The 9 Things People with Learning Disabilities Want You to Know
People with learning disabilities don’t want your pity or even your help. They want you to know that LDs are what they have, not who they are.
How often do you see two famous people with learning disabilities (LDs) in the same movie? Well, probably more often than you think. Since many people with LDs are creative and unconventional, it’s common for them to become movie stars, entrepreneurs, or athletes. Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, for example, who both appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, both have learning disabilities.
But the road to success is rarely easy, and an LD adds another dimension that can be a struggle. Keira Knightley describes her journey through school saying: “I was called stupid a lot by many lovely kids at school and that makes you pretty determined to learn to read and write and figure out ways around it, so I did.”
Orlando Bloom has used his own experience to advocate for children with dyslexia: “If you have kids who are struggling with dyslexia, the greatest gift you can give them is the sense that nothing is unattainable. With dyslexia comes a very great gift, which is the way that your mind can think creatively.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg spoke out when he was diagnosed with an LD at 60 years of age: “Being called to the front of the class to read was yet another day in a long series of days that were the worst days of my life.” Spielberg goes on to say that finding out that he had an LD was “the last puzzle part in a tremendous mystery that I have kept to myself all these years.”
For over 20 years, I have been around or worked with individuals with LDs, and I’ve heard what they want others to know. First is that they don’t want your pity. Instead they want you to take the time to become informed and knowledgeable about LDs. Here are some of the other things they would like the world to know:
1. “Actually, I’m really smart”
Individuals with learning disabilities have at least average and often above-average intelligence. In fact, many individuals have the dual diagnosis of being both gifted and LD. Susan Hamilton, a learning disabilities specialist, says, “It is a lonely existence to be a child with a disability that no one can see or understand. You exasperate your teacher, you disappoint your parents, and, worst of all, you know that you are just not stupid.” Being thought of as stupid when you know you are smart is the number one frustration that LDers talk about. It can leave a person feeling angry and demoralized.
2. “Don’t call me lazy or unmotivated”
Individuals with LDs don’t work in a linear fashion. Their route between “here and there” can be full of curves. Conventional teaching methods, or even standard expectations in life, may not work for them. Their neurocircuitry can “lock up,” giving the appearance that they just don’t want to do the work, when actually they are in a frozen state of overload.
3. “My brain is just wired differently”
LDs are a neurological disorder and are brain-based. There continues to be a great deal of study on the topic of LDs, but, simply put, the wiring in the brain is different, not wrong. The important bit here is that LDs are physical and as real as diabetes or heart disease, meaning individuals can’t simply “will” themselves to “get over it” any more than they could will a broken leg to mend. Many individuals have used this different wiring to become successful. Paul Orfalea, who founded Kinkos copy shops back in 1970, calls his learning disabilities a “learning opportunity.” In his case, his learning style helped him to see the big picture and not worry about tiny details.
4. “Don’t lump my LD in with others”
There are five main categories of LDs. Dyslexia is a language-based disability in which a person has trouble reading and understanding written words. Dyscalculia is a mathematical disability in which a person has a difficult time solving arithmetic problems and grasping math concepts. Dysgraphia is a writing disability that also affects coordination and fine motor skills, in which a person finds it hard to form letters or write within a defined space. Auditory and Processing disorders are diagnosed when a person has difficulty understanding language despite normal hearing and vision and nonverbal learning disabilities cause problems with visual-spatial, intuitive, organizational, evaluative, and holistic processing functions. If an LD is not properly defined, it can’t be properly accommodated. Giving someone with dysgraphia more time to complete a math problem is not going to help him to “get it.” He needs a different method. Daniel Radcliffe, who has dyspraxia, has trouble tying his shoes, He says, with a laugh, that his biggest lament is that “Velcro sneakers never took off in the fashion world.”
5. “Let me do it a different way”
“If a child can’t learn the way we teach, then maybe we should teach the way they learn,” said educator Ignacio Estrada. Think of this and try to picture knowing the answer to something in your head and not being able to get it down on paper. Now picture being able to answer the same question lightning fast if you were given an oral test instead. This is a daily frustration for individuals with LDs. Their knowledge doesn’t show in conventional ways, like on a written exam. In the end, it is not their knowledge being tested, but their ability to function according to traditional metrics.
6. “It’s not just between 8:30 – 4:00”
The idea that LDs start when an individual enters the classroom or the office is wrong. Using money, reading street signs, filling out forms, and keeping a room tidy all happen outside of work or school. LDs can affect the input and output of information, a person’s processing speed, organization, memory, and social skills. For some individuals “out of sight” is really “out of mind.” If this means that clothing needs to be visible for them to find their shirt and pants, they need open shelving for their room, not a dresser or closet where their clothes are hidden away.
7. “I’m not going to outgrow this”
LDs are not just a childhood thing. You don’t outgrow them. As defined by the Learning Disabilities Association of Canada, “the way in which LDs are expressed may vary over an individual’s lifetime, depending on the interaction between the demands of the environment and the individual’s strengths and needs.” But they don’t go away.
8. “It’s what I have, not who I am”
Having a learning disability doesn’t mean that an individual is learning disabled. It is a part of who they are and, with the right accommodations and supports, individuals with LDs are perfectly capable of learning, in the same way that someone who is blind can read using Braille. Tim Tebow, a former NFL quarterback who has dyslexia, says, “It has to do with finding out how you learn.” In his case, he made flashcards of the different plays as a way around struggling to try and read the whole playbook.
9. “Your good intentions can smother me”
Individuals with LDs are often treated with a mix of pity and irritation, when all they really need is the time to figure something out. Having someone hovering to help you doesn’t always work; in fact, it can be distracting and annoying. Likewise, can you imagine being really intelligent and yet being talked to in a demeaning way?
Your chances of knowing someone with an LD are pretty good, so become informed and shift your perspective if you need to. Don’t assume that learning disabilities are always a bad thing. For many individuals, an LD gives them a distinct advantage. As actress Salma Hayek says, “I may take a really long time to read a script, but I only read it once.”