Some thoughts on disorder and stigma

Disability? Disorder? Difference?

Yes, disorder (or disability) implies something is wrong. And, at least for me, something IS wrong. To deny it (as people did a LOT during my childhood, and still do somewhat today) is kind of insulting in a weird way, because it says that the things I have a lot of difficulty with (or find impossible altogether) are more my fault. Everyone on Earth is different from everyone else. SOME of us are disabled.

Why is this so problematic for NLD/AS etc.?

I am also very nearsighted and see out of only one eye. This is also a disability, and no one has much problem with saying that it is.  “Oh, he’s nearsighted!” – that’s not an insult, it’s just a statement of fact. My nearsightedness is (mostly) corrected by glasses; my one-eyed-ness is not correctable at my age (I had an operation when I was 3 that didn’t work; I’ve tried vision therapy to no avail). So, my 3-D vision stinks. And if I explain this to people, neither they nor I have any problem saying that this is something wrong with me. It would be better if I could see 3-D. It would be better if I didn’t need glasses.

I suppose I could call myself “differently-sighted” but that’s sort of silly.

There’s really no stigma to vision problems.

When it comes to learning disabilities, all this changes. Because there IS stigma attached.

But this stigma changes how the words feel, rather than what the effects are.  Just like I can’t see 3-D, there are other things I can’t do that most people do very easily.

For one example: I can’t draw. At all. I can’t consistently draw a cylinder. My wife is an artist – she has tried to teach me.  I have an MA in special ed, art therapists have tried to teach me. I was IN special ed, and back then people tried to teach me. It doesn’t work. My brain doesn’t DO that.  There are lots of other examples. I get lost. ALL the time. I can’t estimate time. I can’t remember when things happened.  ALL of these are disabilities.  It is BETTER to be able to find your way to a friend’s house than it is to get lost.  Getting out of the subway and going straight to my destination is BETTER than wandering around lost. (Just yesterday I wandered around lost, trying to get to a place I had been to several times before – I was going there to give a presentation on recursive partitioning).

They are disabilities whether you call them NLD, AS, learning problems, learning disabilities, learning differences or kumquats.

But there’s that stigma.

How do we get rid of the stigma?

By claiming it, not by denying it.

So, whenever someone says something like “You can’t be learning disabled, you have a PhD” I say “Yes I can. It’s just that I’m good at academic subjects”.  If a longer conversation ensues, I can point out all the many things that people learn to do.  Like finding your way home.

There are some things wrong with me. There are also some things right with me.

The things that are wrong don’t make me evil, bad, lazy, crazy, stupid or whatever, they make me disabled.

The things that are right with me don’t make me good, energetic, sane, smart or whatever. They make me gifted.

Together, and with a lot of other stuff added, they make me Peter


  1. I think the problem with acceptance here is that a lot of our disabilities are invisible to others *and* require that others give us the benefit of the doubt that the disability claimed is not merely an excuse for bad behavior, laziness, task avoidance, whatever.

    Nearsightedness (although invisible to others) does not trigger the same skepticism in others, as the nearsighted person provides their own corrective lenses in order to conform, and does not typically expect accommodation from others.

  2. That’s an excellent point!

  3. I disagree that there\’s no stigma to vision problems, because i have experienced it. I\’m like you – nearsighted and can\’t see in 3D. I also have other vision problems like limited field of vision. The nearsightedness is not a problem because i wear glasses for that. But people don\’t understand that the fact i can\’t see 3D well is limiting in things like playing ball, hiking (so it slows me down on uneven, rocky / rooty forest trails) and driving and other things, and that my field of vision means that i often don\’t see things that i \’should\’ be able to see – anotherwords that someone else standing in the same spot could see. They just don\’t get that i just can\’t hit a softball for example and it\’s no use trying to get me to be on their team.

  4. Hi Yvona
    I think it’s a bit different. One question is “getting it” and one question is “stigma”. Certainly people don’t get the problems with lack of binocular vision. But, for me at least, there’s no stigma attached to the disability itself.

  5. Hi Peter:

    I agree with your comments on LD’s. I was not diagnosed with NLD til I was 39. When I try to explain the disability to people who have known me for quite awhile, they say I could not have a disability, because I was always strong in reading and spelling in school. I did really well in elementary school but nearly flunked out of high school because I was taking subjects that I should not have and not getting help with others.

  6. Thanks for clarifying the distinction, Peter. Yes, there is a huge difference between “stigma” and a person’s inability to really “get” (i.e., understand) a particular challenge. It’s an apples and oranges thing. Although people can have a tendency to make uninformed comments in both situations.

Speak Your Mind