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

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