Disabled vs. Alternately Abled

By: Paige Wolf

     As a special educator, the term disabled makes me cringe.  When you look up the word disability, you’ll find synonyms such as affliction and defect.  Granted, certain things don’t come as easily to my students as they do to other children, but they’re not suffering, and they certainly aren’t defective!  To the contrary, while my students access aspects of life in ways different than most others, they also have remarkable abilities that few possess. 
     Years ago, while in training, I had a student diagnosed with a Specific Learning Disability (SLD) in the area of reading.  To her, letters appeared visually distorted, and that hindered her ability to effectively decode words.  However, her spatial memory was outstanding.  When given a written list of unfamiliar words and told the pronunciation of each one, she was then able to read a passage accurately by matching words in the text to words on the list.  That is, she associated the pronunciation of each word with its position on the list, retained those connections, and transferred said knowledge into the context of a text.  Unsurprisingly, she was the most formidable player of matching card games that her peers (and, admittedly, teachers) had ever known!

     I currently have a student who has Autism, and his innate thought process is very structured.  When a classmate remarked that a bee was on his tail, he interpreted the message literally.  Quite endearingly, he exclaimed that kids don’t have tails.  While this structured mindset is viewed by some as limiting, it’s the same mindset that enabled him, as a 3rd grader, to read passages at the 7th grade level.  Because he had so thoroughly mastered the principles of phonics, he could emphatically read passages full of words he’d never seen before! 
     I decided to share these anecdotes to emphasize that people develop skills at different paces, in different manners, and that’s A-OK.  I’d be willing to bet that by the time my students reach 7th grade, one will have learned how to interpret figures of speech and another will have learned how to how read the word construction.  They will have learned in distinct manners, but the end result will be the same.  Thus, in my opinion, a more suitable term for disabled is alternately abled
If you have a child struggling to grasp a certain concept or skill, I encourage you to experiment with alternative forms of instruction.  Be patient, and focus on the positive.  There’s a famous quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that goes like this: “Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”  The cartoon below illustrates it beautifully: 


     While no amount of determination will ever enable a fish to climb a tree, children are not fish.  Children can, and do, learn in many ways.  Highlight your child’s strengths—whether kinesthetic, linguistic, logical, etc.—and embrace all of his or her uniqueness.  Explain that everything comes naturally to no one, yet, with practice, growth occurs!  Those who persevere and embrace the challenge are those who succeed.