Learning Difference or Disability?

The brains of humans are all different from each other. How each person processes information, retains and applies knowledge, and expresses what they know is individual, and part of the beauty of humanity. However, there is an expectation in the educational system that the brain will function in a particular way, and develop according to a set timeline. When this doesn’t happen, there is a mismatch between the educational setting and the student, and this can lead to difficulties in the classroom and socially.

The concept of learning differences, or neurodivergence, is the idea that all brains have worth, and that there are many ways of being normal. Ann Arbor Academy wholeheartedly embraces that idea, and we find that differentiating our instruction and assessment practice allows us to teach students in the way that they learn. We also focus on the whole child, and not the deficits that are too often the primary educational lens through which a student is viewed. Our students come to us in need of understanding and specialized support, and when they receive it, they blossom and grow.

Students with learning disabilities are a subset of neurodivergent learners. With a learning disability, there is a processing barrier to completion of certain educational tasks such as reading, writing, or math. Students flourish when they are given the extra time and support they need to develop a skill, as well as alternative pathways to achieving success in the problematic educational domain. Learning disabilities necessitate services and accommodations in order to make sure that the barriers that exist to academic achievement do not hold up a student’s overall educational growth. This is the same concept as installing ramps for a child in a wheelchair, or braille print for a student who is blind. A diagnosis of a learning disability means that a student has rights and services under the law due to their disability, and these are essential to the well being of the student.

Ann Arbor Academy welcomes students with learning disabilities as well as those with learning differences. We have students who have learning disabilities in reading, math, and written expression. Many of our students have AD/HD, executive functioning disorders, or autism. Some of our students have a gifted level IQ, while others have a mild cognitive impairment. Many of our students have struggled with anxiety and depression, and some come to us with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). It’s a big tent, and we generally refer to our students as having learning differences, to account for the wide variation we see. But we celebrate and advocate for the rights of those with a diagnosed disability, and see the whole spectrum of neurodivergent brains as powerful and essential in their own right.