“You don’t look like you have a learning disability.” “I would never have guessed that you had a learning disability.”
The one in five individuals who have learning or attention issues, like my peers and I who serve on the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, hear these comments all too often. It’s frustrating evidence that some in society have an “image” of what individuals with learning disabilities should look like or what they should be able to accomplish.
Neurodiversity is one type of diversity — a category that doesn’t occur to most people when they think of the definition of “diversity.” But disability impacts each person in different ways. I have defied other people’s ideas of what disability looks like: With hard work, determination, and support, I graduated magna cum laude from my undergraduate program, interned for Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and earned my master’s degree. Now I have my eyes set on starting doctoral coursework.
My nonverbal learning disability was discovered when I was 2 years old as I had a speech delay. Having lower processing speed than the “average” person is also part of my LD. I am fortunate that my family was able to help me receive accommodations from a public school district that had the resources to help me succeed. My classroom teachers, speech pathologists, and special education teachers wanted me to succeed in the least restrictive environment.
One specific educator who made a difference was my speech pathologist, Marlene, who assisted me from early intervention through fifth grade. Marlene helped me compensate for my speech delay and helped me make improvements in abstract reasoning — now I can understand idioms. Marlene and my other dedicated educators taught me the strategies that I added to my “toolbox” to navigate my learning disability.
During my junior year of high school, after 15.5 years with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), I tested out of special education. I was thrilled! I believed that my LD was in the past, and I didn’t disclose to my professors my previous accommodations on my IEP. I’m not alone: “Approximately 55% of students in high schools who had IEPs prior to postsecondary education, failed to inform their colleges that they had an impairment that qualified them for disability services” (Evans, Forney, Guido, Renn, & Patton, 2016, p. 232). Throughout my undergraduate career, I didn’t receive accommodations and believed that my LD would never affect me again. But I was wrong.
During my first year of graduate school, I was in a higher education law course that was lecture based with one exam. Suddenly, some of the strategies I had used in the past were no longer working. I decided to register with my graduate school’s office of disability services to receive accommodations, and I successfully completed the course.
Soon after that, I learned how LD can affect you in the workplace. Because of the stigma around disabilities, I had always been hesitant to disclose to leadership in the department I worked in. I was adamant that my LD didn’t define who I was or what I was capable of achieving. But during one of my graduate assistantships, an individual who was senior to me read a lengthy document to me, sentence by sentence, while asking detailed follow-up questions. Due to my lower processing speed, it took me longer to respond. I realized how critical it was to advocate for yourself in the workplace to individuals senior to you — that it’s vital to communicate to them early on how you learn and process information. I urge those who supervise others to be welcoming of individuals of all abilities and to ask them how they learn.
During my second year of graduate school, I found a new assistantship. My supervisor, Tina, believed in me and was understanding of my LD. Disclosing my LD to Tina and advocating for myself, I requested a copy of my performance evaluation prior to meeting to discuss it. This gave me time to process the information and prepare to discuss the constructive feedback, making the feedback and the meeting more valuable and contributing to my professional growth. Universal design (UD) practices like these are good for people with disabilities and for those without. Tina accepted me for who I was while capitalizing on my strengths to prepare me for my first professional position following graduation. In May 2019, I graduated from The George Washington University with a Master of Arts in education and human development, focusing on higher education administration with a concentration in policy and finance.
As a new professional working in student affairs at The Pennsylvania State University–University Park, my goal is to be a resource to students with LDs (outside of the disability student services office staff) by incorporating UD into my work. For example, when I facilitate meetings, I provide students a physical copy of a meeting agenda and put it on the projector as well. This supports both visual and auditory learners while letting kinesthetic learners take notes. In addition, using Gibson’s 2006 Disability Identity Developmental Model as a basis, I hope to support the creation of a community of individuals — current college students, student affairs professionals, faculty, and alumni. The community would have an emphasis on networking and on motivating students to see how faculty/staff and alumni with disabilities similar to their own have succeeded.
I believe it’s important that society not make assumptions about ability based on an individual’s appearance. I implore others to create and implement UD experiences that provide students opportunities to express their learning in creative ways. As a fierce advocate for greater equity in higher education, I hope to create experiences to ensure that students have resources and tools similar to what I had along my journey. My goal is to pursue my doctoral degree in higher education administration and to advocate for implementation of UD in student affairs.
I’m grateful to my family and friends. And I’m grateful to the educators who helped me manage my LD and who taught me the skills to succeed. I want to thank my mentors/past supervisors, Mary and Tina, who believed in me, knowing that my LD is just one aspect of my identity — not a hindrance but rather a uniqueness of who I am.
Evans, N., Forney, S., Guido, F., Renn, K., & Patton, L. (2016). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
*Article originally published for the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)
Erin is a member of the Young Adult Leadership Council for the National Center for Learning Disabilities. Erin is passionate about advocacy and the implementation of universal design in higher education. Erin is a student affairs professional and received her masters of arts in education and human development focusing on higher education administration concentrating in policy/finance from The George Washington University.Share your own story