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Label Conscious

Fashion designer Dana Buchman refuses to brand her learning-challenged daughter as disabled-and she wants to educate others to do the same
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WebMD Feature

In 1985, Dana Buchman had it all. An emerging fashion designer with a red-hot career, she'd just been asked to design a women's clothing label under her own name by her mentor, Liz Claiborne. Buchman and her husband lived in a glamorous loft in Manhattan, where they had just welcomed their first child, Charlotte. Everything about little Charlotte seemed perfect-just like Buchman's life.

But when Charlotte was a little over a year old, Dana and Tom realized that they could no longer deny something wasn't quite right with their little girl. She had never crawled and still wasn't walking at 15 months. After their second daughter, Annie Rose, was born when Charlotte was not quite 2, the clear differences in the way the girls had developed led Buchman and her husband into a maze of therapists, doctors, and tests to try to find out what was wrong. Finally, at age 4, Charlotte was diagnosed with a host of "learning disabilities," a term Buchman now avidly crusades to rename "learning differences."

For the hyper-successful Buchman, the news came as a shock. "I suddenly saw my baby as not like other kids. Different. 'Disabled' is what the diagnosis said. It felt unfair." How Buchman and her family learned not only to cope with but also embrace Charlotte's learning differences is the story of Buchman's first book, A Special Education.

The "special education" of the book's title was not Charlotte's, but her own. "I had to learn how to open myself up to other ways of success, other forms of happiness, other forms of intelligence than the standard ones," she says.

A talented, creative artist with an instinctive charm and warmth, Charlotte, now 21, continues to struggle with things like numbers, direction, and organization. Her original diagnosis included "language, fine-motor, visual-motor, and sensory-integration difficulties." Through it all, Buchman learned to appreciate what was just as important as high scores on standardized tests.

"By opening myself up to what was unique [about Charlotte], I was able to see her in new ways," Buchman says. "My biggest mistake was that I was so interested in 'fixing' her that I forgot to see the whole person sometimes. Charlotte is not her learning differences. They occupied so much of my attention that I would often forget that: She's not her LD, she's a whole human being."

Learning Curve

Charlotte is just one of some 4.6 million children diagnosed with learning challenges in the United States. Roughly 7.5% of American children between the ages of 3 and 17 have been assessed as having some type of learning difference, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

But they're not all the same. "It's different for every child, and each child's specific issues emerge over time," Buchman says. "I wish I had known this at the beginning, that understanding her learning differences was going to be a process. It's not like being told you have the flu."

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