It’s so fascinating to me to track the different attitudes and perspectives about having a learning disability. On one hand there is one that implies that having a learning disability somehow means you are brilliant in some way.” Paraphrased, that one may also be stated something like “Being dyslexic automatically means you have inherent talents that are caused by your learning disability.” Sometimes that perspective grows out of a well-meaning response to its opposite; that having a learning disability means you are dumb, unintelligent, stupid. 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. It has nothing to do with intelligence.
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. You know the list.
(But, as we know, roses have thorns.)
Or, 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 60 percent of teens in treatment centers for substance abuse have learning disabilities?
Finally you have to land squarely in the middle of it all. It means we must be very mindful of both, and that somehow our children learn to step into an awareness of both. That doesn’t mean doing so unguided. Good care and proper timing are required. It doesn’t mean that we tell six year olds of the perils of drug use, anxiety or depression as co-morbid conditions or risks. Of course not. Yet, denial of a darker side, and overreliance on rosy pictures can in fact be a road frought with as much risk as being negative and without hope.
When we teach our children and teens, in developmentally appropriate ways, to know themselves, to stand in a mindful way, seeing their learning profile, with strengths and weaknesses, we help them progress further and into appropriate actions. True self-advocacy is based in a fierce self-knowledge. Learning when and why to challenge ineffective teaching methods is important, and is the result of this type of advocacy.
Over the years, I gotten so much mileage out of going over a pyscho-educational evaluation with students. It’s empowering and liberating to know the specifics of how one’s brain works. It turns out it’s quite helpful to understand what “rapid naming” or “phonological awareness” weaknesses means. When someone understands that their working memory is weak in the “phonological loop,” then creating an action plan to use a voice memo, or a Dragon app, to write things down, gains important traction.
By the same token a child or teen that moves from there (or in reverse order..better yet) to seeing their cognitive strengths is just as important. I remember a student who saw that her visual memory for icons and pictures was superior. She was delighted and it helped her to deal with her equally low scores in auditory working memory.
What happens when people are given truth about themselves? It takes the self-limiting and self-critical judgements out of the picture. Well, maybe not take them away completely, but it limits them, and begins the shift into accountability and strategizing. When you stop telling yourself you’re stupid (and sometimes, telling yourself “I’m brilliant” is a mask that covers up the fear of the opposite), you can become more free to work hard, take risks, to try different approaches, and to be more compassionate with your 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 the transient but nonetheless ‘shamingness’ of this type of struggle is what the 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 and, dare I say, even 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 is giving that 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.