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A department chair recently announced at a meeting that students challenged by cognitive, psychological or emotional issues are to no longer be referred to as "disabled." We must henceforth call them “differently abled.” The change is well-meaning but harms many students it was aimed at helping. I know this because I am not only the adviser to Phoenix Rising, our college’s support group for students with learning challenges, but I am myself learning disabled.

The element of political correctness is correct, but we must be equally thoughtful in our attempts to linguistically intervene. The central insight of political correctness partly comes from two figures in Continental philosophy, my area of specialization. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, who in The Genealogy of Morals pointed out that those who have the most political capital also have the power to define the central terms in our language. How we speak invisibly contains the biases of those in control.

The other is Simone de Beauvoir, who in The Second Sex points out that in setting out a description of who she is would start by saying that she is a woman, a move a man would not have to make. To be Other is defined in the negative, as a deviation from normal. And since norms are enforced, to be Other is to be less than. The hope of political correctness was that by coming up with new terms that do not derive from traditional power structures, they could be cleansed of the power to diminish those in the outgroups.

Thus, we should prefer new terms referring to the socially Othered in order to help undermine the oppressive structures that have been built to keep them down. Those of us with cognitive challenges, the line goes, are thus like women, people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ communities in being oppressed and thus we need a new uncorrupted celebratory label. We are to be “differently abled.”

Well intended, yes; but no. I am learning disabled. I am not “differently abled.” I have heard the story of a colleague at another institution who after suffering a stroke lost his sense of spatial awareness and relied on his GPS to get him from his home to his office -- a trip he has taken five times a week for 30 years. But after the stroke, he suddenly found that he has computational capacities he had never before possessed. He could do quantitative work he had been incapable of before. This person became differently abled.

That is not true of me. I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, minor dyslexia, dysgraphia and several other learning challenges. These are not some double-edged sword that conveys both advantages and disadvantages to me academically. They just make my life harder.

I was fortunate to come from a family of sufficient means with a savvy and caring mother who had me, at a young age, tested and diagnosed and formulated a plan of action to allow me to succeed. If I had come from a poor family, I would have been labeled stupid and out of control. But with the proper tutoring, medication and schooling, I was able to go to college, earn a Ph.D. and become the tenured chair of Jewish studies at an elite liberal arts institution.

I am proud of what I am, and prouder still because it was much harder than it would have been if I did not have these particular learning challenges. I have a dear colleague who listens to me for hours and who helps me write. My insights are those of a professional academic, but my neurological wiring often makes it difficult for me to organize them in a way that renders them professionally publishable. My colleague helps me organize the ideas (he helped me with this piece, too) and that is one of many coping strategies and mechanisms I use to allow me to contribute to the professional discourse community to which we belong.

He does not have these handicaps -- another word that we should not sacrifice to political correctness. I have difficulties, challenges that he does not. Yet, each year, when our provost determines merit raises, we are measured by the same yardstick despite the fact that it is much more challenging for me to do what he does.

We do the same job. We teach. We publish. We serve the institution and professional community. That is our job as professors, and it is on our degree of success that we are assessed. But my successes are much more hard-fought than those who are normally abled (or in academe, often extraordinarily abled).

The same may be true of many of our learning disabled students. To call them “differently abled” may falsely attribute to them helpful qualities that would give them an advantage they do not really enjoy and diminishes the real struggles they endure and work around or overcome to succeed and present themselves as able. These people work harder in the nuts and bolts of “doing” college. They suffer emotionally from it and yet keep plugging away, trying to keep up with their peers in the seats around them. They deserve credit for this. Indeed, they deserve to be celebrated for it.

Linguistically turning a blind eye with “differently abled” -- pretending these challenges aren’t real, but only different -- does not help these students and perhaps does a shameful disservice to them. Learning to read with dyslexia or doing math with dyscalculia is exceptionally hard, but it has to happen if one hopes to navigate the world. Calling one differently abled doesn’t achieve this. A child unable to read or do math is still going to be measured by reading and math tests. Their challenges are always here, sometimes much more acutely than at other times, but always with them in the way one with Tourette's syndrome always has it.

They are not differently abled, they are learning disabled, and I applaud them for all they do despite their challenges.

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