Monica McHale-Small, Ph.D.
I remember the first time I consciously pondered how integral my children’s learning disabilities and ADHD were and still are to their unique identities. This moment of revelation occurred during a strategic planning discussion at an LDA board meeting. We were critically examining our organization’s vision and mission and someone suggested that a goal should be the elimination of learning disabilities. Of course, I am certain that the context for this statement was the work of the Healthy Children’s Project and the understanding of the role of environmental toxins in causing and exacerbating learning and other disabilities. This is certainly a worthy goal. Nonetheless, I vividly remember holding my breath as the reality of who my children are . . . who they were as they struggled through school . . . who they had become as successful, purposeful and compassionate young adults . . . who they would not be if they did not have their learning disabilities and attention deficits. My children’s learning disabilities are part of what makes them who they are.
“My children’s learning disabilities are a part of what makes them who they are.”
Now, I am not pretending that my children’s LD’s are gifts; nor am I dismissing the struggles they have had and obstacles they have worked so hard to overcome. What I am doing is recognizing that those same struggles have made them persistent, determined, and infinitely more accepting of the struggles of others. My children’s learning disabilities are part of what makes them who they are. They are part of their identity.
I know that my children’s deficits and the way they process information is embedded in their DNA. I see bits and pieces of their processing quirks and weaknesses scattered throughout my family tree in my nieces and nephews, cousins, parents, etc…. Yes, there have been moments of despair as a mom because so many of these weaknesses seem to have accumulated in my own children. While some of their cousins excelled in school and consistently achieved high grades and high honors despite their more minor weaknesses, my kids struggled and under-achieved. My kids had difficulty accessing their brilliance within the constraints of the traditional, under-resourced public school system they attended. Nevertheless, my children persisted. They likely did not think so at the time, but they have come to realize they were blessed to have parents who were able to advocate for them and attempt to give them the supports their schools could not or would not.
Even as neuroscientists and other researchers amass evidence of the neurological and genetic underpinnings of ADHD, dyslexia, and other learning disabilities, insistence that LD’s are nothing more than a social construct seems to be growing among school psychologists and other professionals. Yes, this position grows from a concern that special education is a way to segregate and under-educate BIPOC students. There are also valid concerns about a lack of agreement on evaluation methods and eligibility criteria. But, there are ways to understand and address these concerns without denying the reality of learning disabilities.
“There is no shame in the term disability.”
Some would have us believe that the solution is acceptance of human neurodiversity and eradicating the term disability. While human neurodiversity is real, when one’s neurodiversity leaves them unable to access the education provided to all students without specific accommodations and specially designed instruction, they are indeed dis-abled. There is no shame in the term disability. The shame is the tendency of many to view individuals with any sort of disability as “less than” rather than to embrace them as fully human and worthy regardless of their abilities and disabilities.
There also seems to be a belief among some that the solution is simply to give all students the education they need to achieve at their maximum potential. While this is a laudable and worthy goal, as someone who spent twenty-seven years working in public schools and who continues to advocate for students and their families, I can assure you, that utopian educational system is far from existing.
When professionals insist that learning disabilities are social constructs and dismiss the role of cognitive processing deficits, I experience that as denying the identity of my children and countless other individuals with learning disabilities. My children’s learning disabilities are part of what makes them who they are. I am not okay with anyone dismissing their wonderfully unique combinations of strengths and deficits by suggesting that learning disabilities are anything but neurologically based.
In her session at LDA’s Science to Practice Forum, Maryanne Wolf was asked her thoughts about LD’s as a social construct. She responded: “You don’t have a social construct in the brain that shows differences in particular regions. That is not a social construct. It’s a neurological difference in organization.” Maryanne is a professional, but she also spoke as the mother of two sons, one with dyslexia and one with dysgraphia and dysnomia. She spoke of the necessity of these diagnoses to understanding her children’s very real and very specific learning needs. When I hear school psychologists and others charged with evaluating children and making eligibility decisions that will often determine what services and supports they will receive, questioning the very existence of these, I become infuriated. As a professional who advocates for individuals with learning disabilities, I am astounded at the indifference to the very real struggles of these children. As a mother, I perceive that the very identity of my children is being called into question by the professionals who are tasked with helping others to understand and support individuals with learning disabilities.
October is Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, and as President of LDA, I am so very proud of the work of our members, our Board of Directors, our Professional Advisory Board and our dedicated staff. Our work to support, educate and advocate for individuals with dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, oral and written language disorders, and other related disorders is as critical now as it ever has been.
Monica McHale-Small, Ph.D., is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Temple University. She retired from public education after twenty-seven years of service in Pennsylvania. Monica started her career as a school psychologist but spent the last fourteen years in a variety of administrative positions including, most recently, Superintendent. She earned her doctorate and masters’ degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. Dr. McHale-Small has long advocated bringing sound research into practice in public schools. One example of this is her role on the advisory committee for Pennsylvania’s Dyslexia Screening and Early Literacy Intervention Pilot; designed to support researched based structured literacy instruction and intervention beginning in Kindergarten. Dr. McHale-Small is an advocate for responsible inclusion and equity for historically underserved students including racially, culturally and linguistically diverse students and students with disabilities. She co-founded the Greater Lehigh Valley Consortium for Equity and Excellence and she currently consults with the ACLU of PA on School to Prison Pipeline issues. Monica has served on the Board of Directors of the Learning Disabilities Association, the International Dyslexia Association, and the National Association of Pupil Services Administrators. Monica serves her own community as a board member and volunteer advocate for Coatesville Citizens Who Seek Educational Equality.