Finding Joy With the Struggle of Learning Disabilities


I’ve been tracking and have been a part of the changing attitudes about learning disabilities for decades. Historically there’s been two major paradigms, two lenses through which people think of LD and in particular kids and struggling teens. On the one hand there’s been a growing perception that in spite of all the school struggles, having a learning disability somehow meant you are brilliant or gifted in some way. It’s been suggested, implied or stated as fact that being dyslexic for example automatically means you have inherent talents that are caused by your learning disability.” That perspective grew out of a well-meaning response to its opposite; that having a learning disability meant you are unintelligent. Disentangling LD from IQ means just that: There’s as much incidence of dyslexia in people who score high on IQ tests and those who test low/lower. Of course, dyslexia and related learning differences have nothing to do with intelligence per se. There are inherent possibilities for unusual strengths and talents that may be connected to learning and brain based differences. However, since there is so much variety in the human experience, it’s hard to say with any assurance that having dyslexia confers automatic and specific strengths. I know people with dyslexia that are incredibly talented in the arts and other visual or spatial activities, engineering, surgery and sports for example. But I know an equal number of dyslexics who aren’t.

So what is it to be? Where and how do we advise and empower children who have real struggle because of LD issues? Do we focus on the rose and adjust their sights on the powerfully successful and wonderfully well-known celebrities of the LD spectrum? You know, Charles Schwab, Walt Disney, Agatha Christie, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Philip Schultz. You know that list.

However as we know, roses have thorns.

So, do we focus on the risk and the turmoil of failure, by looking to the prevalence of illiteracy in the prison population or the stark reality that upwards of 40-60 percent of teens in treatment centers for substance abuse have learning disabilities?

In my opinion, you have to land squarely in the middle of it all. This is not the middle in order to be safe or because of a lack of conviction. It means we must be very mindful of both, and that takes courage to feel the joy and the pain— And that somehow our children learn to step into an awareness of both. I believe we teach them the idea that nothing is beyond their reach but that it takes hard work, focus and opportunity.

When we teach our children and teens, in developmentally appropriate ways, to know themselves, to stand in a strong and mindful way, seeing their learning profile, with strengths and weaknesses, with risks and opportunities, we help them progress further. True self-advocacy is based in fierce self-knowledge. Learning when and why to challenge ineffective teaching methods is important, and can result from such advocacy.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage in service to children and adults from going over and demystifying a good pyscho-educational evaluation with students. It can be illuminating and liberating to know the specifics of how one’s brain currently works. It’s helpful to understand what struggles in “rapid naming” or “phonological awareness” means. When someone understands that their working memory is weak in the “phonological loop,” creating an action plan to use a voice memo, or a dictation app, gains traction. That may sound odd or nerdy but it’s true. Shining the light on the data and illustrating it all with simple explanations and examples lessens the resistance to change and growth.

By the same token a student that is now able to put their learning challenges into a better, fuller context can then begin understanding and owning their cognitive and/or personality strengths. I remember a student who saw that her visual memory for icons and pictures was in the superior range (96th percentile). She was delighted to hear how unique her ability to hold onto imagery was. She was used to hearing vague platitudes from her parents that she only half believed. Hearing the details of that 96% helped her feel her strength. It also helped her to accept and understand her conversely low scores in auditory working memory. See, it all worked together. Real self-knowledge is power.

What happens when people are offered truth about themselves? It slows down and minimizes the self-limiting and self-critical voice in their head. And believe me, it’s there. We are and they are freer to work hard, take risks, try different approaches, and to be more compassionate with one’s own self. Aren’t those the qualities we want for ourselves and our kids?

For most people, having a learning disability means enduring all sorts of crappy experiences in school. That’s six hours per day for many kids. Putting up with ‘shaming’ moments day after day, is what Buddhists describe as effectively dealing with “dukkha”, the appearance of suffering in daily life.

When you deal more directly with that reality, you’re more able to experience and be open to the good stuff, the joy of learning and living.

A wonderful example of that was Vedran Smailovic, the cellist from Bosnia who played in bombed out places of Sarajevo (former Yugoslavia) during their siege. While acknowledging the cruelty of the bombs and war (the images of the bombed out buildings), yet not giving up his capacity for hearing and playing beautiful music, he became a worldwide inspiration. Images of him playing his cello surrounded by bombed out buildings are striking.

Giving your attention only to the dukkha, the struggle, is giving it too much power. To live in denial of it, does the same.

From the poem “A Brief for the Defense” Jack Gilbert writes:

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.

And, he continues:

There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta…

We must admit there will be music despite everything.

About Sanford

Learning Disabilities specialist and Educational Consultant
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