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