Normal Can Be Deceiving

As an education specialist who has worked in the field of exceptionality for over two decades I have overheard one parent say to another, on more than one occasion, “well at least your son looks normal!”

I took some time to actually think about this statement. Apparently the parent making the statement believed there was some advantage to having a disabled child that could physically or socially pass for ‘normal’ in most social situations. I would need to question how much of an advantage this actually is for LD kids.

Most students who are handicapped with some type of learning disability, this being their only handicapping condition, for the most part can and do fit in most social situations or it appears that they fit in by casual observation. I, however, would need to challenge just how well these kids fit in and what is going on emotionally with them.

Having suffered from a reading disability through most of my school years and having been pulled out of regular classes to receive “special instruction” back in the 60s (in a converted storage room from a very nice elderly speech teacher) I have a good feel for just how well LD students blend into normal society.

It’s true that physically a LD student would not stand out in a crowd of peers as different. He could hang out before and after school with friends, join or compete successfully in after school activities, date, hold a job and otherwise function reasonably well, but what is not seen is how he feels emotionally in these situations.

Many LD students are embarrassed by their disability and spend an enormous amount of time and energy trying to keep it hidden from others. Even though LD issues are not generally related to any intellectual deficit most LD students believe they are ‘dumber’ than most of their friends. They’ll create elaborate defenses or personalities to divert all attention from the issue of having a learning disability.

Some kids with a learning disability may protect themselves with anger and aggression. Other kids may become the class clown. Still others might simply quit trying so it appears the issue is motivation and not a disability. Many times these kids will band together in anti-social groups. Their own dysfunctional support system if you will.

Mainstream education is based on the premise that a student can read, write and do mathematic calculations at or close to grade level. Many LD students lacking in one or more of these areas, but good at hiding their disability, may be pushed or gravitate to hands on activities in the industrial arts field. Most of us knew them as the ‘shop kids.’ The kids who weren’t smart enough to make it in regular classes so they hung out in auto shop or welding just passing time until they could leave school.

Alcohol, sex, drugs, gangs, crime and many other anti-social activities are filled with kids who at some point passed for ‘normal’ but no one ever helped them understand and successfully deal with their learning disability.

I find myself wondering at what point regular education teachers will be required to be trained to assess then effectively work with LD students. LD students are included in mainstream classes more than any other disability because there is typically no intellectual deficit and they look ‘normal.’ I’m not simply speaking about training teachers how to teach to a student with a reading, writing or math disability. I’m talking about helping teachers learn how to speak with these kids. To help them understand that they are not ‘defective’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘damaged’ or ‘stupid.’ I’ve witnessed many students with a learning disability succeed in school and succeed in life because they were emotionally supported to feel as normal on the inside as they’re told they are on the outside.

The disability that truly handicaps these kids is not an academic one. It’s a lack of understanding and emotional support necessary to help a child realize they have the ability to succeed like anyone else because they are in a word “Normal!”