Why language matters

Daniel Wiles

Ahead of Learning Disability Week, Daniel Wiles examines the considerations and confusion around terminology and asks how useful labels really are.

Daniel Wiles

As we approach Learning Disability Awareness Week, I was asked about the difference between “learning disability” and “learning difficulties”.

My mind went back to my time as a support worker. It was explained to me as follows: a learning disability is based on IQ, life skills and onset before adulthood. Learning difficulties is an umbrella term covering dyslexia, ADHD, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. This, of course, is all a rather medical model approach.

Understanding the difference

How helpful is this as a way of understanding the difference? It could be hugely important for an individual in terms of their experience, getting a diagnosis, their identity, or for a parent and specific care packages.

Fundamentally one thing is not another. Depression is not anxiety, IBS, not RSI. Someone with one may not like it being said that they have the other, and vice versa. Whether that’s because they feel it’s a lazy description or simply the wrong description. Which begs the questions: Why are the labels being used? By whom? And how necessary are they? It all depends on the context.

Using the social model

Let’s take a bit more of a social model approach. As terms, neither are particularly social model. Suppose “disability” is the interaction between society and the person. In that case, saying the person has the “disability” or “difficulties” doesn’t particularly add up.

“Difficulties”, the last time I checked, had negative connotations. Unless, of course, it’s being framed as “difficulties with a world that’s not accessible or inclusive”. But I doubt this was meant when the term was coined. There are still issues with many conditions. Their names suggest the individual’s difficulty or problem for not fitting into “the norm”. Conditions with “disorder” in the title spring to mind…

My experience with dyslexia

I do have a “learning difficulty” in dyslexia, although I wouldn’t describe it as one. When I had my assessment and the coaching that followed, dyslexia was explained as “a difference in processing”. That made sense to me. I’d always felt a bit different, and I like and celebrate difference!

Back to the “social model”. I do face barriers. I take longer to read, don’t always spot my mistakes after writing, and things get hazy without a good bit of structure. This makes life more interesting, and thankfully I have some good adjustments in place. But it’s also situational. I never feel more disabled than when I’m trying to enter a lengthy WiFi password. It’ll be a combination of different characters, in lower and upper case, with numbers thrown in for good measure.

How you identify matters

I wouldn’t identify as having a learning difficulty, but that’s not to say others with dyslexia wouldn’t. We’re all different. It’ll be a case of someone’s identity. Regardless, we’re all more wonderfully and infinitely complex than just one of our characteristics.

I’m also always conscious we need to think about how and why language is used – not just what language is used. Words and language are important and relate to inclusion. But it’s also about how we remove barriers, regardless of the condition or words used.

So, however you choose to mark Learning Disability Awareness Week, I hope you’ll be celebrating difference and inclusion.