Learning disabilities have turned into a pervasive problem in schools, impairing the ability of teenagers to cope with educational problems and prepare for a better future. This is why scholars have tried to come up with many models of disability trying to explain the persistence of the phenomenon and its roots so that they could gain expertise necessary in order to overcome the problem. Within scholarly thought, medical and educational models of learning disability have developed. While they are united in their purpose to find an adequate explanation for disability, their hypotheses of the main causes of impairment are vastly different. This paper will review both categories of models, attempting to arrive at a conclusion about the consequences of their application.
- Medical Model of Disability
The medical model of disability is based on the premise that impairment is caused by medical problems that are related to the individual’s personal health. This makes perception of disabled people full of pity and tragic feelings.
They are seen as incapacitated by their illness and in drastic need of a cure to make their plight smaller. In consequence, “if a cure is impossible, then they believe society ought to care for disabled people, generally in residential institutions and hospitals” (DRC, 2005). In this way, such people are rapidly categorized as problematic and a burden on society, and their opportunities are naturally restricted much more severely than those of ‘normal’ people. Over the centuries, this emphasis on care and disability resulted in the proliferation of special care institutions where such people can be kept and cared for. For children with learning disability, this meant special education where they were frequently placed to isolate them from society and provide care that is attributable to the disabled.
In general, the medical model of disability has turned into a “mechanism by which people with mind and body differences have been categorised and responded to by a Western society which increasingly pathologises certain peoples, and is particularly associated with the rise of medical science” (Butler, Parr, 1999, p.3). This perspective does have certain promise as it induces scholars to develop technologies that will improve the prospects of disabled people; however, it does marginalize and take away power from people with disabilities. Although it has some value for scholarly investigation, it often fails to offer solutions that will seriously improve people’s lives because it fails to capture the whole complexity of issues that affect disabled people.For children with a learning disability, application of a medical model often results in stigmatization at an early stage in their lives. The stigmatizing label is necessitated by the system of care provision centered on a medical model. Thus, “in order for children with disabilities in most states to receive their “right” to a publicly funded education appropriate to their needs, they first have to be ‘diagnosed’ as fitting into one of several predetermined medical categories” (Triano, 2000, p. 2). In this process, they have to prove that their special needs are a result of the medical condition and therefore they are in need of a special education that will cure their problems. This frequently results in application of a medical label to a child who may not have any serious defects that would forever impair development.
- Educational Model of Learning Disability
This model evolved as an alternative to the medical explanation of children’s problems in education. On a more general level, it is rooted in the social model of disability that underscores the role of society in the development of impairment. This approach evaluates “the strengths of the person with the impairment and at the physical and social barriers that obstruct them, whether at school, college, home or work” (BFI, 2006). In this way, disability arises out of a combination of factors that include both biological and social developments. Handicapped people, therefore, are not just those that were born with their disease – they are also those whom society fails to adapt to the surrounding reality. When the role of society in the evolution of disability is recognized and appreciated, it is also believed to be responsible for accommodation of the disabled. The rights of each and every disabled person are acknowledged and given as much importance as those of ‘normal’ people.The social model distinguishes between impairment and disability. While impairment is the absence of a certain organ or bodily defect, disability is defined as “the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus exclude them from the mainstream of social activities” (Butler, Parr, 1999, p.4). This definition accounts for social factors in the development of disability.
Speaking of learning disability, within the context of the social model, it appears as a condition that arises as much out of inefficiencies of the modern teaching establishments as out of children’s specific conditions. Finlan (1994) goes as far as to claim that learning disability is an “imaginary disease” that appeared as a generalizing label for children with different problems, lacking adequate scientific substantiation. In his view, students diagnosed with LD are mistreated in the mainstream American society just as minority groups are discriminated in everyday life.
The social origin of defects affecting learning was vividly demonstrated by the Russian scholar Lev Vygotsky who developed defectology – a field offering educational solutions for children with inborn defects. Vygotsky recognized that the handicap has biological causes. However, he also recognized that “defects are not subjectively perceived as «abnormality» until they are brought into the social context” (Gindis, 1995, p. 78). In order to perceive one’s condition as a defect, an individual has to learn this from society, in which case impairment “leads to a restructuring of the social relationships and to a displacement of all the systems of behavior” (Gindis, 1995, p. 78). Vygotsky’s theory recognizes that in different cultures the same abnormality can trigger different social responses, accounting for difference in individual destinies and adaptation mechanisms.
In case the educational model is applied to learning disability, the primary task of society and educational establishments in general is to “identify barriers and develop solutions” as opposed to “labeling” (BFI, 2006). Society, in contrast, faces a problem in accommodating the needs of its citizens as children with disabilities often lack access to establishments that can change their situation. Within the educational model of disability, problems experienced by children in the classroom are the result not so much of their individual medical problems, but rather “the result of a poorly-developed regular education system that is not equipped to meet the needs of a diverse student population” (Triano, 2000, p. 6). In consequence, a large number of children ‘fall through the cracks’ in the regular system that later brands them retarded or having a learning disability, pushing them out into the special education system. The problem, the supporters of the model claim, does not lie in the child, but rather in the social order that marginalizes those who were not lucky enough to obtain a quality education bringing out all their talents and abilities. The situation is exacerbated by the trend that it is mostly poor families that send their children to poorly managed schools that fail to adapt ‘difficult’ children. Lacking influence on the distribution of resources in society, these individuals do not have the power to fight for a larger share of the pie. As a result, their poverty and powerlessness are perpetuated as “more than two-thirds of disabled adults of working age do not have jobs” (Marinelli, Dell Orto, 1999, p. 6).
The future is likely to see the trend toward greater inclusion of disabled children in regular education processes, as well as diversification in teaching methods to account for the needs of a diverse student body. This would correspond to the general trend in the treatment of disabled people focusing on de-institutionalizing the process and enhanced social inclusion. The Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 underscores “the right to freedom from discrimination for people with disabilities, including those with a learning disability” (Mencap, n.d.). If society accepts its responsibility for children with learning disability, the educational system is likely to experience a major overhaul in which more children will be granted an education suited to their needs.
Medical and educational models of learning disability contrast in the value they attach to different reasons for the emergence of LD. The medical model, prevalent in scholarly treatment until recently, traces the roots of impairment almost exclusively to the individual’s medical condition. As such, these people are isolated from society by virtue of their specific condition and marginalized in institutions that block their access to society. In contrast, the educational model, directly stemming from the social model of disability, attributes problems experienced by some children to a combination of factors including individual impairment and social failure to accommodate these people. Society is therefore encouraged to improve educational standards so that more children can find adequate education within the framework of a regular system.
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