As the debate over who should be considered learning disabled rages, a recent trend toward narrowing the definition of disability has emerged under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This attempt to draw a more distinct line between the disabled and society at large in the ADA context is in conflict with recent No Child Left Behind legislation which tries to fold disabled students into the mainstream, taking a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Attempts based on No Child Left Behind to change the way learning disabilities are identified may radically alter the entire definition of learning disability. By eliminating the individual ability component of the old standard for identifying learning disabilities, the IDEIA transforms disability identification into a rule-based process and undermines the integrity of the learning disability classification. Measuring learning disability by comparison to the average person instead of an individual’s potential is underinclusive. The key rhetorical move in hiding how significant this change will be is framing the ceiling which is being placed on the potential of the learning disabled as a floor. In this context, No Child Left Behind’s guarantee that all children will learn to read and write actually limits the rights of disabled students because the minimal floor it supposedly creates in American education becomes a ceiling on disabled children’s right to receive help. Under this model, average performance could become a cutoff for the learning disabled. By focusing too heavily on numeric achievement on standardized tests to the exclusion of qualitative factors and considerations of individual ability this new rule-based approach threatens to supplant the old individualized standard creating an upper boundary on students’ ability to claim protection. Thus, learning disabled Americans may be limited to nothing more than average regardless of their individual potential.
Date of Authorship for this Version
Townsend, Nicholas Lee, "Framing a Ceiling as a Floor: The Changing Definition of Learning Disabilities and the Conflicting Trends in Legislation Affecting Learning Disabled Students" (2006). Harvard Law School Student Scholarship Series. Paper 10.