My name is Kristen Herbert. I am a student of English and Creative Writing at Roosevelt University. I am passionate about language. I think that when used for its intended purpose, language can bring us together. More often than not I think it is used as criteria to allow and prevent people access. College entrance exams, job interviews and applications—even the difference of language used in a public high school curriculum or an ivy-league university lecture shows how the vocabulary and phrasing of ideas can characterize our lives.[1]

There is great power in this practice. And in terms of different abilities, the way we craft our language can have great bearing on our society’s prevailing attitude.

I think the way our society talks about the differently able tries to categorize people within their limitations, rather than draw out their unique perspectives and skills. Calling a person disabled unnecessarily accentuates the ‘dis-’, and overlooks the overwhelmingly evident fact that he or she is just as able, in the affected area, though the tasks involved may be more laborious to complete. Saying ‘dis-’ puts his or her enormous capabilities on the backburner.

I see this especially in the treatment of learning ‘disabilities’—dyscalculia, dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia all describe significant hindrances in the identified disciplines—mathematical computation, reading, writing and spelling, and the completion of simple sequences with the body (tying shoes, waving one’s hand, using a pair of scissors).

When one refers to an individual affected by one of the following learning ‘disabilities’, one often changes that noun to an adjective. Terms like ‘dyslexic’, ‘dyspraxic’, or ‘dyscalculic’ draw the problematized task to the forefront of the person’s identity.

If someone is hindered in one area it is usually because his or her mind is wired to use different avenues to explore information that makes the standard way of problem-solving irrelevant.

Imagine a girl with dyscalculia, a way of thinking that makes it difficult to keep track of small details in simple mathematical equations. She picks up a musical instrument. Coordinating the motions of the instrument, and following intricate marks on sheets music—that is nagging and cumbersome. She hears distinct characters in the different pitches of sound. She explores these pitches and weaves them together into her own songs, and these songs tell a precise story. Why would she need to follow an established set of musical rules when she can create worlds merely from what she hears?

Dyslexia can be caused by a number of factors, but may develop because the reader reads with the right side of her brain, rather than the left. She understands words by their image, rather than by their phonetics (‘donkey’ as a picture on the page, rather than the connected syllables ‘dahwn-KEY’). She compares each word to her repertoire of them, but often loses terms that can’t evoke a corresponding image (‘the’ has no imaginative meaning as ‘truck’ does). While this makes reading confusing and laborious, this method of taking in information allows for heightened visual memory, and for an acute ability to imagine three-dimensionally.[2]

If anything I think the term learning ‘disability’ has come about in a desperate attempt to standardize everything in the earliest stages of a person’s education. Distinguishing people as being ‘dys-’ to the given task overlooks the inherent difference in all people, and disrespects the fact that we all think and approach problems differently.

In the case of all different abilities, new strategies should be learned so that each person can complete the affected task successfully, but it must be remembered that though this person may find more difficulty in doing so, she is just as capable of that task, and possesses extraordinary capability in her own way of approaching and solving problems. And though her ‘disability’ may be identified so that she can teach herself new strategies to overcome its obstacles, it is not the key aspect of her identity. It may become part of what makes her her, but it is one of the many aspects that makes her a unique, composite individual.

We need differences. We are different. We live in a world of boundless complexity, and when we choose to think and speak complexly—beyond compartments, beyond standardization—we begin to understand our place in it. Our words rewrite us. When we speak, we not only express our prejudices, but we articulate inside our mind what those prejudices are. Therefore we must craft our words carefully in a way that honors our differences. When forget that the world is composed of difference, we withhold respect from different abilities, and from the differently able. We reduce their uniqueness and their gifts, and make them ‘dis-’cordant with society’s standards.

To find more information about Kristen, please visit her here


[1] Brecke, Carrie. “Language as Access”. Writing About Social Justice. Roosevelt University. Chicago, IL. 23 January 2014. Lecture.

[2] Petiniot, Marie-Jeanne. Accompagner l’enfant atteint de troubles d’apprentissage. Chronique Sociale, 2012. Print.