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10:21am on Thursday, 7th December, 2006:



It said on the report of one of the prospective students I interviewed recently that they had a "learning difficulty".


The term "learning difficulty" is one of those euphamistic phrases that (in the UK at least) is mainly used to put a positive spin on a profound mental disability or a negative spin on a minor mental problem. People who don't have the wit to feed themselves may be described as having a learning difficulty, but so might people who have an aversion to numbers that's been diagnosed as mild dyscalculia. As an analogy, it's as if the term "singing difficulty" were used to refer to some people with a little performance anxiety and others lacking a voice box: the former can sing, they just have something getting in the way of their doing it; the latter are never ever going to be able to sing as they lack the necessary equipment.

For university applications that reference "learning difficulty" there are not going to be any of the mental-age-below-10 cases, and therefore when a student claims to have one it's usually something specific such as dyslexia or dyspraxia. As it happens, Essex University is pretty good at accommodating people with these problems, so I wanted to reassure the prospective student that their needs would be met. This meant enquiring as to the nature of the "learning difficulty" mentioned.

The student thought a moment, then said, "well, it means I have difficulty learning".

Apparently, it takes a while for certain kinds of conceptual facts to get into the student's head, but once they're there they stick. It really is a difficulty with learning, not a difficulty performing some of the everyday actions that if you can't do them then it gets in the way of learning. In the "singing difficulty" analogy, it would be akin to being tone deaf: you really do have difficulty actually singing, due to some kind of manufacturing glitch in the body.

The usual trouble with euphamisms is that they gradually dilute until they have to change. In this case, though, the euphamism is obscuring a perfectly reasonable term with its own inappropriate meanings. Thus, if your learning difficulty is simply that you have difficulty learning, you're stuffed both ways.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).