Learning disability or learning difference?


Most teachers are aware of the fact that there are intellectually sharp individuals who do not learn language related skills as efficiently as their equally bright peers.  So, what’s going on?  Are these students disabled and by implication incapable of learning or have diminished learning ability?  Or, do they just learn differently and by implication require a different way of teaching?  Those of us who have spent years teaching such students know that the answer for most students diagnosed as learning disabled is the latter.  Some people simply process information differently than others and, therefore, to maximize their learning ability they must be taught differently. 

There are those who have better coordinated gross motor skills than others so they run, jump, hop, throw and catch better than the rest of us.  Some people are extraordinarily musically tuned to the degree that they hear and produce music so exquisitely that it touches the deepest places in our hearts and souls, while others of us struggle to play chopsticks.  Some people perceive the workings of an engine so precisely that they can build or repair any motor for any purpose as though it was child’s play, while others of us can’t begin to understand the simplest concept of motor mechanics.  And then in today’s remarkable world, there are those who come out of the womb so computer savvy that by age six or younger they are instant experts with every new device coming on the market, while some of us struggle with the simplest apps.  Are those of us who are less able to quickly and easily acquire these skills disabled?”  Of course not. Then why do we persist in saying that those who learn academic skills differently are “disabled” instead of saying that we all simply learn different skills at different rates, to a different degree, and with a different level of ease?   

Developing academic skills such as reading, writing, computing and memorizing and retrieving volumes of information is determined by specific brain function.  And, as with the people noted above, all of us are able to develop certain skills more or less easily than other skills.  More than 150 years ago  and beyond when basic survival depended more on nonacademic skills, the notion that the best hunters, herders, farmers , domestic workers, seamstresses, mechanics, builders were somehow “disabled” because they did not read, write or compute as well as some others would have been laughable.  In fact, those people who did not possess these “survival” skills were in some societies more inclined to be thought of as “useless.”  How times and perspectives change!

Contrary to the belief of some, global intellectual ability does not determine our learning differences.  As a veteran educator of students who learn differently, I find some students with an overall intelligence in the gifted range just as perplexed by reading or getting their creative thoughts on paper or even arithmetical concepts as the students whose intelligence falls within the low average to average range.  In each case, the solution to their dilemma is with teachers finding those teaching strategies, coupled with the sheer hard work and persistence on the part of both learner and teacher, which work best for each student.

For the “education playing field” to be made level, students who learn differently must not be thought of as “disabled” but rather as “unique” in their learning styles.  As a result all concerned - teachers, parents, and most importantly the students themselves – will view the learning process in a more positive and optimistic light.  The result:   greater success with less of a personal toll!  Otherwise, the educational disadvantage to students who learn differently is far more taxing than it need be.  Their struggle to achieve in traditional classrooms with teachers applying conventional teaching methods will continue to be a painful and laborious uphill climb all the way.  It is rare, if ever, such students leave the educational process without personal scars, to one degree or another, in the form of self doubt, low self esteem, lack of confidence, and/or lifelong underachievement. 

March is recognized as “Learning Disabilities Awareness Month.”  Let’s all take up the challenge to replace the concept of “disability” with “difference.”  Changing that perspective alone can change the perception and approach of those who teach and as a result minimize or, even better, eliminate the indignity of it all for those who learn differently.

  At Morrison School individual differences are embraced and often celebrated.  Learning differences are viewed as the challenge they should be to all dedicated teachers who love their work and their students, for there is no greater thrill for such a teacher than to find that formula which breaks the learning code for a student who learns differently!


Sharon Morrison has been the chief administrative director and school psychologist at Morrison School in Bristol, Va., since its founding in 1977. Contact her at