Diagnosis Disability–Or is It?: Are We Over-Diagnosing Disabilities?

Hello, readers,

“Your child has a disability.” Before you hear the specific diagnosis, this can be one of the scariest things a doctor, therapist, or other “expert” ever says. This is partly because, as we’ve discussed, the medical system often sets up loved ones of PWDs to grieve, as if that person is already dead without ever having done anything meaningful in life. But it can also be scary because “disability” holds the connotation of putting your child or other loved one through many things that can be beneficial but often have a dark side. You know, things like special education, which is less “special” than “segregated,” and often has none of the positive connotations the word “special” was originally meant to possess. Therapy, which can be beneficial but can also be turned into a marathon of, “Let’s try this method…no, this one, no this one…and maybe, just maybe, one will ‘fix’ your child.” Doctor’s appointments, often full of gloomy prophecies about what your child cannot do now and will never do later. And the list goes on and on, as it will continue to do until stigmas and attitudes change.

The question I want to raise by telling you all this is, why diagnose someone (not always a child, but usually, so we’ll go with that for now), with a disability unless you’re absolutely sure and/or have concrete proof? Why do I ask that question? It’s because I believe that today, many children are being diagnosed with disabilities when no disability exists. Even when a disability exists, the child is often given too much treatment for it. For example, did you know:

  • Statistically speaking, in a standard public classroom, 1/10 children, or 10%, will likely have a legit disability. So if a teacher has a classroom of 28 kids, we’re talking 2-3 children. Yet often, that number can go as high as 5/10 kids or more. That’s 50% in some groups, people. With the advent of Common Core Standards, even more children who did well in school and performed above grade level last year are now being recommended for special education or labeled with learning or other disabilities. Now, I’m not saying a regular classroom should only have 2-3 kids with disabilities in it, and after that you have to call it “special education.” I’m saying, what’s wrong with this picture? If the TAB majority wants to continue touting disability as a minority characteristic, why is the educational system doing all it can to make disability the majority?
  • 1 in 6 children are currently diagnosed with learning disabilities (may be one, may be multiple disabilities)
  • 1 in 10 children are currently diagnosed with ADHD (just that one disability, as opposed to the 1 in 10 that statistically has a disability on the very wide spectrum)
  • From 2000 to 2008, according to the CDC, the prevalence of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) has increased from 1 in 150 to 1 in 88.

Okay, so you’ve got some stats. This raises another question in my mind and hopefully yours, too. Are our children getting “more disabled,” or have we just loosened the criteria for disability? And if the latter is true, why are we doing that? Is it to benefit kids or for a more sinister reason? Let’s bring this a little closer to home, shall we? I’ll give you a couple of personal examples.

  • I have a younger brother, age 24, who began kindergarten in 1995. His teacher was the strict type who liked quiet, obedient kids, so being an active kid and–horrors–a boy, he was already headed for trouble with this woman. Indeed, my parents fought battles with the teacher and the principal for almost a year over small infractions, some nonexistent and perceived only by the teacher and her assistant (who once told my brother his behavior assured him he would be “dead meat.”) This teacher wanted to place him on Ritalin and tried to prematurely diagnose him with ADD/ADHD. (Teachers cannot, by law, make diagnoses or suggest diagnoses to students or parents). My parents once asked my brother how many of the other kids in his class were “on medicine,” or Ritalin. He reported that he remembered 3-5 kids. In reality, it was about 9 kids. His teacher had a classroom of 18 kindergartners.
  • Of course, that was about 20 years ago, so let’s move in a little closer. I currently view and sometimes leave comments on a Facebook page entitled Shut Up About Your Perfect Kid (after the book of the same name). It’s a group for people with disabilities and parents or loved ones of PWDs. A lot of moms write in about their kids, and some of these kids have a veritable laundry list of diagnoses: ADD, ADHD, some kind of ASD, SPD, ODD, OCD… Lord, who ordered the alphabet soup? I’m not saying all these disabilities can’t be found in one person, but the fact that they have been, sometimes in kids as young as 4 or 5, makes me suspicious of the medical system.
  • An article in the February issue of Parents magazine talks about how stringent school discipline has gotten and the prevalence of “zero tolerance” policies. These policies are so stringent, in fact, that a kindergartner can be called to the office and questioned by police because he innocently brought a pocketknife to show and tell or accidentally slipped some household item that qualifies as a weapon into his pocket. That’s distressing enough, but what’s even more distressing is that, interviewees for the article admit that “children with special needs” are “looked at [more closely] for everything they do.” Unfair enough in itself, but wait until you hear what some schools consider “special needs”. A child who dances and sings in class, according to this article, was tagged as special needs, with a behavioral disorder. This kind of behavior from public school teachers and administrators who in my experience, if asked, will swear they do not want children sitting in desks all day, labeled with everything under the sun, and tested to death.
  • On the opposite end of the spectrum, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) will, it is rumored, soon take Asperger’s syndrome off its diagnostic list. Why? To whose benefit? And will this further penalize kids who, instead of being overly treated like in the above examples, don’t receive treatment at all?

It’s mind-boggling, isn’t it? I don’t know about you guys, but this makes me pretty mad. It also scares me, because the negative implications here are rampant. Think back to the introductory paragraph. Disability still has stigmas attached. Children with disabilities are still bullied, overlooked, and shortchanged, oftentimes from birth to death. The majority of folks in this country insist that PWDs are a minority (yet, no, their civil rights are not trampled upon). Yet, the medical system, educational system, and other powers that be are doing everything to make as many of us disabled as possible, and I have my own theory as to why. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you must, but here it is:

Disabilities often equal good PR. As we’ve discussed, they can give rise to heartwarming media stories, inspiration, and triumph, which unscrupulous people then use for their personal gain. But good PR doesn’t stop at the media. For example, what do you think happens when a school has a majority of students, especially students in minority groups, placed in special education? Right–they get to brag on the fact that they’re “helping the handicapped”–but often, that “help” results in segregation and other negative outcomes. Or, that same school keeps minority students out of special education, making students with disabilities a separate minority group, so that the overall black, Latino, or Asian test scores won’t suffer. But it’s okay for the kids with disabilities’ scores to suffer, even if they don’t take standardized tests, because they can’t learn anything.

Diagnosing more and more people with disabilities also means a bigger spotlight on the mental health community, and more money for those who work in it. Now, there are some compassionate mental health workers out there, and some wonderful people who work with PWDs and help them reach their potential. But for others, “disability” = “cash cow.” A person ceases to be a person and becomes a revenue source, or even property, as in the horrific case of Boston’s Justina Pellietier. Her real disease is a physical disorder, mitochondrial disease. Boston Children’s Hospital took it upon themselves to diagnose her with “a mental disorder,” which actually spanned several disorders, and take her from her parents. Under government care, this teenager’s health deteriorated, and she became property. (BCH is allowed to perform research experiments on wards of the state whether or not the research will be of any benefit to the child).

Finally, diagnosing more children with disabilities means that we can redefine what it is to be a child so that it benefits us, the adults. As Kathie Snow wrote in her article, “Disability Issue or Human Being Issue,” children and adults with disabilities are often castigated or punished for doing things that, if a TAB person did them, would be considered normal, human responses. For example, if a TAB person gets mad, they’re just angry and likely have reason to be. If a PWD gets angry, they’re noncompliant. If a TAB kid gets up and dances around the classroom? It might be distracting, but it could be funny, or a signal to the teacher that everybody needs to get up and move. If a PWD does it? Then it’s against some behavior plan and must be medicated or punished.

Again, am I saying that all individuals who diagnose disabilities have these motives? No. But they are what I see happening today, and I don’t appreciate it. I’m sure a lot of people, with or without disabilities, don’t either. So let’s send a message to the medical system: Unless you can give me concrete proof (rather than the fact that, horrors, I’m acting like a normal person): QUIT DIAGNOSING ME!

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