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

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 08, 2006
5 min read

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."

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."

In A Special Education, Buchman is unsparing in describing the mistakes she made. A critical one: silence. "We've only recently gotten better at talking about Charlotte's learning differences," she says. When the girls were younger, Buchman and her husband didn't know what to say, or how to answer questions, when it became clear that little sister Annie could do things-like read books, play board games, and participate in sports-faster and easier than big sister Charlotte. Today, Buchman wishes they'd started talking sooner.

You can make conversations about learning differences appropriate for your child's age, says Ann Miller, MSpEd, assistant director of education at the Stephen Gaynor School, a leading New York school for children with learning differences that Buchman's daughter attended. "Don't put labels on a child too early. For your children, 'dyslexia' or 'auditory processing disorder' are just words without meaning. Just begin by talking with them about what's easier for them to do and what's more difficult." As your child gets older, she adds, you can talk about how people have different learning styles, and what those learning styles might be.

"Just make learning differences a part of normal conversation. Say: 'You learn differently than other children, and we're going to stay on top of it and work with it. You're smart and beautiful and you will be a success and have a happy life, but you learn differently.' Spouses should talk to each other, you should talk with the child, and with their siblings. It takes away the poison and the anxiety, and you can learn to become more comfortable about it so that learning differences don't become a source of shame, embarrassment, or confusion."

Buchman also advises parents to teach their learning-challenged children to be their own advocates. "I've known parents who are unwilling to admit their children have difficulties, who do their homework for them. You have to support your child, but the child has to become a student of her own disabilities, learn what's hard for her, and how to speak out."

It was only in learning to cope with Charlotte's learning differences, Buchman says, that she finally came to terms with vulnerabilities of her own. In the high-pressure world of New York fashion, Buchman had created a persona she now dubs "Perky Perky"-focused, driven, with all her confusion and anxiety hidden under layers of armor.

"I began to realize how much we had in common. Recognizing vulnerability, imperfection, and messiness in Charlotte, I was able to say, 'Hey, I have that too,'" she recalls. "It was easier for me to say that it was OK that Charlotte wasn't an 'A' student-it was harder for me to say that about myself."

Buchman is well aware that most people who read her book won't have the kinds of resources available to someone with her career and connections. "One resource that's excellent is the National Center for Learning Disabilities-their Web site is a national resource that anyone with a computer can tap into," she says. All the proceeds from A Special Education will benefit the NCLD.

Another important source of support is other parents of children with learning differences. "I was all, 'No, not me, I'm fine!' I did talk to other parents about referrals to specialists, but looking back, I should have connected more on an emotional level. I think we all can benefit from talking with each other more about the impact on family life and the impact on us as parents."

Today, Charlotte is happy and successful in her first year at a college offering specialized programs for students with learning differences. "I'm so in love and proud and awed by who she is," says Buchman. "Every week, she's discovering more strengths ... It is unbelievable how much she has taught all of us. That's what the book is about-the amazing and surprising and wonderful result of this extremely difficult journey."