Learning Exceptionalities: Theoretical Implications

Learning Exceptionalities: Theoretical Implications

One of the key areas of concern in education, concerns the similarities and differences in how learners access, comprehend, store, and share information. Consequently, the concept of learners with exceptionalities is frequently used by scholars of pedagogy to refer to individuals, whose behavioral, physical, or cognitive ability is different from the norm, often necessitating the use of additional measures to meet such individuals’ pedagogical needs. Students with exceptionalities comprise students with learning disabilities and students who are gifted. Most often, the term exceptionality is used in reference to persons with some form of disability. Nevertheless, students who are gifted are also categorized as exceptional and may require special-education resources. The focus of this paper is on students with learning disabilities.

Though various theories have been presented for understanding the nature and implications of exceptionalities, the two models that stand out are the social and the medical models. In the medical theory, exceptionalities are seen as resulting from the individual’s mental or physical limitations, considerably disconnected from the person’s geographical or social environment. However, despite its use in the understanding of exceptionalities, the medical approach seems significantly restrictive as the focus is concentrated on care, ultimately paving the way for stereotypes, segregation, and even institutionalization.

Due to the apparent limitations of the medical model, the present paper adopts a social model, which views exceptionalities as caused by social, environmental and attitudinal underpinnings that prevent persons with differing cognitive, behavioral and physical abilities from maximal participation in society (Goodley 21). In this understanding, the view of exceptionalities not only affects the ability of the persons with learning disabilities to attain optimal educational, economic and social potential but also affects the way the society interacts and relates to these individuals. The present paper, therefore, provides an analysis of the impact of the social theory of exceptionalities on personal and societal life with particular focus on students with learning disabilities.

Theoretical Underpinnings

The accepted understanding of the concept of students with learning disabilities (referred to by some scholars as specific learning disabilities) for our purposes is that of individuals who encounter difficulties in acquiring and utilizing writing, reading, listening, reasoning, and mathematical abilities (Driscoll 22). In this regard, the learning disabilities refer to significant learning difficulties in one or more of the fundamental processes involved in the comprehension of concepts delivered during instruction. Learning disability can, therefore, be viewed as a general term that refers to a variety of learning difficulties in reading, speaking, listening, reasoning and completing math problems. Such disabilities vary among individuals, with the possibility of a person having difficulty in one area and not in another.  The best way of understanding the implications of exceptionalities like learning disabilities on individual students and the society, it is important to adopt a theoretical framework that explains the social foundations of the problem.

Though there is a general agreement concerning the fact that learning disabilities are neurobiologically based, and that they implicate the cognitive process, there are some misconceptions regarding the precise nature of learning disabilities. One such misconception is the idea that learning disability is synonymous with the student’s reading ability (Williams 140). Though most students identified as having learning disability also some signs of reading difficulty, other challenges associated with learning disability include speaking, mathematics, listening, social-emotional, mathematics, and executive functions. Research on these areas, which can utilize the social theory of exceptionality, ultimately affects the degree of understanding of learning disabilities and considerably influences policy and practice

To explicate learning disabilities using the social model, Goodley proposes that the social theory of exceptionalities be viewed as distinct from the traditional diagrammatic theoretical frameworks such as the sociological and psychological models. Instead the social model of exceptionalities can be understood as a progressive political approach to understanding exceptionalities, and a response to the medical theory of Exceptionalities (172). As such, the social model is embedded in social constructionism, implying that the understandings of exceptionalities are informed by societal concepts beyond the realm of language according to shared meanings, limitations and discourses that are imposed by the environment in a particular place and time. As indicated by Goodley, the social model acknowledges that individuals have differing physical, cognitive and psychological abilities, which can ultimately affect the way they function in society (38).

However, rather than approaching exceptionalities as problems that need a cure, the social model proposes that the societal perception is what ought to be transformed as it is such attitude that limits the functionality of individuals who possess abilities that differ from the accepted norm (Goodley 166). In other words, students with exceptionalities are not disabled by their differences, but rather by the barriers present in society, which do not consider their specialized needs. For instance, typical classrooms that do not consider strategies for teaching place limitation on the cognitive and academic performance of students with learning disabilities, as their specific needs are not met.

The barriers that prevent persons with exceptionalities can be cultural, social and economic. For instance, the environment can disable individuals with exceptionalities by not being accessible enough for them to move, or by hindering effective communication. Jordan, Carlile, and Stack, indicate that, since most classroom environments are designed for regular students, many students with learning disabilities face challenges in realizing their academic potential in such settings (28). The social theory of exceptionality also has implications for the social life of learner within the school environment, not only for the person with a learning disability and others but also for individuals with learning disabilities themselves.

Economically, society does not avail similar opportunities for individuals with exceptionalities in the same way that it does for regular characters. According to Jordan, Carlile and Stack, this bias begins from school level and progresses through into employment. In most school environment, for instance, no concrete strategies are adopted to cater for students with learning disabilities causing them to perform dismally and miss out on employment opportunities (84). Indeed, according to Gargiulo persons with exceptionalities (whether cognitive, behavioral or physical) are twice as likely as non-impaired individuals to possess no qualifications and acquire gainful employment (21). At the school level, most lessons are designed using teaching strategies and classroom environments that do not consider students with learning disabilities and other exceptionalities. For instance, going by the social theory of exceptionalities, a student with dyslexia can only be seen as having learning disabilities in a classroom designed for non-dyslexic students. Is such lessons were to be designed to consider students with learning disabilities, then the exceptionalities would not affect the performance of such students. The essential point here is that a student cannot have learning disabilities in isolation, but rather with other students within the learning environment.

Culturally, the society is in most instances unfair to persons with exceptionalities since, due to the negative and stereotypical societal attitudes towards this category of persons, individuals with exceptionalities experience limitations not only in their economic and education performance, but also in their social life. In the case of students with learning disabilities, failure to recognize the needs of the students can cause them to be perceived as slow, which is not the case. The prejudice, according to Bender emanates from the persons with exceptionalities being seen as abnormal by their peers and the society (41). Moreover, the discrimination is evidenced in the type of language used to describe persons with exceptionalities, most of which are derivatives of medical labels. This is unfair to the persons with such exceptionalities as the negative attributes that accompany the labeling, and the ensuing stigma can limit the ability of the individuals to achieve their potential.

Though it may not be immediately apparent, exceptionalities, including learning disabilities, have wide-ranging implications on cultural, economic, and policy aspects of any society. For instance, as indicated by the social theory, the understanding of exceptionalities if socially constructed in line with shared meanings and social interactions. This means that the way the education of persons with learning disabilities is designed and delivered considerably affects how they relate to others in society and how others relate to them. As shown by Hill secluding individuals with learning disabilities in specialized institutions of learning exposes them to potential discrimination and can affect their social life. As an alternative, Hill proposes that students identified as having learning disabilities be enrolled with other students in typical classrooms, but that measures be taken to ensure student-oriented and enhanced learning (122).

On the economic front, educating persons with learning disabilities appears to have considerable financial implications. For instance, certain tools required for such strategies as schema-based instruction and PowerPoint presentation may increase the budget of institutions. Nevertheless, as indicated by Pierangelo and Giuliani the eventual benefit overshadows these economic costs as the much of the investment also helps other students (116). After all, quality education is the right of every child regardless of physical, emotional or cognitive challenges.

Though much of the literature on the identification and management of learning disabilities is academic (focusing on the school environment), learning disabilities also affect the family life of the student and other family members. As indicated by Bender life with a child with learning difficulty can be challenging as it involves various practical and emotional issues (72). Some of the problems include educational decisions, time constraints, financial challenges, as well as the accompanying disappointment, blame and self-recrimination. In some instances, the problems (most of which are caused by misinformation) can be so severe that they can damage the family bonds and even cause divorce.

Implications for Education

For the effective instruction of students with learning disabilities, debates are prevalent in academic scholarship on the appropriate strategies. Much of the discussion about the right teaching strategies focuses on direct or explicit instruction and student-focused constructivist strategies. Though it can be argued that no one method can claim to be the most efficient for all types of learning disabilities, direct instruction (founded on the theory of constructionism) is lauded and shown to be superior. In the constructivist approach to instruction, the focus of education is on the student rather than the teacher. This is in line with the description of social constructivist pedagogy offered by Gargiulo, who indicates that the constructivist classroom is not a place where the teacher pours knowledge into the minds of passive students, who sit like empty vessels waiting to be filled. On the contrary, students in the constructivist classroom are encouraged to participate actively in the learning process. This means that both the student and the teacher in a constructivist classroom view knowledge as a dynamic and evolving concept, which requires the internalization of ideas for the further creation of knowledge (66).

The fundamental assumptions of the social constructivist approach to instruction are that whatever knowledge the student holds is important, learning is an active and continuous process, learning is an active process, and learning may incorporate some conceptual changes. Given the importance of societal background on the education process, cultural relatively is also an important component of teaching students with learning disability (Gargiulo 119). The important point in designing instruction is to focus on learning as a collaborative process of peer interaction, with the teacher performing the role of structuring and mediating the interaction. The teacher can enhance discussion on the main concepts by presenting problem scenarios and guiding questions, as well as references.

Another important consideration is the application of multiple methods of displaying information. Since studies indicate that most students with learning disabilities are quickly bored using diverse methods of presenting information is likely to keep them interested in the learning process. When choosing the presentation methods, it is recommended that the teacher considers the opportunities for the participation of students, the ease of use, and accuracy of the information delivered (Pierangelo & Giuliani 67). In summary, the evidence-based practices for teaching students with learning disabilities require encouragement of collaborative learning and teamwork, promotion of debates and discussions, and assignment of peer groups to enhance peer-assisted learning.

Given the various approaches presented in the literature for the instruction of students with learning disabilities, a question arises concerning the most appropriate teaching method. However, it is important to note that the effectiveness of a particular method relies on various factors, including student strengths and weaknesses, as well as the underlying goals of instruction (Williams 298). For example, in situations where the aim of teaching is to aid students in remembering facts, direct instruction is highlighted as the most efficient (Sliva 76). However, approaches that enhance the engagement of students in active learning such as peer-assisted approaches are more effective in fostering understanding of key concepts (Sliva 77). The point here is that different purposes of instruction demand the application of different methods. Consequently, examining the underlying purposes of teaching and the strengths and weaknesses of the student is useful in choosing the appropriate conceptual and practical approach that can be used to inform education.

From the perspective of the social theory of exceptionality, the views and beliefs of the teacher about students with learning disabilities are likely to impact the teacher’s decisions on the teaching approach to use and how to assess student performance. Since the teacher is part of the social environment, the shared beliefs and attitudes about learning disabilities are likely to consciously and unconsciously affect the nature of instruction. For instance, Bender indicates that teachers who view students with learning disabilities as being impaired are likely to isolate the students for specialized teaching, which may enhance the likelihood of stigma (91). Strategies for teaching classrooms with students with exceptionalities should immerse the students into the system and apply student-oriented pedagogy without isolating specific individuals.


Policy Implications

Going by the social theory of exceptionalities, various ideas ought to inform the formulation strategies to enhance the learning, economic and social experiences of persons with learning disabilities. For instance, it ought to be noted that individuals with learning disabilities make meaningful and positive contributions to the social and economic growth of any community (Sliva 73). Due to this factor and because it is their inherent right, persons with learning disabilities are as entitled as anyone to quality instruction, support, practices, standards and assessments that guarantee them meaningful educational progress. Moreover, just going through education is not enough. Individuals with learning disabilities are entitled to non-biased employment opportunities to allow them to participate and benefit from work, education, recreation and any other prospects available for individuals without such impairments.

Policies on learning disabilities should, therefore, be founded on research, and should ensure that students can access skilled instruction, quality education and appropriate support services. However, to develop effective policies, education officials need to understand the nature of learning disabilities and the specific needs of students with learning disabilities. Given their potential to contribute to society, the present paper highlights the importance of designing policies that advance their success in the school, community and work environments.


Every individual has the right to quality education. Persons with exceptionalities differ in terms of their cognitive, behavioral and physical abilities from the preconceived norm, necessitating the application of strategies to enhance their learning experience. Though various theories have been fronted, the social theory of exceptionality appears most applicable as it attempts to explicate exceptionality as arising from social interactions and shared meanings. Using this theory, the present paper has established that learning disabilities affect the economic, social and cultural lives of individuals and communities. Strategies are therefore, proposed to ensure that persons with learning disability acquire quality education and live lives that are as normal as possible.

Work Cited

Bender, William. Differentiating instruction for students with learning disabilities. Corwin Press. Thousand Oaks, CA, 2002. Print.

Driscoll, Marcy. Psychology of learning for instruction. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2005. Print.

Gargiulo. Richard. Special education in contemporary society: An introduction to exceptionality. London: SAGE. 2010. Print

Goodley, Dan. Learning difficulties: The social model of disability and impairment: challenging epistemologies. Disability and Society, 16(2), (2001): 207-232.

Hill, Francis. Learning: A survey of psychological interpretation (7th ed). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon, 2002, Print.

Jordan, Andrew et al. Approaches to learning: A guide for teachers. McGraw-Hill, Open University Press: Berkshire, 2008. Print.

Pierangelo, Rodger & Giuliani, George. The educator’s diagnostic manual of disabilities and disorders. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2007. Print.

Sliva, Julie. Teaching inclusive mathematics to special learners K-6. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2003. Print.

Williams, Green. Theorizing Disability. In G. Albrecht, K. Seelman and M. Bury (eds), Handbook of Disability Studies. London: Sage, 2001. Print.