Conference Paper: The Status of the Learning Disabled in Philosophy of Mind and Disability Studies

20 10 2009

Maeve M. O’Donovan
(College of Notre Dame of Maryland)

To read this article and its associated commentary for free just click on the PDF links below.

O’Donovan PDF

Commentary PDF – David Wasserman (Yeshiva University)

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According to philosophers of mind, learning disabilities are either innate, neurological disorders or social constructions that serve to undermine responsibility attributions in educational settings. For disability theorists, in contrast, learning disabilities do not exist as such, but learning difficulties are the result of environments in which non-normative thinking and thinkers are labelled disabled. In both disciplines, the learning disabled are typically the objects rather than the authors of such studies. The categorization of learning difficulties as disabilities, moreover, is highly contested by thinkers in both fields.

In this essay, I review the way learning disabilities and persons with learning disabilities are portrayed in philosophy of mind and disability studies, with special attention to the methodologies and assumptions at work in these accounts. I identify misconceptions about the learning disabled person—that the person’s gender is not relevant, that the person is incapable of high level academic achievement—as well as misapplications of otherwise promising methodologies—the utilization of contemporary neuroscience, the incorporation of first person accounts—both of which render problematic the existing research.

I argue that, if we are to make headway in resolving some of these disputes, we need to generate new accounts of learning disabilities and persons with learning disabilities employing a) a revised set of assumptions, most importantly that the learning disabled person experiences himself or herself as disabled, and b) an alternative methodology, that of feminist standpoint theory.



5 responses

20 10 2009
Wendy J. Turner

This was a very interesting paper. Thank you.

I am wondering if you are familiar with the work of Irina Metzler (_Disability in Medieval Europe_ [Routledge 2006]). In it, she takes up the on-going question among medieval scholars of ‘what is a disability?’ I think that moves to the heart of your question as well. If an individual is able in most areas of life and yet can function—i.e., she is dyslexic and yet can read—how is that disabling? Metzler would say, I think, that the individual is ‘impaired’ but not disabled.

I come back then to the question of the term ‘disability.’ To be dis-abled is to be un-able to function to one degree or another. Differently-abled fits in certain circumstances of LD, which you mention, such as those persons with ‘Down Syndrome’. The condition of ADHD is more problematic; if sever, this describes an individual with difficulties in physical control, concentration, memory, and cognitive order; and if mild, it can describe someone who loses track of things. It is the label that can be hard for educators to understand because the definitions are so varied. When faced with someone with ADHD, the educator attempts to diagnose, asking ‘is this person the former or the later?’

In the case of high-functioning LD persons, I personally cannot see them as ‘disabled’ in a formal sense of that term, though I can see them as impaired persons needing some assistance to demonstrate their _abilities_. Dyslexic students in need of extra time to decipher the words before them or who need larger lettering certainly should be granted the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge. Perhaps the problem is with our society: we want all persons to be _able_ to demonstrate their intellect in the same way.

You ask for a new model—and that’s a start. I think we need a new word. Certainly the historic words were bad: ‘slow learner,’ ‘distracted,’ or ‘daydreamer’. Much like Roger Griffin’s concepts of ‘clumpers’ and ‘splitters,’ most learners are able to move between categorizing information (splitting in a way) and thinking critically (which can be clumping). LD persons, depending on their conditions, have difficulty with one, the other, or both of these – they may even move between to the two so rapidly that the information cannot be processed in any organized fashion.

I don’t have a good suggestion for a new word, and we need one. There is a lot of brain power–philosophical and otherwise–at this conference. Perhaps together we can find one. I’ve seen ‘cognitive impairment’ and perhaps that is as close as we can get.

20 10 2009
Maeve O'Donovan

First, I want to thank David Wasserman for his thoughtful and helpful commentary on my paper. I am especially grateful for his suggestion that modularity of mind may add to this discussion.
Regarding his first comment, the issue of definition is indeed important, and troublesome. As Prof. Wasserman suggests, analogies to race can be enlightening in this regard. So, too, is the analogy to homosexuality. A light-skinned black person can “pass” as white, a lesbian can “pass” as straight, and a person with learning disabilities can “pass” as non-disabled. When doing so, those of us who pass often have to listen to people who think they can ‘safely’ say what they really think about blacks, gays or LD students. In such moments, there is a dilemma: do I ‘come out’ as a way to say, ‘but you think I’m not like that,’ and in doing so serve as refutation of the person’s claim, or, do I stay silent and retain the privileges the person speaking is granting me, but not others like me (privileges such as being seen as an equal, or as superior, being seen as talented, being treated as valuable)? Recent work on Queer Theory and disability is pursuing some of these questions (see Ellen Samuels’ “My Body, My Closet: the Invisible Disability and the Limits of Coming-Out Discourse”). Adrienne Asch’s essay “Critical Race Theory, Feminism and Disability: Reflections on Social Justice and Personal Identity” sheds some light on comparisons between race and disability.
Regarding Prof. Wasserman’s second comment, I appreciate his recognition that persons with LD, while less obviously, and perhaps less severely, ‘disabled’ are nonetheless forced to confront harsh criticisms and reactions. This is one of the assumptions about LD that I hope to see change in both disability studies and philosophy of mind – that the issue of degree of disablement is separate from the lived experience of disablement.
Regarding the third comment, for readers who are familiar with work in modularity of mind and disability, I would love to find out more about the following: Are there cognitively disabled researchers engaged in work on modularity of mind? Is the person with cognitive disabilities seen as an invaluable resource in understanding such disabilities, using modularity? Are the phenomena of cognitive disabilities objects of study used to confirm or challenge theories about “normal” minds?
Finally, I wish to reiterate that while there are conceptual and definitional issues to be resolved in the discussion of LD, this does not preclude including persons with LD in research and as researchers. Perhaps in identifying who belongs to this group we could begin with the operational definition accepted by most countries – that LD is diagnosed when a person struggles in a specific area of learning to a much greater degree than in other areas. This generalized version of the definition recognizes LD as a phenomenon occurring at all levels of intelligence and academic functioning. The British and German definition, on the other hand, assumes that LD persons are always below average intelligence and academic functioning. There is an increasingly large portion of the population being identified as LD, and a small percentage of that population have Ph.D.’s/are already researchers.

Thank you, also, Wendy Turner, for your comment. I will respond to it in a separate posting.

20 10 2009
Maeve O'Donovan

(This is a response to Wendy Turner) I am not familiar with Metzler’s work, but look forward to learning about it from your essay.

Your suggestion that we turn to an impairment/disability distinction, in thinking about LD, is an interesting one. A lot of great work has been done that recognizes the social and environmental conditions that turn differences into disabilities, yet I haven’t seen the usage you suggest – that impairment as difference/social model approaches to disability are appropriate to certain conditions while the disability as un-able/medical model is appropriate to others.

A number of women with disabilities have pointed out that the social model approach, often used in disability studies, denies or at least leaves out important facts about their experience of disability. The same facts are left out, these women argue, by feminists who, in criticizing mind-body dualism, conceive of embodiment as always empowering and positive. The emerging field of feminist disability studies aims to return us to some version of the medical model, but a version that recognizes the socially constructed aspects of disability as well. This seems in line with your suggestion. For example, in “Feminism, Disability and Transcendence of the Body,” Susan Wendell argues that there are both physical/medical aspects of her disability and social ones, and that there are advantages to practicing a transcendence of the body (when one’s body is a source of pain and frustration). I think the same may be true of learning disabilities.

Being LD is being different, and I can’t wait for the day when neuro-diversity is an shared assumption about human minds. At the same time, LD is also a cause of real suffering and frustration. This is an almost universal aspect of first person accounts of LD (an aspect that seems to be missing from third person accounts). For an LD person there are lots of skills and talents she may not have, but these don’t correlate with the same kind of emotional and psychological states that her learning disability does. It is so common as to be cliché that an ADHD woman, upon diagnosis, will say ‘I just knew something wasn’t right,’ or ‘I knew I should have been able to do this and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t.’ There is a phenomenon here of the presence and absence of the same skill/talent, at the same time, in the same way – unlike inabilities that are experienced as mere absences. For example, I lettered in soccer in high school – but on the junior varsity team, not the varsity team. In other words, I excelled in the JV context, but wasn’t good enough to excel at the varsity level. This wasn’t confusing or frustrating, it was just disappointing. But my experience of understanding, then forgetting much of what I was reading in grad school led me to tears. Not because I was desperate to get a Ph.D., I wasn’t, but because there was something about crying when reading, about the frustration I was experiencing that had a different ‘feel’ – something seemed ‘off’ or ‘not right.’ I hope what I’m saying here helps to explain why I think LD is no more or less an impairment than other conditions labeled disability, and I thank that Prof. Turner for helping me to think through these issues.

25 10 2009
Sam Rickless

I wanted to share a few thoughts on the subject of this interesting and provocative paper. First, although I agree that researchers with LD have a particularly useful perspective on LD that can help us identify, understand, and make the right (not the wrong) sorts of accommodation for those with LD, I think it may be unfair to researchers without LD to suggest that there is something critical to the proper understanding of LD that they simply cannot teach us. In this respect, I do not see any relevant difference between LD and any other incapacity. Researchers who are not blind have much to teach us about blindness; similarly for deafness, aphasia, dyslexia, and so on. In many cases, these researchers will do a *better* job than those who have LD. Second, I don’t agree that it is generally true that the oppressed and marginalized are more likely to speak the truth than those in positions of power. Many of those who are oppressed and marginalized are angry and emotional (often for good reason), but there is plenty of research to suggest that anger and emotion (as ancient philosophers were well aware) can get in the way of seeing the truth. The key is for every researcher, no matter her background, to self-reflectively and with the help of her peers identify the possible biases to which she may be liable and adjust for them. This is one of the reasons why collaboration is so important, both within and across disciplines. Third, I want to suggest that the category of LD is conventional, and that conventionalism differs from both the medical model and the social model. According to the medical model, whether someone counts as LD is determined by facts that are independent of human agreement or convention. According to the social model, there is no such thing as LD. I think it is more accurate to say that whether someone counts as LD is determined at least in part by what we agree to count as a relevant deficit. As it happens, I am not able to spin a basketball on my index finger. I have tried, let me tell you. Practice does not always make perfect. As a matter of convention, we do not treat this sort of deficit as a learning disability, though there is clearly something impeding me from learning a specific task or skill. What we as a society have decided (for complex reasons having to do with the importance of language processing to the performance of numerous different kinds of socially useful functions) is that aural and visual deficits involved in the processing of specifically linguistic information are to be treated as a particular *kind* of deficit, one that many regard as deserving of accommodation in a just society. It is important that the fact that the category of LD is conventional (if it is) does not detract from its reality. Whether something counts as a home run is a matter of convention; but it would be crazy to claim that there are no home runs. But it is also important that the medical model cannot help us distinguish between those deficits that are LD deficits and the myriad of deficits that are not LD deficits.

30 10 2009

Greetings from The Management. We’re thrilled that you’ve found such fruitful grounds for discussion and exchange. You’re welcome to continue here after today.

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