Neurodiversity: Beyond the Disability Label

Two people discussing neurodiversity:

Judy Singer, a sociologist with Asperger’s syndrome, has been credited with coining the term “neurodiversity.” The idea of neurodiversity considers a student’s learning differences but also moves beyond those difficulties and argues that there are variations in humans, just as there is bio-diversity in any particular animal species, and these variations may have some benefits. Simply put, it is argued that the brain of someone with a learning difference is merely a variation of normal, with that person having “differences” in cognitive function and not merely deficiencies. Unfortunately, discussions for those differences has too often been narrowly focused on “disabilities” or “deficits” requiring strategies and tools to help with the learning process. The need for strategies and tools is important and should not be minimized. However, neurodiversity emphasizes that students diagnosed with disabilities also have valuable “abilities” that need to be recognized, respected and nurtured in the education process.

The concept of neurodiversity is not without controversy. For example, the medical model of disability focuses on treating those with disabilities in an effort to cure them or make them as “normal” as possible. However, this model can be problematic, as there are those who argue that cognitive differences are not treatable illnesses. Instead of a medical model of disability, they might argue for a social model of disability. For example, Singer (1999: 64), writes that, “the ‘Neurologically Different’ represent a new addition to the familiar political categories of class/gender/race and will augment the insights of the social model of disability.” The social model of disability arose as a response to the medical model and posits that people may have impairments, for example, like not being able to walk. However, if, within the society, ramps, lifts and other equipment are made available to accommodate people in wheelchairs then they can access the same facilities as those without impairments. Conversely, if society does not take their needs into consideration and accommodations are not made available, then this is what causes a person with impairments to be “disabled.” Let’s take this further and apply it to a situation in which someone has a neurological difficulty, for example, students with learning difficulties in an education setting. These students are able to achieve academically when the needed accommodations are provided. However, when accommodations are not provided, one might say that the learning “difficulty” becomes a learning “disability” due to a failure in society (the educational institution) to provide the needed accommodations.

Neurodiversity is a term that critiques the label of “disability” and prompts us to think about how we might develop or enhance the “abilities” of those with learning difficulties and other impairments. It also helps us to think about how society could be better organized to accommodate the needs of a neurodiverse society. For more information on neurodiversity, visit the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. For information and a person-centered discussion on the medical and social models of disability, visit Scope.

Singer, J. (1999). Why can’t you be normal for once in your life? From a ‘problem with no name’ to the emergence of a new category of difference. In M. Corker, & S. French (Eds), Disability discourse, 59–67. Buckingham: Open UP.

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