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Kirk used “Learning Disability” before 1963

Posted Mar 16 2009 12:00am

I was fiddling around with a new feature of Google and thought I’d test its use on a task. Having just read the only entry in the proposed canon for LD (please add to it, folks), I thought I’d search for instances of the perpetuation of the myth that S. A. Kirk coined the term Learning Disability in 1963 in a speech to the group that would become the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (and, ultimately, the the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and of many other countries, too).

“But, everybody says that’s when he coined it, don’t they?” Not really. Some folks know that Professor Kirk and Barbara Bateman had already used the term “Learning Disabilities” in a paper published a half year earlier (and, given the delay between submission and publication of an article, they’d likely used the term at least a year before the famous meeting).

This analysis does not take anything away from the importance of the meeting in Chicago; that was a signal event, an illustration of the political clout of parents who rally around a common theme in the service of their children. That meeting was the beginning of what one might call the Learning Disabilities movement in the US and now the world. In fact, the LDA site doesn’t make the mistake about the birth of the term; it simply recounts the momentuous events that occured there and then.

Professor Bateman explained it correctly (and she should know) in her 2005 paper “The Play’s the Thing”: “The definition of LD, now controversial, was not an issue when the term learning disabilities was first introduced by Kirk in 1962.”

Anyway, I started a list of places where writers have perpetuated the myth that the term “Learning Disabilities” was introduced in 1963 at the Chicago meeting. Here are a few.

  • “Dr. Kirk’s most influential pronouncement was a speech he delivered to an education conference in 1963, when he coined and defined the term ‘learning disabilities.’”
    New York Times obituary for Professor Kirk.
  • “The phrase ‘learning disability’ was coined here in Chicago in 1963 by Kirk”
    Psychpage
  • “The term learning disabilities was first coined in 1963 by Samuel Kirk”
    2005 Newsletter of the Oregon chapter of Learning Disabilities Assocation of America.
  • “The term learning disabilities was first coined in 1963 in Chicago, Illinois, by Samuel Kirk,”
    Doris Johnson’s abstract for a plenary session at the University of Pennsylvania.
  • “The term learning disability was first coined in a speech that Samuel Kirk delivered in 1963 at the Chicago Conference on Children with Perceptual Handicaps.”
    S. W. Lee in The Encyclopedia of School Psychology (p. 290).

But, I really ought to give credit to those who got it right, who didn’t repeat the misinformation. Ahhh, but that’s another entry.

Bateman, B. (2005). The play’s the thing. Learning Disability Quarterly, 28, 93-99.

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