The River of having a disability

Photo of Niagara Falls New York By Michelle Steiner

My journey in the river of having a disability began in kindergarten. I was drowning in learning how to tie my shoes, perform math, and or even catch a ball. I was also struggling socially as well. The diagnosis was my lifeboat.

I had to repeat Kindergarten at a new school the following year. Upon arrival at my new school, I was given several flotation devices. I was given a raft for specialized instruction. I spent my mornings learning how to read, write, and do simple math. I was frustrated because I wanted to learn and it seemed impossible. I was floating, but afraid of going back into the water of regular ed. Eventually, I began to develop strength in reading and writing. 

Eventually, I was put into regular education for reading, science, and social studies. It was a life jacket of support. I had extended test time, and the test read aloud to me. Having those supports gave my brain more time to process information. I also was able to have the experience of regular education classes, which held me accountable to my peers. Eventually, I was in all regular ed classes except for math, and resource room.

Being in the same river with my peers was difficult. I often felt jealous that they were able to swim with such ease and didn’t need the supports that I did. I wanted to rip my life jacket off! I knew that if I did that then I would drown. Using the supports helped me to be successful and the water calmed.

The waters didn’t stay calm as I progressed through school. The next concern was what I was going to do after school, and moved into a bigger body of water. I knew I wanted to go to college, but many people thought I could not handle it. I often questioned this myself. Even though I was afraid and discouraged I pushed forward and decided to go forward.

When I got to college, I once again found the stigma of disability accommodations, that polluted my river. People were telling me that they gave me an unfair advantage. All I wanted to do was fit in and not have a disability. When I took off the life jacket, I began to drown. My grades plummeted and I became discouraged. Many people saw this and told me to try harder or that I could do better. Thankfully a professor in a class I was struggling with threw out the lifeboat and brought me back in. She suggested extra time on tests for her class. I took the advice and passed her class.

After I graduated from community college, I kept the life jacket on but longed for a life without it. I felt less than others and once again envied those who didn’t need one. I was able to move out on my own and have a job working with students. Due to financial reasons, I moved back with my parents.

When my job downsized, I decided that I wanted to try to go back to university. I found a program that interested me and had the least amount of math possible. I also used my life jacket and accepted other flotation devices that they offered such as extended test time, a note taker, and tutoring. Most importantly I let my professors know that I had a disability and advocated for myself. This experience in the river was much better. My grades improved and I made the Dean’s list for one semester. I didn’t take my life jacket off and ignored the stigma of others that swam around me. Putting in the effort and using the support let me graduate with my Bachelor’s Degree.

Today I work in a school with students with disabilities as a teacher’s aide. So many of my students want to take their life jackets off and swim like their peers. I gently encourage them to keep it on and that it’s okay that they have to wear one. How rewarding it is to help them!

I will always be in the river of having a disability. To survive I will need to wear my life jacket and use strategies to help me. I sink in the water when I don’t use these things. There will always be people I will pass that don’t need the supports or strategies that I need. Focusing on them or all the things I can’t do doesn’t help me. Focusing on my strengths is more empowering. I need to proudly wear my life jacket and chart my course.

Outside of the box of having a Learning Disability

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The greatest difficulty that I have had with having a Learning Disability has not been the disability itself, but the stigma that often surrounds it. I have learned to accept and find strategies to help compensate for my difficulties with math, visual perception, and limited hand dexterity. When I tell people that I have one, I get a wide variety of responses. I can learn, but I need a different approach because my brain is wired differently. When people restrict my potential and put me in a box too small, I am unable to expand to my full potential. Many people have told me that I do not look disabled or that I have too much success to have one. When people try to put me in a box that is too big, I may not be capable of fulfilling the demands of a neurotypical person.  Not being able to fit into a box left me feeling frustrated and upset.

I was fortunate to have legislation that was passed when I was a child that made living a life outside the box possible. I can remember being a young child watching the Americas with Disabilities Act being passed in 1990. The purpose of this piece of bipartisan legislation was designed to make accommodations for people with disabilities. I can remember watching this and wondering if it would impact my life. I knew that I had a disability and that many things were hard for me. In awe I asked my dad “Will this impact my life?” His response was “I don’t know.” Little did we know that The Americans with Disabilities Act would grant me accommodations to receive extended test time, note-taking, tutoring, and other accommodations on campus.

Even with legislation that took place, it was a challenge growing up in a rural conservative community.  Diversity was feared and not celebrated. The small school gave me little room to blend in. The community prided itself on being small and close-knit. It was clear from the beginning that I was not one of them and spent much time being rejected.

The difficulty with fitting into the box began at school where I struggled socially and academically. Socially it was hard for me to feel that I fit in with the other students. Everyone knew that I went to Learning Support to have tests read and to take specialty instruction classes. I found it hard to relate to my peers in the learning support class. Most of my peers struggled with reading and some had behavior issues. My difficulty was with math. I also had problems relating to my regular ed peers. Most of them did not view me as smart and lumped me with the Learning Support ones. The distance grew as I progressed through school and the peer groups became more defined. By the time high school came, I felt like I did not fit in anywhere.

Academically I did not feel like I fit into a particular box when we were discussing post-secondary goals. I knew that I wanted to go to college, but feared I would not be able to handle the work.   One of my teachers shared the same concern. She thought that college would not be possible and recommended a trade school. Many of my Learning Support peers were going and it was assumed that I would want to go too. None of the programs interested me and I decided to go to college.

After high school graduation, I faced more difficulties in fitting into boxes. I can remember I had to be tested for a Learning Disability again to receive accommodations at college. I am a poor test taker and scored very low on them. The Physiatrist wrote on my evaluation that I most likely would not go beyond a community college.

Once I was at college, I again had difficulty fitting into the expected box. I had a professor who told me that my job choices would be limited. I once again encountered the stigma of using disability accommodations on campus gave me an unfair advantage.  Due to the stigma that surrounded them, I did not use them and my grades dropped. Finally, a professor in a class that I was struggling with suggested getting extended test time. I was able to graduate with my Associate’s Degree in Early Childhood Education.

After community college I moved out on my own and found temporary jobs in child care and schools. I struggled with my identity as a worker with a disability. The career disability agency that placed people with disabilities into jobs did not know what to do with me.  Most of the people that they worked for had Intellectual disabilities and had skilled service jobs. I would go for jobs outside the agency and I find that I was either not qualified or could not get the job because I could not drive. I struggled at the jobs I got, to follow directions and few employers understood my needs.

Due to financial reasons I had to move back in with my parents. During this time a job of mine downsized, and I decided to give the university a try. I researched and found a program that was the service end of special education. Thankfully the program had the least amount of math possible and disability accommodations. I used the accommodations of having a note-taker, extended test time, and tutoring. Having the extended test time helped me to process information and the note taker enabled me to focus more on not having to write everything down.  I also began to advocate for myself and my needs.  Slowly the box that I was placed in began to dismantle. I focused on what I needed to do for myself and less on what others thought of me. I was able to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree despite being told that I could not do it.  I could have not done it without the mentors of accommodations and understanding professors who believed in me. Most of the instructors knew that I was truly trying and did what they could to help me be successful. A great deal of the support was encouragement. When the professors in my major knew that I had a Learning Disability they encouraged me not to give up and expressed how much they loved having me there.  Having support and encouragement helped especially when I was struggling in a class not to feel alone.

Today I work to encourage other people who have disabilities. I am a paraeducator in a school with students with disabilities. Listening to many of them talk is like hearing a recording of myself at their age. I often hear them say that they hate their disability and view themselves as not smart. I get the chance to tell them that having one is not a bad thing and that they have gifts and bring value to the world. Most importantly I teach them how to advocate for themselves. Many times, I will have a student that needs help but is scared to ask. I assist them in giving the steps on how to advocate. It is amazing to see a timid student become an empowered advocate!

Living outside the limitations of a box is not always easy or accepted. For the rest of my life, I will have people try to put me into a box or a category that they see fit. I cannot control what others will think or how they will react. I have accepted that I do not fit into a neat box. I pride myself on being able to think outside the box. Using this skill has helped me look for ways to solve problems in unique ways, that others may have not thought of.  I simply find new ways to do things and enjoy live outside the box.

Learning Disability Salad

By Michelle Steiner

Photo by Joost van Os on

Salad is one of my specialties. I love to make salads with mixed greens, strawberries, cucumbers, red peepers, and carrots. Many view a salad as a hunk of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber. Most people love my salad and ask me bring it to gatherings. Another major part of my life is having a Learning Disability. Similar to views on salads, many people think there is only one type and assume I have Dyslexia. Most people are astonished when I tell them that I struggle with math, hand dexterity, and visual perception. Few have heard of the term Dyscalculia and often in disbelief because they can’t see it. Much like salads Learning Disabilities come in a wide variety of types.

One type of Learning Disability is Dyslexia, which most people are familiar with. People with Dyslexia have difficulty with reading. Early signs that can occur before school include talking later, learning new words at a slower pace and forming words correctly. Other early signs include difficulty memorizing nursery rhymes or other rhymes, and recalling or identifying numbers and colors. In school students may read below their grade level and have trouble processing what is heard. Other difficulties in the school years are spelling, summarizing a story, or completing word problems. Many of my peers in ‘learning support’ had Dyslexia and struggled with reading and spelling.

Another type of Learning Disabilities is Dyscalculia. Dyscalculia is a math based disability. People with this have trouble understanding how numbers work, and process math differently. The issues with math go beyond a classroom. I confuse my right with my left. I have trouble totaling items in the store, giving a tip at a restaurant, and creating a budget. Simple tasks such as reading the face of an analog clock is impossible. Anytime that I encounter math, it’s going to be a challenge for me. It’s not that I’m not capable of learning math, no one hasn’t found an effective way to teach it to me. Sadly a calculator and tutoring are little help. What has helped has been using cash at the store, because it’s a concrete concept, rather than a debit card that is more abstract. I can visualize the money being spent and am able to get a range on how much I can spend. I also use my fit bit to tell time and count my steps.

Dysgraphia is another type of Learning Disability. People who have this struggle with writing. Some people with this may struggle with hand writing and spelling. Other individuals with this may have difficulty with expressing ideas in writing. My handwriting has always been a struggle. People often judged my hand writing as a character flaw, and labeled messy. Learning how to type helped me to be able to share my ideas with the world, without someone trying to make out my penmanship.

Auditory processing disorder is another variation of the salad. People who have this have difficulty with processing sounds and can have trouble filtering out where the sound is coming from. It can be hard to figure out if the noise is someone talking or simply background noise. The brain misinterprets information that it is hearing and causes confusion with learning and following directions.

Oral Written Language Disorder is another type. People who have this have difficulty understanding and/or expressing oral language. Individuals with this may also struggle to understand words’ order and meaning. If you switch the order it can make a different meaning. For example “The cat is on the mat.” is different than “The mat is on the cat.” Understanding and identifying when something makes sense is crucial to literary success.

Non Verbal Learning Disabilities are another type of disabilities that can effect a person. It’s important to note that this is not officially recognized on The DSM. People who have this struggle with things such as reading facial expressions, body language, visual spatial difficulties, and may have difficulties with eye hand coordination. People with this often excel at reading and other verbal skills. I have struggled with my visual perception with not being able to drive and coordinate my body. My eyes flinch whenever any type of object comes in my line of vision. The issue isn’t with my eyes but my brain. I also had a much easier time learning to read and writing stories. I gravitated towards studies that involved more reading and application, rather than numbers and memorization.

Learning Disability Salads can also include garnishes of related disorders such as ADHD, Dyspraxia, and Executive Functioning. It’s important to note that these are not Learning Disabilities, but are common with people who have them. Not everyone will have an additional disorder.

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder effects how a person focus and pays attention. Some people with this may always be on the move and have difficulty staying on task. Others who have it may zone out and appear to be day dreaming. Many people think that the person can’t pay attention, but the opposite is true. The person who has this focus on everything and struggles to block out distractions. Not being able to focus can have a impact on school and job performance.

Dyspraxia is another type of add on. Dyspraxia is a disorder that creates difficulty coordinating their physical movements, language and speech. I can remember struggling to coordinate my body in gym class and on the playground. I would flinch any time a ball came in my field of vision even if it was soft. I trip on air and people have labeled me as clumsy and unathletic. It can also effect small motor skills such as coloring and using scissors to cut out things. I can remember not being able to stay in the lines when coloring. When I cut things out I don’t make straight even lines.

Executive functioning is another topping to the salad, and is the CEO of our brain. When a person struggles with this it affects how they plan, organize, pay attention to details, and manage their time. If someone who struggles with this has a project they may struggle to take initiative to get the project started. Once they do get a start on it they may struggle to prioritize tasks and manage time. Many projects go uncompleted not because of lack of motivation, but because of difficulties in this area.

Learning Disability salad comes in a wide variety of forms and variations. Some of the salads may also have an extra garnish that can make it more challenging. Each person will experience this differently, even if they have the same salad. People who have them don’t get to choose the type of dish or any added toppings. Each salad may be different and cannot be treated the same either. Every variety brings beauty and uniqueness. What counts is not the plate one is given but how one chooses to approach it. Thankfully there are many strategies that a person can use to help them manage their lives, including salads.

Giving back

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From the time I was young, I knew that I wanted to have a job helping others. I gravitated towards careers such as child Psychologist and teacher. Another significant part of my life was having a Learning disability. I often wondered if it was possible to have the job I desired, with my struggles with academics, especially math. Through much support and accommodations, I have the jobs of a paraeducator in a school and a disability writer with my blog. Each of these jobs enables me to give back to others.

Empathy for people with disabilities is what fuels my motivation to do my job. I understand what life is like with having one. Each person will experience it differently, but there is common ground that only a person with one can truly understand. I can share my struggles of living in a world that isn’t disability friendly.

Encouragement is another force that drives me to do my job. I can remember when many people thought with my disability I couldn’t learn or handle college. Hearing those words discouraged me and fueled the fears that I already had about my abilities. I also had people who thought I could do anything that I put my mind to and nothing was wrong with me. People would further tell me that I needed to be positive and it would all work out. The toxic positivity approach did little to help me either, and many times caused me to feel worse about myself. I gently encourage my students to pursue their interests and to look for accommodations to use them. If the dream seems unlikely, I don’t crush their spirit by saying it’s impossible, instead I think of a backup plan in case it doesn’t work out as planned.

Education is another component of the work that I do. Many people don’t understand what a Learning disability is. In my writing, I talk about my experience with having a disability. I like to use metaphors using nature and other things to compare life with one. Often people will tell me that they can relate to my writing.  

When I’m working with students I educate them on the importance of accommodations such as extended test time and having the test read aloud. Often their responses are “I hate my disability” or “ I wish I didn’t have a disability or an Individual Education plan.” Hearing those responses is like hearing a clip from my past when I was their age. I tell them the importance of using these services and teach them how to advocate for themselves. Many times we have a student who was scared but is now confident and can speak up for themselves appropriately.

The reason I love my work is I get the chance to help others. I know the difficulties of having a disability but I can also share that there is also joy and fulfillment as well. I can also help educate people on what Learning disabilities are and how to advocate for themselves. I may not be able to help every person, but I will continue to work to give back to as many people as possible.  I love giving back to others through my work and couldn’t imagine a more rewarding job.

From trash to treasure the process of accepting my Learning Disability

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   When I was first diagnosed with a Learning Disability I viewed it as trash. I wanted to throw it away in the closest garbage can and be a neurotypical person. Little did I know that having a Learning Disability was not trash, but a treasure. My Learning Disability would be a gift that would help me and others with disabilities.

My Learning Disability was shaped by my frustration and how others viewed my disability. I was frustrated that I couldn’t learn how to do math no matter how hard I tried. I remember the torture of trying to read the face of the clock, going over math steps that I never mastered, and the endless flash cards. As an adult, I still can’t read the face of a clock and use a digital watch to tell time. I can do basic math problems. I only memorized a few math facts and if someone would randomly ask me a math fact I may not be able to tell you.

I struggled to coordinate my body in gym class and on the playground. My eyes also flinch when a ball comes in contact with my face no matter how soft it is. People would tell me not to be afraid of the ball. I wasn’t afraid of the ball but had little control over my eyes flinching. My peers thought it was funny to wave their hands in front of my face and watch as I would flinch.

In high school, I encountered other people who viewed my disability as trash. People would hurl hurtful words at me. My peers viewed me as dumb and an outcast. My peers and some adults thought that Learning Support classes and accommodations in regular education classes gave me an unfair advantage. I was told that we did easy work in those classes and that we were given the answers. When I made the honor roll people thought it was not fair because I had general classes and Learning Support.  

I am not able to drive because of my visual perception. Many people don’t understand that it’s brain-based not visual-based. I was told that getting glasses would help and didn’t understand when they told me that my eyes were healthy. I was told that I should be ashamed of myself for not driving. I had a guy break up with me telling me that he was tired of taking me places. He told me that I could drive if I wanted to.

Many people thought I wasn’t college material because of my disability. I was encouraged to pursue programs at the vocational trade school. Nothing at the school interested me and I decided to do college.

I began to view my brain as a treasure when I found things that I was good at. I may not be good at math but I am better at reading and writing. I may not be good at team sports but I can do boot camp, aerobics, and barre classes. I can get a ride or walk to where I need to go. Focusing on what I can do is more empowering than dwelling on what I can’t do.

Most importantly I learned that my brain works differently. I can learn but I need an alternative way to do things. Accommodations such as extended test time, having a note taker, and other adaptions help me in school and life.

Learning new ways to do things is a treasure for me and the people with disabilities, I interact with. I work as a paraeducator in a school. I work with students with disabilities who view them as trash, not a treasure. I remember sitting in the same place that they did so many years ago. Learning to accept my disability has been a process. Not having a disability would make life easier, but I would be sad to give up the part of me that I have learned to treasure. I don’t like everything that has happened to me but I love the person it has made me into. What I once viewed as my trash has now become my valuable treasure.

Making Peace with having a disability

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Doves are often associated as a sign of peace. Many times they are released at funerals or other events to encourage peace. It is considered a good sign when you see one at your door indicating a time after a difficult situation. Much like the tranquility the dove brings, I have had to make peace with having a disability. Seeing this bird doesn’t indicate that my disability will be gone, but how I view it has been healed. Finding this serenity has been a process where I’ve had to surrender many situations one at a time.

Accepting my mind was wired differently was the first thing I had to make peace with. For so many years I wanted to learn and be like everyone else’s mind. Little did I know that everyone thinks differently. A person who has neurodiversity has physical wiring that causes them to learn differently and needs unique strategies to be able to thrive. I didn’t want to use accommodations for extended test time or specialized construction, but I wanted good grades. I had to learn that if I didn’t use them, passing grades wouldn’t happen, or if I did, it made it more difficult.

Knowing that there were some things that I simply couldn’t do, even with support was another thing I had to make peace with. I often thought if I put in the work I could conquer math or get perfect grades. Putting in effort and trying did help to improve things but to a limited extent. I would spend time memorizing math facts or using a calculator and still not get the problem correct. Other things such as driving, could be a possibility, but not the wisest choice. I could study for the test but couldn’t operate the car safely. It’s more empowering for me to focus on what I can do and use other methods to compensate for what I can’t do.

I had to make peace that not everyone will understand or support my decisions related to my disability. For so many years I wanted the approval of others. I felt that I needed to apologize and explain the reason why to everyone. It was a great source of frustration when others didn’t get it. Some people are indifferent to it and others have used it to bully me because they knew it was a sensitive subject. Others have also given me advice that was well meant but didn’t apply to the situation. I can remember someone advising me to take a summer course in math. I was already struggling to retain information. Others have suggested glasses for my visual perception, but not realizing the problem was in my brain, not my eyes. Many times, people would get upset when I didn’t follow their suggestions, knowing they wouldn’t help me much. People often asked why I used certain supports and considered them cheating. It was more beneficial for me to find out what worked for me and to do it, rather than try to plead my case for others.

Until I made peace with having a disability, I couldn’t enjoy the life that I do have. Life with having one may be different but not less. I let go of the things I simply can’t do and focus on what I can do. If you hold a dove in your hand, it will be limited in what it can do. The bird will want to wiggle free and fly to bring encouragement to others. If I don’t make peace with my disability, I am limited by the constraints of what I can’t do. I’m trapped and can’t bring joy or hope to others. When I finally let go of what I can’t change, I free myself and bring that freedom to others. I didn’t get to chose to have a disability, but I can make the choice to make peace with it.

How my disability has made me stronger

By Michelle Steiner

“Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.” Eleanor Roosevelt
Photo by Leah Kelley on

One of my greatest passions in life is tea. I collect many teapots and tea cups. Every evening my husband and I enjoy a cup of tea together. I love to boil water in my blue butterfly tea kettle and hear the whistle singing its song. For the water to boil it must reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the water reaches this high temperature, I’m able to pour it into a cup and add my tea bag. Once the tea is in the water, the magic begins. The bag doesn’t break despite the hot water, instead, it infuses its flavoring into the cup and creates a delightful drink. Another significant part of my life has been having a Learning Disability. Having one often puts me in hot water and began to make me a stronger person.

I get into hot water any time that I have deal with math. Math remains to be a foreign language to me. My brain doesn’t comprehend how numbers work. I often miss the steps of how to complete the various steps of problems. I have had teachers patiently explain how to solve them and yet I just can’t get the concept. I can remember doing many flash cards and still not memorizing all of the facts. I’m also clueless when I have to read the face of a clock. I can see the numbers and the handles, but can’t tell you what time it is.

My trouble with math goes beyond the classroom. I get myself into scalding water when I go into the community. It’s always a mystery on how much my items total when I get to the register. All I know is that it has certainly gone up in recent days. Using a debit card is an abstract concept. When I use cash it is a concrete concept and can see the money that I’m spending. I still can’t calculate how much I’m spending, but I have a better idea.

Another way I get into hot water is when I have to give directions. It’s a challenge for me to understand directional terms such as South, East, West, and North. I struggle with giving and processing directions when they are given to me. I’m unable to tell someone how to get to my house. I can give a few landmarks and my house number but can’t tell you much beyond that. Many people don’t understand why I can’t do this. I have had strangers ask for directions and have had to tell them that I’m bad at giving directions. Most people have been okay with this but some haven’t been. I remember a man who asked me for directions to a restaurant. I told him “Sorry I’m bad with directions.” Another person near me was able to guide him. The man then turned to me and said “See it’s not that hard.” It may have not have be difficult for the person who could give directions, but for me it is impossible.

I also have trouble understanding when people give me directions. People will give me them and I will get lost. I can hear the words but have difficulty visualizing what they are saying, especially if it’s one that I haven’t visited before. It’s helpful for me to arrive a few minutes early and be able to figure it out on my own.

I also get into hot water when I have to learn a new task or skill. I don’t pick up on new concepts quickly. I will write down directions but forget the steps. I remember starting a job and being given a manual on entering information into the computer. I read the manual over the weekend but struggled to enter the information correctly. I can remember my supervisor accusing me of not reading it. I have other people who think I don’t get things because I don’t pay attention. For me to learn, I have to teach myself. Instead of reading a guide on a computer, I need to explore for myself how the features work.

Not driving has also put me into boiling water. It can be quite a predicament, when I need to go somewhere and don’t have a way to get there. I have had to turn down jobs that have either required a driver’s license, or have been too far for me to commute to. I have family, friends and coworkers who can give me rides. Living in a central location also helps me to get to places independently.

My handwriting also lands me in hot water. It’s hard for me to make my handwriting legible. I’ve struggled with this since I was a young child. I cried my way through the Handwriting without Tears curriculum. People have judged my character based on my penmanship. I have been told that it looks like a serial killer or has labeled me messy or dumb. Learning how to type was a game-changer for me. Finally, people understood what I wanted to say and didn’t have to interpret my writing!

Having a disability often puts me in hot water. I may not be able to control having one, the hardship of the circumstances, or other people’s actions. All I can do is be immersed in the heated water and handle the task at hand. Throughout all of my struggles with having a disability, being in hot water may have burned me, but it hasn’t destroyed me. Instead, such conditions have caused me to be resourceful and resilient. I also learned to work hard. It has taken many years to find the right blend, that can withstand the scorching temperatures, that I face, but I have found varieties that work. I’m not a weak cup of tepid tea, but a strong tea with a powerful punch!

Having motivation with a disability

The question should be is it worth doing not can it be done.

Alderd K Lowstein
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Having a Learning Disability has often forced me to confront my limitations at a young age. Most children have many big dreams and view their potential as unlimited. Many of them have success and think that anything is possible. I spent a great deal doubting myself and my abilities. I struggled to understand basic concepts that my peers seemed to master with ease. I thought that life would always be hard and I couldn’t have success in my life. Thankfully I have found strategies that don’t cure my disability, but help me to compensate with having one. In school some of them have included a note taker, extended test time, having the test read aloud, tutoring and calculator usage. Having these accommodations helped to me be able to process information and learn the content better. Once I found ways to compensate for my disability, it opened up a new world possibilities. I began to relate to the quote by Alderd K Lowstein “The question should be is it worth doing not can it be done.” As I grew it was more of question of not could if it was possible but was it worth my time.

During college I had to make wise choices about what I wanted to study and the type of job I wanted to have in the future. Many people thought that I couldn’t do anything and didn’t think that college was possible. Many professionals thought that my education and job choices would be limited. They didn’t they that college would be possible and suggested trade school. Others thought that there were not limitations and I could be whatever I wanted to be and pressured me to become a certified teacher. I knew that with my poor test taking abilities, that going through the certification tests, needed to even get accepted into certain programs, wouldn’t be the wisest choice. There was a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to pass them. Instead I decided to study Early Childhood Education and work in either a childcare or a school setting. Some people thought that this was taking the easy way out, but it was far from simple. I struggled to get through many of my classes. Much of the struggle was because I wasn’t using the accommodations because of the stigma that they created. It was difficult but I was able to get my Associates Degree in Early Childhood Education.

I also had to use wisdom when I went to university. I had people who thought that I should try to get a job after I lost my job at a school to downsizing. People told me that I already had a degree and didn’t need any more education. I found a program that interested me and had the least amount of math and Science possible. Most importantly it had disability accommodations that I used. Using disability services were effective in helping me be able to learn and process information. At university I had people who once again thought that being a teacher was what I supposed to do. I remember a person saying that if I just got it together I could do it. Hearing this frustrated me and saddened me. I knew that this wouldn’t be a possibility and chose to a program that focused on the service end of disabilities, rather than teaching. Studying this program helped me to thrive. My grades improved and I found a renewed sense of purpose. I also had a greater understanding of my disability and other types of disabilities. I was able to get my Bachelors Degree.

It was also important when I got jobs that I carefully took my abilities and the job itself into consideration. Many people took my fears about performing at a job as not wanting to work. I had well-meaning individuals suggest unskilled labor jobs such as fast food, stocking shelves, or assembly positions. People thought that they would be easy and couldn’t understand why some of them wouldn’t work out for me. I knew that my slow processing speed couldn’t keep up in a fast-paced environment of retail or a fast food restaurant. My mechanical reasoning and hand dexterity skills made assembly jobs impossible. I can also remember jobs that didn’t work out because I couldn’t pick up on the job fast enough or not having the right accommodations at the job. It took a long time to find one that is the right fit for me as a paraeducator in a school.

Another wise choice that I had to make was transportation. I’m unable to drive because of my visual perception. Many people thought that I could drive if I really wanted to. People would ask me if I was driving yet and said that I would want my independence. The issue isn’t in my eyes but in my brain. My brain has trouble coordinating movements and my reaction time is delayed. If I drove I would be worried that I could not only hurt myself but others as well. It wasn’t worth putting my safety and the well-being of others at risk, simply to have a license. Instead of driving I can get rides from people or walk where I need to go.

Choosing to live in a central location was another decision that I had to make. I knew that by not driving, being in a rural area wouldn’t be a wise choice. I’m blessed to have rides to where I need to go, but at times when my ride is unable to take me, I may be without transportation. I need to have another plan when I can’t get a ride. Living in a central location helps me be able to walk to the store, the gym, or wherever else I need to go.

Having a disability has caused me to have to make choices in all areas of my life school, work, and home. Despite having success in many things some things are simply not possible. It’s not worth the time and effort to invest time and effort into things that can’t do. Dwelling on what I can’t do is frustrating and defeating. When I focus and put my energy into what I can do I feel accomplished. It can be scary to try something new with a disability. The fear of failure always looms in the back of my head. The best way for me to confront this is to remember that I have the choice to decide if it’s worth it or not. If I decide to pursue the task at hand, I know that I will put all my effort into it. My Learning Disability was good for creating a strong, hardworking person. I just need to seek what is worth doing and find a way to do it.

Blooming in my own time with a disability

By Michelle Steiner

“A flower doesn’t think of competing with the flower next to it, it just blooms” Author Unknown

One of my greatest passions is growing flowers. I love to watch many growths blossom from the ground. The blooms grow alongside each other in harmony. They don’t worry about who is blossoming the quickest or who has the biggest blooms. When I was a young child I wanted to find my talents and shine. It seemed like all of my peers were good at something. Some of my peers were good at academics and were considered smart. I struggled with school and often didn’t feel smart. Other peers were amazing athletes, and shined in gym class. I struggled to coordinate my body and would flinch when a ball came near me. I tried to compete with my peers and was disappointed when I wasn’t successful.

My parents assured me that there were things that I was good at and were quick to point out what I could do. I will never forget my dad reading a story about a dinosaur I wrote as a young child and saying it was good. I also had people tell me that I was a good reader and speaker. Hearing those words of encouragement helped to guide me into the person that I am today.

Competition has also hurt me when people have compared my progress with others. Many times people will look at me and don’t think that I have a disability. My disability may be hidden, but it still creates limitations. Many people don’t understand that everyone experiences a disability differently, even if they have the same type. Some people with Learning Disabilities struggle with reading, while others struggle with math. When you meet one person with a disability, you have essentially met one person, and not an exhaustive list of people with it.

Much like the flowers I love to tend, I had to learn to bloom in my own time. I no longer wish to have the skills or talents of another person. I’m quick to encourage or applaud another’s good work when I see it. I generally peruse the things that I enjoy and am good at. I’ve learned not to waste time trying to engage in a futile pursuit of competing with another person or taking on an activity to be the best. Instead, I’m my own competitor. I set goals and try to be the best version of myself. The motivation for competing with myself is not to be better than someone else, but to make myself a better person.

Not competing with others has also improved my relationships with other people. When I tried to compete with others I spent more time being frustrated, angry, and envious of the other person. Competition left more animosity, rather than peace with other people. When I dropped the competition and acknowledged the strengths of others, it built the other person up. Others also saw the strengths that I had and encouraged me.

Competition is not entirely evil or entirely unavoidable. Certain things such as school, jobs, or awards mean having to compete against other candidates. Learning how to manage competition is key. I have things that I’m good at, but there will always be someone better and worse than me. I simply need to do what I’m good at and ensure that I’m doing my personal best. I also have to acknowledge the achievements of those around me. I will bloom and thrive in my own time alongside the blossoms of other people.

The winter forest of having a disability

By Michelle Steiner

Photo by Michelle Steiner

During winter, my husband and I love to hike in the woods. We put on our warm coats, boots, hats, and gloves and explore many trails. The journey during winter is much different than during spring and summer. The weather is much colder and fewer things are growing. Gone are the rainbow of colorful flowers and the canopy of leaves from the trees. Not all life is lost though. Some plants and trees such as Holly Berries and Evergreens can endure harsh conditions. Having a Learning Disability has often felt like walking through a forest. I have had to walk through this during all seasons, but the winter can be the harshest and the most hopeful if I look for it.
The Evergreen tree always remains green year-round. The snow or freezing temperatures won’t stop the tree from being a lovely shade of green. Despite the wind, the tree roots remain firmly in the ground. Evergreens also have different uses for the seasons. During the summer they provide shade, but during the winter is when the real magic begins! People often decorate them for Christmas. Similar to the roots and color of the Evergreen, my disability remains. For so many years I hated it and wanted to cut the tree down. I had deep roots of insecurity, shame, and sadness. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t chop it down or untangle the roots. I didn’t realize that the roots had value to them, strengthening other trees around them. 
Evergreens also come in a wide variety of trees. Some of the trees are short and others grow tall. All of them produce pine needles and cones. Learning disabilities are also similar to Evergreens. There are many different types of this disability. Some people with them have trouble reading and others struggle with math. Others have difficulty processing what they hear or how they speak. When you meet one person with one, you have simply met one person. Each person experiences it differently. Many times, when I tell people that I have a math-based disability, people don’t believe it! They think that I must struggle with reading because that is the only type they are aware of.
Holly shrubs are another thing that grows despite the cold. Beautiful bright red berries burst forth against green leaves. I often felt that my disability made me stand out like a scarlet holly berry. The small school district that I went to made it impossible to hide. Everyone knew that I went to learning support for classes and to have support services such as extended test time. The tiny town didn’t appreciate diversity and feared those who were different. The community was often described as close-knit, but only if you were one of them. It was clear from the beginning that I didn’t belong and stuck out negatively.
Interestingly the berries that a holly shrub produce can only be produced by female shrubs. Learning Disabilities don’t discriminate and affect people of all genders, races, and socio-economic backgrounds. I may have felt alone growing up, with having one, but they are quite common. It is estimated that 1 in 5 people have a Learning Disability. I didn’t realize this growing up. I didn’t know any other individuals with them except for the other learning support students. Most of them struggled with reading, not math. I also didn’t know successful adults who had them either. Thankfully as an adult, I have had the chance to meet other people who have them. Not knowing that I’m alone has given me a sense of comfort.
Having a Learning Disability wasn’t initially the path that I wanted to walk. Winter may not always produce the best walking conditions and isn’t the easiest season to be in. Nevertheless, I continue to walk, no matter what the conditions. I’ve also learned that like the steady Evergreen, I will always have a disability. I’ve learned to work with this tree and appreciate all the varieties that are out there. I’m also not ashamed of the crimson holly berry of having a disability. I’ve been told that red is my color and that it compliments my fair skin and dark hair. I’m no longer ashamed of my disability, but view it as a symbol of pride. Life is too short to live cowering in a dark corner of the world. I may not blend in but embrace standing out. I chose to stand steady as the Evergreen and be as vibrant as a Holly berry bringing color to a bleak winter forest.

Photo by Michelle Steiner