Growing up in the special education system, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: learning-disabled students become invisible as they age. That isn’t to say that they aren’t in the building, but that they work hard to make it less and less apparent that they are learning-disabled. By the time learning-disabled students enter college, their learning disability is often visible only in the disability paperwork they hand to their professors at the start of the semester to receive accommodations. In the workplace, even the paperwork often vanishes, completing the learning-disabled disappearing act.
This disappearing act is driven by a combination of shame and fear as learning disabilities are heavily stigmatized. For example, the United Kingdom based disability rights organization Mencap reported that nearly a third of respondents thought that disabled people are less productive than non-disabled people. These stigmas also exist within the educational system: the National Center for Learning Disabilities reports that 1/3 of educators surveyed thought that “sometimes what people call a learning disability is really just laziness.” This stigma results in real world consequences for learning-disabled children. For example, students with a learning disability are twice as likely to be bullied regularly. These issues drive learning-disabled students to hide their stigmatized identity in an effort to avoid discrimination.
What Is A Learning Disability?
A learning disability is a “disorder that affects the ability to understand or use spoken or written language, do mathematical calculations, coordinate movements, or direct attention.” The most common learning disability is dyslexia, a condition that makes it hard for a person to understand speech or written text. Learning disabilities can also affect the ability to interpret numbers (dyscalcalcula), write text (dysgraphia), and perform fine motor skills (dyspraxia). Despite the frequent misconception, one does not grow out of a learning disability or conquer it; it is a permanent condition.
Learning disabilities affect how a person can take in and share information, but they do not affect intelligence. Imagine a person like a home office with a computer, a printer, and a scanner. Someone with a learning disability has a problem with their scanner or printer, but the processing power of the computer itself is unaffected. This is why accommodations are so important; they take some pressure off of the scanner and the printer so that what the computer is capable of can be seen.
Learning-Disabled People In STEM
While concealing a learning disability is a highly logical response to stigma and discrimination, it results in a professional world that looks scrubbed clean of learning-disabled people. This can create the perception that learning-disabled people aren’t in the professional world, or maybe aren’t capable of success there. This is especially true in STEM fields where disabled students are particularly underrepresented.
The underrepresentation of learning disabled people in STEM begins to emerge as early as high school, where learning-disabled students obtain about the same number of credits in English as their peers, but significantly fewer credits in math or science. While disabled students are equally as likely to enroll in STEM undergraduate programs, they tend to graduate with STEM degrees at a lower rate than their non-disabled counterparts. This is thought to be the result of non-inclusive education practices in STEM fields as well as self or internalized stigma. This disparity persists into graduate education where only 1.5% of research based doctoral degrees are earned by disabled people.
Despite the many barriers both in education practices and society, there are a plethora of successful disabled people in STEM careers. Examples can be found in a book published by the University of Washington via the AccessSTEM program. Additionally, there have been many spotlight articles highlighting the stories of learning disabled people in STEM fields. Take the following as examples:
- A post-doctoral researcher focused on microbiology with a reading disorder
- A postdoctoral research focused on virology with a reading disorder
- A polar explorer with dyslexia
- A financial pioneer with dyslexia
While spotlights like these are an important part of increasing the visibility of learning disabled people, they can sometimes create the perception that being a learning disabled person in a STEM career is rare and thus newsworthy. However, it is important to note that we only hear from the boldest voices; there are so many more people whose stories go untold.
What is Being Done
The invisibility of learning disabilities makes it harder to combat cultural stigma. There have been a number of initiatives aimed at making learning-disabled people visible again. At the University of Georgia, we have the Speakers Bureau — an organization that raises awareness about the issues facing disabled students. Other universities also have student run organizations that have published personal narratives of disabled people, such as the disability alliance at Harvard University.
The real irony in these visibility initiatives is that most people probably already know someone with a learning-disability, they just may not know it. Learning disabilities are incredibly common. 1 in 5 children have a learning disability and 1.7% of the general population in the US reports having a learning disability.
There are significant barriers facing learning-disabled people pursuing STEM fields. However, there are so many people who have found success and so many more that will. Making learning disabilities “visible” again is an important step in breaking down the stigma that surrounds them.