilities as existing in a multi-dimensional mapping. At the present time this mapping is up to twelve dimensions and will likely grow with further work. It helps me to remember that every single person is totally unique.
People are complex, and so making assumptions about people’s abilities is unwise based on a quick or simple observation. Diversity is becoming even more important in an increasingly complex world, as was well examined in an article in the Harvard Business Review.
The Learning Disabilities
Medicine and science, in the reductionist way of science since its origins, has looked at people’s cognitive abilities in regard to learning and categorised what is normal and what is abnormal. This way of thinking is embedded in our ideas of a ‘normal’ progression of reading ability development in children, or ideas of the progressive ability of children as they age to control their behaviours and so on. This has led us to identify various disabilities, which remember are really just deviations from the ‘norm’.
What is forgotten in all this is context. As the opening paragraph of this article attempts to show in a humorous way, context is everything. Difficulty with learning to read doesn’t matter in a pre-literate society. Will we soon have new disabilities for people who struggle to learn the swipe gesture on their iPhone at the ‘normal’ rate or who can’t integrate the digital projections of their Augmented Reality glasses with the real world?
Another thing that is forgotten in the rush to label these disabilities is that each form of diversity comes with advantages. All the forms of diversity discussed here can have an upside to them, often a great many. So many entrepreneurs have dyslexia and/or ADHD, as do many people in the creative disciplines. So common is Asperger’s in some families of engineers that it is often seen as common in that field. Many scientists benefit from the extreme ability to focus that can be part of Autism Spectrum Disorders. While for some people the diversity presents more challenges than obvious advantages, in many cases effective management and adjusting the environment to play to the strengths can allow a person to flourish. In others the ‘negative’ aspects of the diversity can be so minor while the benefits so great that it is definitely not seen as a disability at all by the person living that life.
So the present situation is that we have a growing list of disabilities that are documented in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association), currently at the DSM-5 version. People are diagnosed as having Dyslexia (or one of the related disabilities), as having Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADD or ADHD (or a variant), Executive Functioning Deficit, Oral / Written Language Disorder and Specific Reading Comprehension Deficit, Non-Verbal Learning Disabilities (a new one not yet in the DSM), Auditory or Visual Processing Disorders and so on. People wring their hands over the apparent rise in Autism rates. Drug companies race to develop new treatments for some of these, which others race to lay the blame for one or other of them on some vaccine or another source.
Adding to all this has been the ‘on the one hand’ very reasonable push by parents, the special interest organisations and groups to have these recognised by the government as a disability, so that special funding can be unlocked. I say on the one hand because in a world where support is tied to ‘problems’ or ‘disabilities’, this is a perfectly understandable approach.
What is all too often missed is the impact of the label of disability on people and even the somewhat more subtle impact of not being considered ‘normal’. The Independent Living Institute identifies people’s attitudes to those with disability as the biggest limiting factor on their potential. These attitudes can be those of the person with the ‘disability’ or those of others. With my wife’s permission I will use her as an example. She was diagnosed as dyslexic in her early 40’s. This is much later than you would hope would be the case but is fairly typical of the current state of understanding. Her first reaction to being diagnosed was positive, because ‘dyslexic’ seemed a better label than ‘stupid’, which she and too many other people had been calling her. It also allowed her to find understanding and a path to growth. However, this was followed by a crash. The realisation that she was ‘disabled’ in some way had been confirmed by science and now she had to live with that. In addition was guilt that maybe she had passed this on to our daughter, who was soon after diagnosed as having dyslexia as well. And there is the ongoing issue of does she disclose her dyslexia at work, for example, to help people understand the areas she struggles with, but then live with the feeling that they are looking at her as somehow ‘less’? There was also anger at a society so advanced yet having no wide understanding or sympathy for her situation. There was also the huge anger that had she discovered this earlier that her life may have taken a very different route and that many of the issues she would encounter and the damage that she would incur might have been avoided with the right support systems in place. Anger is a common feature for dyslexics, and research shows that an unreasonably high proportion of prison inmates have dyslexia or one of the other forms of cognitive diversity.
One last thing that should be mentioned here is that while most people know little about these forms of diversity, they tend to jump to conclusions that what they do know represents all that is associated with that condition. So it is common for someone who discloses their dyslexia to be told ‘you can’t have that, I see you reading all the time’ or ‘you’ve achieved too much to have ADHD’.
A Better Way Forward
I’ve spent much of my life involved in educating adults in various ways, from an extensive academic career to educating through articles, books and workshops. I’ve been lucky enough at the University level to spend significant time teaching in both science and engineering, and in the visual arts. That diversity of experience has taught me a lot about the topic of this article. When I was lecturing in computer science and electronic engineering, I encountered a very large number of students who, these days, we would say were on the spectrum, many would be diagnosed as Asperger’s, others as high functioning Autism. On the other hand, when lecturing areas like graphic design, multimedia or visual art I encountered huge numbers of students who could be diagnosed as having dyslexia, ADHD or similar, if they were ever tested. Most had not been. I would argue that dyslexia and ADHD is so common among students in the creative disciplines that they should be considered the norm. When I went to high school in the 1970’s it was the norm for those students who were not ‘academically inclined’ to leave school at 16 to go into a trade. I would bet that if you got a group of plumbers or carpenters together you would find a very different ‘norm’.
In teaching diverse groups of students with different abilities and ‘disabilities’ it has confirmed one thing: that every student is different, and that categorisations break down in practice. No two students with dyslexia will be the same or need to be taught in the same way. The same holds for Asperger’s, etc. The only thing that universally works is an individually student-centred approach. Given the practicalities of lectures and classrooms of students, this means providing a common approach that works for as many of the students as possible, with alternatives equally available for those who prefer another way.
We must banish the word disability completely from the discussion. This is why I have chosen to focus on Cognitive Diversity and in the specific context, Learning Diversity. Action needs to be taken.
Universities need to lead the way, removing things like Special Consideration policies that speak of disability and instead adopting a Cognitive Diversity policy approach than enshrines difference and diversity in all ways. Academics need to be taught how to handle a diverse group of students who are not homogeneous in the ways they learn. This is a challenge, as academics tend to teach the same way they were taught. But change is possible. I’ll have much more to say about this in other articles.
Government needs to be encouraged to remove the disability label and its link to funding. A more affirmative model would be to say that a spectrum of education funding is available per student, with the level of such funding determined by an assessment of what is needed for most effective learning outcomes for each individual student.
Across primary and secondary education the concept of ‘special needs’, which is another label with negative connotations, must be removed. All children have needs that are individual. Special needs schools need to be rebranded as school with a particular focus, just as in many countries there are trade schools, etc. Special needs teachers need to be relabelled or perhaps just called teachers. More challenging, ways of teaching need to change and become far more flexible and focused on the individual. The recent experience in Australia of some 30% of primary and high school students actually performing better when doing remote learning because of the Covid-19 lockdown should serve as a wakeup call that traditional classroom teaching is not always the best.
Let’s Move Forward
I hope you will join me in talking about cognitively diverse students and devising strategies for learning diversity, rather than falling into the old habits of learning disability. We all think differently and this is the most wonderful aspect of dealing with people — learning from and gaining greater and broader perspectives from seeing things in a different way through someone else’s experience.