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Taking issue with the word “issues”

Written by: Bonnie Singer, Ph.D.
January 2nd, 2017  |  Categories: ,

I’m noticing a new language trend lately that is, admittedly, driving me slightly batty: use of the word “issues” as a substitute for the word disorder or disability – as in, “reading issues” or “language issues” or “attention issues.”  Hello…these are not ISSUES!

According to www.dictionary.com, the word “issue” (used as a noun) means:

1. a point in question or matter that is in dispute, as between contending parties in an action at law (the defendant’s motive is the issue at hand)

2. a point, matter, or dispute, the decision of which is of special or public importance (a political or public health issue)

3. a point, the decision of which determines a matter (the issue at hand is the right to bargain collectively).

Synonyms for the word “issue” include: argument, point, problem (to be debated or discussed), question, concern, subject, affair, matter, and point of departure, and controversy (www.thesaurus.com).

I can’t help but scratch my head and wonder, why are people describing kids with disabilities as having “issues?”

Perhaps it just sounds more palatable – indeed softer – to say that a child has “reading issues” or “language issues” than to use a seemingly harsh label like “reading disability” or ”language disorder.” Those other words might give the impression that someone is permanently broken.

Yes, it sounds much more optimistic and positive to suggest that someone has a little issue they’re currently grappling with rather than a life-long disability. I guess many people would prefer to have an “issue” than a neurological variation that results in atypical development.

Unless, however, they DID have a neurological variation that caused them to experience very real challenges when it comes to being able to listen, speak, read, write, calculate, or regulate their attention — challenges they couldn’t overcome without the help of highly trained professionals who knew how to help them understand their disability, compensate for it, and navigate through school and life successfully. Then they might really wish that others would not downplay their disability by calling it an “issue.”

We need to be careful with our language if we are to help people understand the nature of developmental disabilities. We have long known that variations in neurological organization and brain circuitry result in difficulty with acquiring language and literacy and with regulating behavior, emotions, and attention. Research continues to shed light on how to help children with all kinds of disabilities learn, grow, and flourish in school and in life.

We owe it to children to help them understand their disabilities and the fact that their disabilities may challenge and shape them but do not define them. I was reminded of this very recently when I got an email out of the blue from a student I worked with over 20 years ago. He wrote to say “thank you” for helping his parents understand that he had Dyslexia and what to do about it.

We had a lovely exchange, in which I acknowledged the dedication and hard work it took for him to learn to read and write and recalled telling his parents, “Your child is going to be an AWESOME adult. Truly awesome. We just have to get him through school, and that’s going to be hard. But he has everything he needs to be incredibly successful and truly happy in life.”

He replied: (Spelling and punctuation are unchanged from his original note)

“I heard that mantra many times growing up. I still remember it when things are hard, and life just won’t cooperate. I gave up every summer vacation to tutoring and summer school. Saturdays were never a day off. Story book craft time, recesses and electives were spent in speech and Sped classes. I didn’t own a video game console untill I was in my 20s and bought myself a X-box. but thats what it takes. Other kids got three hours a night to play video games, in my case that three hours was spoken for. Other kids get three months of summer vacation I got one week to go to riding or scout camp (eventually I earned the rank of Eagle Scout). And while missing the kick ball game because I had to go to tutoring did hurt I do not regret it for one moment. I want you to know that those sacrifices are worth it.

I am now 28. I graduated Mass Maritime class of 2011 with a Bachelor’s in Marine Engineering. I scored highly on my USCG coast guard [exams] (which were taken with no accommodations)….I have worked as an officer for the Merchant Marine for the past five years. I make six figures a year. I have done and seen amazing things. I have been around the world more than once, sailed every ocean on the map, I am respected by my shipmates, those who I work for and those who work for me. I have read all those books I dreamed of reading as a kid. I actually have had to delete books from my kindle to make room…Because you told my parents that 20 years ago and because they believed it, and because they taught me to believe it, I now have that incredibly successful and truly happy life.”

My goodness… hand me a tissue!

This boy did not have reading and attention “issues.” He had a type of reading disability called Dyslexia and he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, both of which challenged him in very real ways as he grew up and still challenge him from time to time as an adult.

Yet neither his reading nor his attention disabilities have stopped him from becoming a truly remarkable young man who now reads voraciously for pleasure and who has a long and promising career ahead of him as a Merchant Marine.

If we as educators are to empower the young people in our care, we need to help them understand the fullness of themselves – which includes the neurodevelopmental nature of their disabilities and challenges those pose for them as well as the innate strengths and talents they can draw on to manage their disabilities and thrive in life.