Having a learning difference is like being gay. Or left-handed.

I once heard that being gay is like being left-handed. It was a bold statement, but it really just meant that the incidence of homosexuality was the same, statistically, as the incidence of left-handedness. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but recently I’ve been pondering the similarities between left-handedness, homosexuality and learning differences.

Gabriella is at one of the most liberal schools in one of the most liberal cities in the world. As part of the curriculum there, the students are encouraged to think about identity: theirs and others’. They discuss gender, ethnicity, politics, privilege and sexuality, to name just a few elements of identity. I’ve learnt vicariously from Gabriella’s lessons too. I’ve learnt that she’s a passionate feminist. I’ve learnt that gender is a social construct. And I’ve learnt that there are 13 different types of bisexual.

The multitude of different labels used today for sexuality surprises and bemuses me. If we’re aiming for acceptance, surely we should be trying to eliminate labels, not acquire them? A person’s sexuality is his or her business. Attaching a label makes it outward-facing, resulting in other people thinking it’s their business as well.

And it’s confusing. There are so many labels, and I don’t know how to differentiate polysexual, flexamorous and homoflexible. Does it matter?

IMG_2039 hot dog

Messing about on the water

But then I think about our need to label our children’s learning differences. Both Gabriella and Max show fascinating differences that allow for enormous creativity, but make it hard to fit into the school structure. We need to identify exactly what their learning differences are for two reasons: high schools need to be informed so they can provide support (extended time in exams; compassion when the children’s minds wander; understanding that they focus better when they doodle and that doesn’t mean they’re not listening), and therapy can be more specifically targetted so the children can survive the school system. Labels matter in this case.

From all the reading I’ve done, it seems to me that every child has a smorgasbord of learning differences of differing degrees, and no two children are the same. However, some learning differences fit into a classroom better than others. Teachers aren’t keen on kids who can’t hold their focus and end up disrupting the class. These children are deemed to have some form of attention problem, and society likes to medicate that out of existence with Ritalin (or Adderall in the US). In reality, those lapses in attention are potentially beautiful, creative moments that allow a child to think outside the box. I believe that drugging that creativity is akin to putting a dancer in a straitjacket and chains.

We need labels to understand something so that we can learn to have compassion for it, but then we should ditch them as quickly as possible before they become barriers. Not all labels need to go: it’s useful to tell the world you’re left-handed if you need scissors; it’s useful to tell the world you’re gay if you’re looking for a partner; it’s useful to tell the world you have a learning difference if you need extra time in an exam.

A hundred years ago, left-handedness was coerced forcefully out of existence, but eventually society realised that your dominant hand is a tiny feature of who you are, and one not worth making a fuss about. Acceptance of a person’s sexuality hasn’t reached that stage yet, and maybe the crazy number of nuanced labels helps to teach that the world is a rainbow place made of many different types of people.

Learning differences are even further away from acceptance. I don’t believe that all the different types of differences have even been identified yet, let alone labelled. In fact, the more I learn about learning differences, the more I believe that there’s no such thing as “normal”.

But there’s something important that unites left-handedness, sexuality and learning differences: none of them needs to be fixed.

Fog creeping into the city.  It's a bit different.

Fog creeping into the city.

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About Natalie Gotts

I've been a management consultant, a nutritional therapist, a Journey practitioner and a mother. I've sold ostriches in China and personal safety devices in Hong Kong. Whatever I've done, and wherever I've been, I've written about it.
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4 Responses to Having a learning difference is like being gay. Or left-handed.

  1. Nicky Howard says:

    Well, reading this was apposite today as I am invigilating exams and with a hall-full of 130 odd students it soon becomes apparent that they apply themselves in differing ways. Occasionally I have to bring someone’s attention back to their own desk – gently so I don’t get suspicious! Also my brother was a specialist in dyslexia – but very little of what you write was accepted when I was young. So we are progressing, I think, in the right direction. Thanks so much.

  2. nataliegotts says:

    We’re progressing … very … slowly …

  3. MaxGotts says:

    Very well written and argued. Thoroughly enjoyable!
    Thanks, Max

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