Learning Disabilities, Shame and What Really Matters.

I have never been officially diagnosed with a learning disability, however I have had lifelong struggled with issues in a number of academic areas.

I’ll start with spelling. I’m lucky if I spell 50% of the words correctly when I write anything. The arrangement of letters or the grammatical rules of English make little sense in my head.  I can read fine, but if I try and read aloud I get easily confused and lost. I also insert words into the text, which I might do was well when I read to myself. I have trouble with pronunciation. I say words incorrectly all the time. If I I don’t correctly pronunciation of a word in the first time, I will continue to mispronounce that word forever.

Math is another area of difficulty and beyond simple addition and subtraction I cannot perform math functions without a calculator. For example, I can’t remember my multiplication tables past 5. My mind can’t line numbers up and has a hard time visualizing them. I managed to make it through college, but forgot the rules of mathematics as soon a learned them.

I also have a poor memory for most things. I have no real sense of time passing from year to year. Things that happened to me 25 or 30 years ago seem like they just happened a few months ago. Ask me how long I’ve lived in my apartment or how long I’ve had my cat. I have no idea. I have to look it up. I forget names and faces all the time. I also get months and times mixed up quite often.

I’m writing about this for two reasons. The first is shame. I have felt shame and have been shamed by others throughout my life because I can’t spell, do math, or remember things. My school report cards were filled with “not working up to his potential.” I have been laughed at, ridiculed and humiliated by my parents, teachers, peers and friends because of my inability to perform basic academic skills in ways that seem to come so easily to others. The implication of course has always been that I’m less intelligent or less of a person because I can’t do those things.

I have lived my whole life with this terrible sense of shame and frustration; always needing to explain myself or prove myself. And I recognize the same sense and shame and frustration from the participants of our adult transition and adult day programs. We are these unfortunate products of a system that defines our capability based on basic academic skills. It is really hard not to see yourself as a failure when measured against [arbitrary] academic standards and it is equally hard to muster up the energy to participate in activities such as reading or writing when you constantly fail at them.

Which brings me to the the second and more important point: The ability to read or write, spell, do math or remember stuff is an extremely limited way to measure an individual’s capability. I have sat through too many IEPs listening to parents fretting about their child’s inability to read or write and worrying about what the future could possible hold for them, while entirely missing all the amazing ways their child is adapting and succeeding despite their limitations. Isn’t adaptation and overcoming limitations more solid measures of capacity and progress?

We need to cut folks some slack here and stop shaming things many of us have no control over. It’s fine to see our limitations, but look at how deeply we are able live our lives despite those limitations. It takes a great deal of real human tenacity to overcome all of the obstacles placed in our way when we have trouble with the basic skills mentioned here  and add to sensory issues, add anxiety, add shame, add bullying. Overcoming takes a kind of strength and intelligence that I’m nor sure can be measured, but should speak volumes about how capable an individual is. This is what really matters.


[Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California].

One Response to Learning Disabilities, Shame and What Really Matters.

  1. raspycricket says:

    I absolutely agree – “academics” are a very arbitrary measure that rarely speaks to the individual’s actual ability, intelligence, flexibility, or strength of character. If anything, people who have “obstacles” to overcome, regardless of where these obstacles come from (ahem, societal structure), probably have a much stronger skill set when it comes to thinking creatively, not giving up, and working extra hard to get things done. It is a shame that we not only rarely recognize that fact, but also that we often shame people for their variation of being, as well as for how they adapt to a society that refuses to adapt to them.

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