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Misunderstanding learning disabilities

by Darla Hatton

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, one reporter noted, “So the White House was knocked off-stride when Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was forced to issue a public apology for using a derogatory word for people with learning disabilities.”

It appears that this reporter, and undoubtedly many who will inevitably cover this story, aren’t aware of the difference between intellectual disabilities and learning disabilities. It might be surprising to many in the media and public to learn that many students with learning disabilities may in fact be twice exceptional — which means, that in addition to having a learning disability, they are also gifted.

The association with the word used by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and learning disabilities is incongruent. An intellectual disability (old medical term “mentally retarded”) is not the same as a learning disability. In fact, the definition of dyslexia provided by the International Dyslexia Association states quite the opposite: “Dyslexia is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of languages often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities…”

In an effort to raise awareness and share resources regarding dyslexia, my daughter and I created the following video:

Additional information on learning disabilities can also be found on the National Center for Learning Disabilities LD Basic’s web page:

In recent years, much progress has been made in the ability to recognize and provide appropriate interventions, remediation and/or accommodations for person with learning disabilities. However, the recent commentary by many reporters over Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s poorly chosen words underscores that there is still much work to be done in raising awareness in the media and general public as to what learning disabilities are — and what they are not.

Darla Hatton, the mother of a child with dyslexia, is a presenter on reading and assistive technologies, and a certified reading specialist. Hatton wrote this blog entry for the NCDJ.