For too long the perception society has of people with learning disabilities has been influenced by stigma. People like me who have dyslexia or other learning differences have had to confront these perceptions through lived experience as we attempt to avoid becoming another pejorative statistic. Ableism has shaped society in ways that are exclusionary but that can change. How we think of learning disabilities can change. Instead of seeing differences as an inconvenient complication we can strive to embrace them and celebrate the unique assets they give us as people. The deficit narrative that leads to exclusion and hostilities in many spaces needs to be dismantled. Our culture needs to adopt a mindset that acknowledges that differences are not problematic when they grind against our traditionally rigid conventions. Diversity is not the problem–our rigid ways of doing things is the problem.
I received a lot of negative messages about having a learning disability due to how I was treated and perceived as a student with an IEP. I struggled to reconcile my placement in Resource and then General Education classes in K-12 knowing that I wasn’t given the opportunity to thrive in strength-based programs. Often my energy was spent reconciling my own projections of what it means to be “normal” or exceptional with what I was really capable of. I also spent time squandering my potential in school trying to fit into educational molds that didn’t help me perform to the standard nor excel to my strengths. Sometimes the support I received was just another form of remediation. Much of my time was wasted by educators who seemed to think that fixating on managing the symptoms of dyslexia, through spelling practice and reciting multiplication facts, would make my deficiencies as someone with dyslexia disappear and therefore that would be synonymous with making me successful. These harmful attitudes and structures created a negative stigma around my disability. It was hard for me to understand what was valid and what couldn’t be believed. It has been incredibly hard for me to reconcile my weaknesses with my strengths because the support I received through my IEP revolved around my weaknesses, not nurturing my strengths.
I always felt left out and that something was wrong with me because I was never considered for gifted or advanced coursework. Instead I felt the pressure to conform and was afraid to challenge that because I felt I would be done for if I tried and failed, as I very well could. At one point the quality of my education was so poor in one of my general education classes that I opted to switch into the AP counterpart that was offered during the same hour after the approval of the AP teacher and my teacher of record. As a college graduate I now see that there was really no reason that a college-bound junior should have been kept from classes intended to prepare me for college. I was allowed in the class for a day before my high school counselor realized she made an oversight, not realizing I had an IEP at first. Once she noted I had an IEP she was quick to profile and remove me from AP Biology, going as far as to confirm my suspicions when she cited my IEP as the reason I couldn’t be in AP. I kept this experience to myself because I didn’t want my peers thinking I couldn’t keep up with advanced coursework. I went through the drain of multiple schedule changes and the emotional toll by myself, because I didn’t want to subject myself to the stigma and ridicule that may have come by discussing my IEP and dyslexia with others. At the time this scenario reinforced the message that I as an LD student didn’t belong in AP classes. I didn’t know if there was anywhere I did belong that would acknowledge and validate both my strengths and weaknesses in a way that would help me thrive.
Being one of the one in five individuals with a learning and/or attention issue should not be so lonely. I’ve come to know of and meet other people with learning and attention differences, and I realize that I am not the only one with experiences like these. Many of the issues I face are faced collectively by people with learning and attention differences– these are not isolated instances. While we are seeing more alternative spaces develop that include those with disabilities, they come with trade offs and not everyone is privileged enough to join them. We need to further incorporate equity for those with disabilities into education and society so all can be valued rather than marginalized.
I know better now neither I nor my dyslexia are a problem. Since I have dyslexia my strengths are unique as are my weakness. I strive to recognize that different isn’t bad and there are assets associated with being different too. I am not broken because I have unique strengths and weaknesses, and no one should feel as if they have to compromise their strengths because of what others see as a weakness. This is a possible reality. Equity is possible. There is a disability movement to build off of. Actualizing what is possible starts with dispelling myths about what people like me can and can’t do, nurturing our strengths, and removing barriers unnecessarily imposed by misled values. We need to affirm the worth of those with disabilities and reform harmful systems. It’s likely you or someone you know may fail to embrace their strengths because of the stigma and barriers imposed on people who are labeled “disabled” by our system. Don’t let that happen.
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