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.

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