Most of the research and publications about students with learning disabilities and related complex learning profiles focus on remediation planning and accommodations. While these are essential areas of focus that aid in supporting students in working towards their learning goals and achieving positive academic outcomes, an equally important area, emotional wellbeing and self-esteem, is often ignored.

Research suggests that students with learning disabilities are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, substance misuse, and low self-esteem than students who do not have a learning disability. Findings from numerous studies support that these correlations exist across the lifespan. But why is this? Although the research community does not have the answer yet, recent studies have begun to identify potential factors. For example, learning disabilities can make social interactions more challenging, often lead to academic difficulty and strain, and expose individuals to learning disability stigma and discrimination.

Out of these three factors, stigma and discrimination have received the least attention even though recent research  suggests that learning disability discrimination is prevalent and is associated with increased psychological distress and low self-esteem. Learning disability stigma is commonly held negative beliefs about people with learning disabilities. These beliefs are socially constructed over time and are often learned outside of one’s awareness. This means that people who hold these beliefs are usually well-intentioned and do not know they have these beliefs. Learning disability discrimination is an action someone takes in response to holding stigmatized views of learning disabilities.

Those stigmatized because of their learning disability may experience the following examples of discriminatory treatment from others:

  • Social misunderstanding and social exclusion resulting in teasing and isolation
  • Assumptions of low intelligence (e.g., comments such as, “You are so smart; you can’t possibly have a learning disability.”)
  • Assumptions of low achievement potential and resulting discouragement from more advanced academic pursuits
  • Failure to accept that the effects of learning disabilities can lessen with effective interventions (i.e., being treated as having an insurmountable condition)
  • Denial that learning disabilities are real (e.g., comments such as, “You just need to try harder,” “Stop being lazy,” and “Don’t be difficult.”)
  • Accusations that accommodations offer an unfair advantage or are “cheating the system” (e.g., comments such as, “I would have done well if I had extra time on that test, too. It’s not fair.”)
  • Rejection of reasonable accommodation requests

As we know with other marginalized groups, exposure to stigma and discrimination can negatively impact mental wellbeing. Initial research on students with learning disabilities suggests that this form of discrimination is strongly correlated to poor mental health and decreased self-esteem. Although more research is needed about the impact of stigma and discrimination, we can still take action right away.

Here are a few tips for combatting learning disability stigma and discrimination:

  • Educate yourself and others about learning disabilities: The first step is educating students and their caregivers, friends, tutors, and educators about learning disabilities. The more we understand learning disabilities, the less likely we are to hold stigmatizing views. The truth is that students with learning disabilities are smart, capable, and fierce learners. If you are looking for resources to learn more about how your child or student learns, Understood.org is a great place to start.
  • Place equal focus on strength and challenge areas: The heavy focus on “fixing the problem” contributes to stigmatizing views about learning disabilities. The very use of the terms “fix” and “problem” implies that something is broken. Students with learning disabilities are not broken; they just learn in different ways. In fact, students with learning disabilities tend to be creative thinkers and may be more likely to formulate unique solutions to problems. Focusing on appreciating strength areas in equal measure to supporting challenge areas will help to boost students’ self-esteem and change stigmatizing views of learning disabilities.
  • Equip students with self-advocacy skills: Students who understand their learning profiles are more likely to know what support they need to thrive and seek it out. Understanding their own learning profile can also help to destigmatize learning disabilities and allow students to celebrate their learning style. Furthermore, in educating students about stigma and discrimination, we can provide them with the skills to combat experiences of discrimination and boost self-esteem by challenging negative beliefs (e.g., “I am not smart” or “Something is wrong with me.”).

At Organizational Tutors, we understand the power of knowledge and advocacy. In addition to building executive functioning skills, we work with students to help them understand their learning profiles, develop advocacy skills, and boost their confidence. Contact us today to explore how executive function coaching can help your student.


OT Team

Author OT Team

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