New Poll: Most Americans Can't Identify a Learning Disability

Nearly eight out of every ten Americans agrees with the following statement: Children learn in different ways, and education should be tailored to each child’s special needs. The general public is more likely to say this than ever before. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that students whose learning style is well outside the norm still suffer from stigma, and that they may not be getting the help they need.

That’s the conclusion of a recently released poll by GfK Roper and the Tremaine Foundation, a nonprofit which supports programs for the disabled. This poll revealed that perceptions about learning disabilities are changing, and not necessarily for the better.

Eighty percent of Americans associate learning disabilities with mental retardation, and a majority believes that the learning disabled are likely either autistic (75 percent), emotionally unstable (64 percent), or raised by substance abusing parents (61 percent). Nearly half (47 percent) believe that learning disabilities are related to blindness or deafness.

But none of these conditions are learning disabilities.

Having a learning disability does not make someone stupid, socially maladjusted, physically handicapped, or poorly raised. All it means is that they have difficulty learning the way others do, because their brain is wired differently. Technically speaking, a learning disability is “a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to receive, process, store, and respond to information,” according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).

James Wendorf, the center’ executive director, said he was concerned by the lack of awareness about what learning disabilities are and are not. “If there’s a lack of understanding at this level, how does this play out in the classroom where the rubber meets the road?” he said.

And Wendorf isn’t the only one who is alarmed. So is Stewart J. Hudson, President of the Tremaine Foundation.

“This is extremely troubling,” declared Hudson. “We talk a lot about the achievement gap in our education system, but unless parents, educators and school administrators understand learning disabilities and proactively address them, the achievement gap will never close.”

At stake is the welfare of roughly 2.6 million students, all of whom have been diagnosed with a learning disability, and an unknown number of students who have yet to discover their disability.

The poll confirms that the stigma of the label “learning disabled” is alive and well. Fifty-one percent of Americans believe that the learning disabled are lazy, and 55 percent believe that learning disabilities are caused by bad home environments.

“It’s no wonder parents are reluctant to reach out to their child’s teachers or to have their children tested,” said Merva Jackson, Executive Director, African Caribbean American Parents of Children with Disabilities. “They fear they will be blamed.”

This fear often leads parents to deny that their child has a learning disability, Jackson said. The numbers support her view: 53 percent of teachers said that parents were unwilling to acknowledge their child’s learning disability, and 66 percent of teachers said a lack of parental support interfered with their ability to help learning disabled students.

Wendorf agrees, and he says that the poll should inspire reform. “I think this poll is really waving a flag, and we should pay attention to that flag.  Parents and teachers need to step up the level of communication, especially when it comes to kids that are showing signs of struggle,” he said.

“What I see shining through the misunderstandings and misperceptions that are identified in this poll is a need for sharper and more effective advocacy,” he said.