Personal Experiences with Learning Disabilities: From the Mouths of Students

This past summer I worked with a group of upper elementary and middle school-aged boys, all of whom have dyslexia. I love to have small groups sometimes, rather than one on one tutorials, because the kids seem to love it and even the boys develop a supportive way with each other. A big part what they love about group work, is the sense of relief and camaraderie that comes from hanging out with others who have similar frustrations and hopes. There’s a kind of emotional and social safety that comes from learning with others who enjoy ideas and creating them, but also know the sensations and frustration of getting tripped up trying to remember how to spell “Tuesday,” or other basic things about the mechanics of language, sequencing letters or numbers, and the like.

We were sitting around talking and I asked them to list and describe positive things about how their minds work, and the things about having a learning disability, such as dyslexia, that are frustrating.

Here are some of their comments:

First, Positives and “things I’m good at”:

“Imagination”

“Fast reflexes;like when I’m riding a bike or trail running, I don’t have to think about what to do or where to go; I just seem to know.”

“I’ve noticed a lot of successful people have dyslexia.”

“Working hard makes you better.”

“If your teachers know you’re dyslexic, they can give you extra time.”

“If I have to work harder at schoolwork, maybe I’ll get used to working hard in life.”

“Because of my dyslexia, my parents and Sanford pushed me to type and use a computer. In the long run, I’m ahead of the game. I know technology and my classmates are just touching the surface of typing, and I’ve almost mastered it.”

“I’m better at making movies on my computer than just about all of my classmates.”

And,Negatives/Frustrations/weaknesses:

“It’s hard to read in front of people.”

“It’s like I stutter when I read out loud. My teacher will randomly call on people to read so I don’t raise my hand often. I also keep my head down and don’t look at her so I won’t get called on as often.”

“It’s really hard to memorize my times tables.”

“In math, sometimes with harder and more complicated math ideas I get it easier, but simple things like memorizing certain facts are harder.”

“I need to take my time. Sometimes my parents forget that when I’m rushed, I get slower.”

“Timed tests! Like multiplication ones, I never finish!!”

“I may remember what 8×4 is at night, but then the next day, it’s gone. Aurghgh!! Same thing with spelling some times.”

We have to know their experiences before we can help.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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23 Responses to Personal Experiences with Learning Disabilities: From the Mouths of Students

  1. Emily O'Connell says:

    Wow, big thanks to these students for sharing such helpful information! I wish my son, who is now 25, had been able to identify HIS “positives” and “negatives” so clearly when he was younger. It is really impressive that you can be so specific about what works and doesn’t work for you. Keep up the great work, and keep educating us all. Thank you again and again.

  2. Sarah Percell says:

    I would like to say that I am proud of these students sharing this wonderful information with the world. It is this kind of positive thinking that will help you succeed.

    When I was younger, it was a constant struggle to convince myself that there were pros to my learning differences. It was so easy to compare myself to my peers and feel inferior. Now, as a junior in college, I am extremely impressed with the younger students who are able to identify the pros in their learning differences. You all inspire me to continue searching for the pros in mine.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the world. Keep on being amazing!

  3. Sanford says:

    Emily, thanks.
    The thing that seems helpful is knowing oneself, right? Even though they can change, being aware of your weaknesses without over-identifying with them, and taking some responsibility for your successes and strengths/working to develop your affinities, is huge.

  4. Emily OConnell says:

    Sanford, exactly.
    Actually, I mentioned my son because of his LD, but the fact is that the self-knowledge these students exhibit makes ME envious, and I don’t have an LD diagnosis. Sarah is so right to point out that the future is bright for them because they can see their positive attributes as well as their weaknesses. And I agree that self-knowledge in general is, as you say, “huge.” These students are already ahead of most of their peers in this way, I am sure.

  5. Sanford says:

    Sarah,

    You hit the nail on the head.

    “When I was younger, it was a constant struggle to convince myself that there were pros to my learning differences. It was so easy to compare myself to my peers and feel inferior.”

    Sarah, focusing too much on comparing your weaknesses to some idealized version of how you’re supposed to be, especially when as a kid you’re surrounded by others who read and spell quickly and seemingly effortlessly, is a real drag around your neck.

    You don’t want to be in denial, but enough is enough, right? šŸ™‚

    Conversely, spending time on areas of interest and potential is as important as anything else.

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and thoughts.

  6. Sanford says:

    Emily,
    The recognition you bring to kids like these, for their own “pros” of their differences, is appreciated. The value you see in self-awareness is great.

    The ongoing challenge is that the schools many are in, spend such a disproportionate amount of time not supporting those strengths or worse, are ignorant of them. Equally damaging in a more subtle but still harmful way, is the “nice” way kids are placated with lip serving and brief mentioning of strengths, without substantive follow up.

    To tell a kid that they are good with ideas or that they are artistic, but then not provide real and sustained time and opportunities for them, is wrong. It is disingenuous and takes away the validity of the notion of strengths in the very kids we are trying to uplift.

  7. Nicolas says:

    Sarah,
    F.Y.I. I’m one of the students that shared my pros and cons. Thank you for letting me know that I’ve inspired you.

    By the way I’m in the 6th grade and I have learned to give it my all.

    Sanford’s helped a lot! But it was my hard work that payed off.

  8. Sarah Percell says:

    I apologize for such a late response. School has been really hectic but I wanted to take a few minutes to back.

    Sanford,
    Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to share my thoughts in such a great forum.

    Nicolas,
    I am very excited that you were able to share your pros and cons. Sanford does help a lot! I met him when I was in 5th grade and he has been a wonderful help ever since. Although, you are absolutely right, it is really all the hard work YOU put in that pays off! Keep up the great work! šŸ™‚

  9. Blake says:

    I’m another of the three boys that shared there pros and cons. Thanks Emily and Sarah for sharing about how awesome we were.
    I like and dislike my dyslexia. I dont like my dyslexia because I am a horrible reader, well maybe not horrible but not so good. But I practice so I’m better. I am in 6th grade now.

    Sanford is a great help and I still go to him. I love the fact that I bike better
    than most kids and ski race too, but I like helping kids learn how
    to ski. My dad is also a good biker too and he also taught me how to bike.

  10. Aislin says:

    Hi my name is Aislin. This summer I found out that I have dyslexia. I’m a freshmen in high school and I would like to tell you what happened in my Literature and Composition class. I have daily sentences that would be spelled wrong and we would have to correct them. On this Monday I got my sentences back and I got all of them right except I spelled the days of the week wrong, which made my score a 12/20 even though without the misspelled days of the week, it would have been a 20/20. So I went up to my teacher and talked to him and I told him I have dyslexia and its hard to spell. So he crossed out the 12 and made it a 20.

    I was very nervous speaking up but I knew that it wasn’t right if I didn’t say something. I have a better grade now and I feel good about the confidence and that I can stand up for myself more.

  11. Sanford says:

    Aislin,
    That’s awesome. Standing up for yourself will become a good habit. You can stay respectful and kind-hearted and still let people know what’s true and right.

  12. Kaysen says:

    I’m one of those three kids too!
    Thank you Aislin, I’ve been afraid to stand up like you. I have dyslexia too. I have a hard time remembering my times tables and its hard to read.
    So you’re not the only one with dyslexia.

    Keep up the hard work. I was wondering have things gotten better? I’ve improved in my reading though; a lot.

    Kaysen

  13. Aislin says:

    Hi Kaysen. That’s really interesting that you’ve started working on things like this at your age. It makes me think I wish I would have gotten started sooner.

    School’s gong well. Since I told the teacher about the spelling, he understands that I struggle with dyslexia. He has some ways to help me in class. When he has notes or slides on the board for us to copy he gives me a copy of his notes. That’s because when I copy quickly it usually get things spelled wrong.

  14. Terry says:

    Keep your heads up – young folks. I’m nearly 60 years old and dyslexic. I was not diagnosed until a much later age and as a consequence I’m only now completing my four year college degree.

    You have a great future ahead of you. Will it be difficult? Yes quite likely it will be, but I assure you it will be worth it. I

    had thought I was stupid when I hit college, but I discovered I thought differently than many of my peers. I left college and went to work at some of my dream jobs.

    Thus far I have had a great life, I have been a commercial fisherman, a public radio station manager, a legislative assistant and had my own business. I had that work because I can see things differently – just as you can. It is a pain to be different, but it is really what I call a “blessing”.

    My most recent position was working for an energy company. A very high priced attorney complimented my work, because it was comprised of original thoughts – something that many lawyers don’t excel in doing. No aspersions against attorneys meant.

    We with learning disabilities have a “gift” sometimes we don’t wish for these gifts, but we can take them and do wonderful things for this world.

    I’m very enthused and hopeful for you all, you have talents that you’ve not even dreamed of exercising yet. Full speed ahead to your future!

  15. Sanford says:

    Terry,
    Thanks for your encouraging words. Life is a journey, no matter what the learning style.

    You’ve managed to find work that fits you and have had interesting career variety as well. Part of my family has Alaskan commercial fishing (mainly salmon) work experience and history, by the way.

    I’m not sure about the “gifts” being part of the LD, but certainly getting past the hurt and shame of school is huge and then working hard at things you pursue is vital. Sometimes the downsides can be ultimately turned around for growth.

  16. Terry says:

    Thanks Sanford. I won’t argue the “gift” aspect as I appreciate that it isn’t something to be wished on anyone.

    I’m at a point in my life where I don’t mind blazing a path for those who have similar circumstances. I’m going to exercise my university president’s open door policy soon. I hope he is open to listening to what I have to say about increasing disability assistance.

    I was amazed at what resources are available for university students with disabilities, nonetheless, I’m astounded at how much more could be available for students with very little if any additional cost. I hope to leave behind an even better university for those with disabilities than when I entered those hallowed halls.

  17. laura cavalleri says:

    hope we can help change

    Dyslexia -The Business

    By Laura Cavalleri

    I have recently been posting harsh felt comments about the public schools teachers’ role in not being able to teach to dyslexic students, which is unfair,

    I would like to Propose our current usage and Commodity of Dyslexics and Dyslexia.

    In higher education the study of dyslexia and dyslexics has provided it own Unique field of study for over fifty years now and is still growing strongly. The business and usage of grants funding to continue studying this difference in brain usage has those in the field jobs for life, (I don’t mind them studying dyslexics just let those study’s really help the whole population of dyslexics now).

    In society as we know it there are good guys and bad guys and we need Protection from bad guys. Well Who will be our most Recognizable bad guys? Answer: Our public schools’ Drop Outs. This is a fact, Prisons are built based on this Equation, and the whole business of police, courts, judges, Correctional facilities, transportation and health care for these individuals is all tied up in a dyslexic student dropping out of public school. And these students do so because they were ashamed and not understood by their teachers and worst not helped by their teachers who weren’t taught how to teach Dyslexic Students in teachers college, ( now there’s where we can add new business growth). Dyslexics can be great leaders, and people will follow them, like Rex Ryan head Coach of the NY Jets or George Washington Father of our nation by popular vote, to the best and greatest Entrepreneur and Businessmen and women in the world, or a public school drop out turned gang leader on the streets of Chicago.

    To the idea that only some Dyslexics are Privileged enough to be enrolled into Private Schools for just only dyslexics with all the Wealths and benefits that only private schools can afford and Indulge is a business and a Segregation of the haves and have nots. Why is it that many of these Private establishments that have been in Existence of a couple of decades have only been Exclusively for the few that can and not for all Dyslexics?

    I am not Bashing the teachers but I am asking for their help, for it will be because of their support and love to teach and not to be failures themselves as teachers; but to learn as our teachers how to teach dyslexics; that it is with the greatest of hope and the strongest of pleas I ask that Teachers support Dyslexics students, support yourselves and help help change the society statement that for Decades that has been The Business of Dyslexia.

  18. Sanford says:

    Terry,
    You said, “…nonetheless, Iā€™m astounded at how much more could be available for students with very little if any additional cost.”

    I’d love to hear your ideas and thoughts on that.

    “I hope to leave behind an even better university for those with disabilities than when I entered those hallowed halls.”
    – Good for you and thanks.
    Sanford

  19. Terry says:

    Nothing remarkable, just some common sense changes which are merely different configurations of computers and their resources. The changes I’ll suggest don’t take much brainpower, just a willingness to put them into place. Universities are famous for creating a special set up just for almost every particular department. So every computer lab are now set up for the niche of the department and not for students with disabilities.

    My recommendations are principally for the Mac computers on many campuses, because they can be customized so easily and at least deliver a uniform menu so to speak.

    The dock on Macs can be placed vertically either on the left or the right side of the screen. It would be nice to permit a customization predicated upon one’s login and password. That way, when a user logged in, she or he would have everything placed on the proper place on the screen.

    I could have open dyslexic fonts set up as the default for those of us who would find them helpful. The dictionary would be place in the side dock, along with other favorite programs. A student would need not look for anything. A bit more programming might permit the defaults I’m suggesting be delivered at sign in no matter which Mac computer one signs into.

    I touch-type with a Dvorak keyboard layout. So, it would simply there ready to go after signing in, instead of the funky means of selecting it (and reselecting it again) on every new window opened on the Windows system.

    Merely having machines set up to permit those of us with disabilities to have reasonable and seamless access is within the realm of possibility and at almost no additional cost.

    Presently, the machines are configured to where one has to stumble through a maze merely to print a document. The university I attend, doesn’t permit printing from one’s personal computing device, be it a pc or mac laptop, an ipad, iphone or android. This is a very limiting circumstance, which needs to change. Presently it is highly user unfriendly even for those who have no disabilities!

    These are some changes which can come about, but it takes persistence to get them put into effect. What I intend to do is present some reasonable changes, which really don’t involve much expenditure to make docks uniform and put into place some standard configurations across campus. Not very much work, but a lot of discussion to get folks to understand the need and benefit.

    Hope this makes sense!

  20. Richard says:

    @Terry: Those are interesting suggestions and they’re excellent. Here are some things to consider on both the impact of the suggestions and what seems to be happening going forward.

    If a student is going to use speech, they need to have headphones with them so they don’t disturb other students. Speech input is another matter and my guess is a good number of younger students will have iOS devices with iOS 6 or later which does excellent dictation. If that’s the case then writing could be done on a portable device outside of a room where the sound would distract other students and then shipped over to the lab computer if necessary. Or, just forget the shared computer and work independently on the portable device.

    I’ve been a Mac user for longer than pretty much anyone I know (1984) and the number of people I know who use a vertical dock is three out of the thousands of Mac users I’ve met. Not sure I’d want to push that on everyone using a university computer. The configuration of the dock is a personal thing: it’s orientation and whether it hides or not. I like my dock to hide when not in use because I find it distracting and I prefer more screen real estate. But, others like it showing all the time. No two of us are the same that way.

    Do you actually use the open source dyslexic font? I ask because as a fellow dyslexic I find it nearly impossible to read. That doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful for some, but I’ve never seen any research that says it does a thing except slow people down because it’s tough to read. No harm in putting that font on a machine but the fact that a university does this condones that effectiveness of the font. Universities that I’ve been involved with would want to see some research. I’d love to see it myself.

    I touch type with a QWERTY layout and while I know the history of Dvorak and the history of QWERTY I would say that very few people even know Dvorak exists, let alone use it for touch typing. No problem making it easier to switch a keyboard to Dvorak but maybe this is an area where a student needs to own their own keypad and learn how to set up the system to work with it. Or, set up their portable device (iPad or Android tablet) with an alternative keyboard layout.

    What goes on the dock of a public computer is an interesting thing. Certainly the system dictionary belongs there at a school and whatever the prevalent writing tool is but I’m not entirely sure about much else. I think it would be better for students who need to set up computers in various ways (all different) to know how to do this themselves. It would be better if the disabilities services group on a particular campus made up a pamphlet with a checklist on it that went through the various ways a student might set up a computer to make it more accessible for him or her.

    In this way the student gets a skill that will follow them everywhere and they can learn to use off the shelf computers and other devices by learning to customize them.

    All of that said, the trend is to use personal, portable devices which make shared computers and all of this custom setup stuff almost obsolete. I can now talk into an iPhone, iPad or Android device and have it write for me, then edit the writing on the device and hear it spoken back. In this way I can use my own, personal technology and have it set up any way I like without relying on a shared device. This is the future I like best because it allows different set ups for different needs without forcing everyone into a particular set of needs.

    These are all great questions and your push for more work on making shared computers more accessible is the right place to focus energy. The particulars will get worked out in various ways to suit the students’ needs in each setting.

  21. Sanford says:

    Terry and Richard, thanks for your commentary and questions.
    Regarding the Dyslexia Font: I’ve tried it with students. Some like it, some don’t. The reasoning behind it seems solid but I’ve found no evidence that it’s universally useful. I do find that when I’m creating text on a presentation (Keynote), increasing the space between characters and between lines is useful. I imagine there are some semi-universal design truths about fonts and ease of reading but I also imagine there’s a range of individuality of preference and usefulness.

    I like the idea of customizing preferences triggered by user log ins. Isn’t that fairly easy to do? Maybe it’s not as commonplace as I’d thought.

    Most college students these days are probably using laptops with individual settings.

    Terry, keep up the good work as far as helping the university look more closely at accessibility and performance.

  22. Terry says:

    Thank you Richard and Sandford for the comments. Per the norm for me, I’m way behind on my reading and such and so won’t give a very lengthy response. I take your respective responses as wonderful to read. When I get some time I’ll more fully respond.

    For now, my nephew and I both find the opendyslexic font calming and consequently much more readable. It doesn’t surprise me that some dyslexics don’t find it useful, there is such a tapestry of different symptoms to these disabilities that surround us. I tried color acetates to help with my reading, but they didn’t do much for my abilities certainly nothing close to fonts. There are no pat answers for these difficult-abilities. However, we are seeing more and more possible answers to these heretofore highly challenging obstacles.

    I’ve asked Abbie, the Opendyslexic font guru, to consider doing the same weighted symbols for math equations. I think many with dyslexia (dyscalculia) might benefit from symbols with those weighted bottoms. Have to get back to my reading. Thanks gentlemen. Take care.

  23. Richard says:

    Terry: I think you’re right on the money with why the dyslexic font works for some: it has a consistent weight on the bottom of letters so that tracking is easier (for some). Many typefaces are built for easier tracking and there is no doubt that tracking is one of the problems almost all people with dyslexia have with reading.

    Some folks use a ruler to help them track (and block the next line), some folks use a finger. It’s all good.

    But, what’s interesting is that while dyslexia may be a lifetime given, one’s struggle with reading can lessen as one reads more, even someone with severe dyslexia.

    So where one is on the developmental spectrum of reading ability will determine how useful it is to slow one’s tracking and reading down, and as far as I know, there is no way to document this except to keep track of personal growth over time.

    It took me three years of intense daily work to re-learn how to read when I was in my late 20’s. When I started I was extremely slow, when I finished I was a lot faster although no where near as fast as I am today. So, for me, it’s possible that a specialized typeface would have been useful in the beginning but less so at the end where I was scanning wider chunks of text. I know know. But, I do know that it’s not a great idea to lump all of those with dyslexia or language based learning disabilities into one group and attempt to come up with a single recipe (technological or otherwise) for them.

    Again, this is great stuff for thought and I think learning how to customize one’s technology to suit one’s abilities is a great thing.

    Keep reading Terry, it will get better. By the way, keep writing too, your writing is excellent.

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