What is Differently Abled?

In this lesson, students will work toward understanding what it means to have a learning disability.
Grade Level

  • understand the meaning of the term “learning disability”
  • consider their own, their school’s and society’s biases related to learning disabilities
  • discuss ways in which labels about intelligence are used to inculcate prejudice and lead to discrimination against people, and develop more constructive, specific vocabulary for discussing learning needs
  • consider ways to fight prejudice and discrimination against those with learning disabilities
  • make a graphic ‘zine about fighting prejudice and discrimination against those with learning disabilities
Essential Questions
  • What is a learning disability?
  • How can learning disabilities affect students’ experiences at school? How can they affect life outside school?
  • What prejudices have caused schools and society to discriminate against people with learning disabilities, and how can we fight this discrimination?
  • How does prejudice and discrimination against people with learning disabilities connect to other forms of prejudice and discrimination, and what can we do to fight against these biases?
  • What are some advantages of living in a world in which people learn in different ways?
  • Patricia Polacco, Thank You, Mr. Falker (This book is widely available in libraries, bookstores or may be purchased through Patricia Polacco’s Web site.)


discrimination [ disˌkriməˈnā shən ] (noun) Unfair treatment of a person or group on the basis of prejudice or bias

intelligence [ inˈtelijəns ] (noun) It is important for students to understand that intelligence can be understood in a variety of ways, and that the types of intelligence most commonly valued by schools are not the only ways to be intelligent. One definition holds that intelligence is the ability to comprehend, to understand or profit from experience.

learning disability [ ˈlərni ng ˌdisəˈbilitē ] (noun) The Learning Disability Association of America defines learning disability as a neurological disorder that affects one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using spoken or written language.

prejudice [ ˈprejədəs ] (noun) Adverse judgment or opinion, often of a specific group of people, formed without knowledge of the facts and sometimes leading to hatred or suspicion



In any educational context, there is a wide range of interests as well as learning strengths and areas of difficulty. A specific learning disability can stand in the way of a student’s positive experience of school and learning. And, if the student does not receive necessary support, it can hamper academic achievement. Moreover, even when learning disabilities are diagnosed and children receive help, these students may face discrimination by teachers and their peers due to underlying assumptions regarding the meaning of intelligence. In this lesson, students will work toward understanding what it means to have a learning disability. The goal is make them aware of prejudice and discrimination aimed at those with learning disabilities.



  1. As a class, discuss what you think of when you hear the terms “smart,” “stupid” and “learning disability.” Your teacher will chart your responses in web form. (Note: After eliciting student responses to these terms, teachers might provide formal definitions, particularly for “learning disability.”)
  2. Listen to a passage from Patricia Polacco’s book Thank You, Mr. Falker. (Note: Students can also read it independently or in small groups.) As a class, discuss the experience of the student in the story and how it relates to the words listed above.
  3. Form small groups and write an imaginary interview with either Patricia Polacco or another student in Mr. Falker’s class. Your interviews should show how you are trying to understand what school is like for students with learning disabilities. As you work on these interviews, challenge yourself to talk openly with your classmates about your own experiences in school in relation to what you heard in the story. Consider ways in which you have seen discrimination or insults used against students with learning disabilities. How do people’s prejudices about intelligence and learning lead to such discriminatory behavior?
  4. Perform the interviews you wrote. Then discuss what the story and your small group taught you. Think about the different experiences students can have based on their strengths, challenges and needs.


Social Studies

  1. In your notebook or journal, describe a time when learning came easily to you. You may write about something in school, like learning to write a complete sentence; or something outside of school, like learning to swim; or something that happened both in and out of school, like learning to make friends. When you are done describing this learning experience, describe a time when learning has come with more difficulty. In both examples, use as much detail as you can. Describe your feelings, how other people reacted to you, and how you feel about this skill now.
  2. Form small groups, and share one or both of your stories. Listen to your classmates’ stories carefully. Then, as a group, create a poster with a T-Chart that shows, on one side, what it feels like and how people respond to you when learning comes easily and, on the other side, what it feels like and how people respond to you when learning comes with more difficulty.
  3. Hang your posters around the room and spend a few minutes doing a “gallery style” share. Walk around reading other groups’ posters. Consider common themes or ideas you find.
  4. As a class, discuss the idea of prejudice and resulting discrimination against people because of learning disabilities. Use your own examples and those of your classmates to think about how this sort of discrimination feels. Recall the definition of learning disabilities you discussed when you read Thank You, Mr. Falker. Talk about why our society might be more biased against people who struggle with some types of learning than others.
  5. After this discussion, return to your notebook or journal and reflect on what you discussed.  How do prejudice and discrimination against people with learning disabilities relate to other forms of prejudice and discrimination you know about? How are they different? How do you think we can fight against this type of prejudice and discrimination?



  1. As a class, recall the previous conversations you had about learning disabilities, prejudice and discrimination. Then discuss examples you have seen of prejudice or discrimination against people with learning disabilities in particular areas.
  2. With a partner, work to create a story strip illustrating a story of discrimination against someone with a learning disability caused by prejudice about intelligence. Make sure your story strip uses visuals as well as words to tell the story. Try to focus the story on how to fight against this type of prejudice and the discrimination that results. (Note: As students create their visuals, the teacher will want to circulate and make note of any racial or cultural stereotypes being represented. For example, are the characters who struggle at sports overweight? Are they all female? Are the characters who struggle with reading all racial minorities? The teacher will want to find sensible ways to make these prejudices explicit and bring them up in later reflections and discussion.)
  3. As a class, compile your story strips into a graphic ‘zine about fighting prejudice and discrimination against people with learning disabilities.
  4. In your journal or notebook, reflect on what you came up with in your story strip. Write about what you will do in the future to fight against prejudice and discrimination based on learning disabilities.
Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

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