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