Throughout my childhood, Non Verbal Learning Disability (hereafter abbreviated to NVLD) masked my potential inside and outside of the classroom. I was diagnosed nearly a year ago, just after my 23rd birthday. But the signs have been there for as long as I can remember. I started reading around my 2nd birthday- the same time I started walking. I can’t ride a bike (much to the chagrin of several occupational therapists). I’ve always been extroverted but I struggle making and maintaining friends. Using scissors, driving across my city, opening a cabinet, tying my shoelaces, walking on the treadmill, multitasking as I talk with on the phone: these are all experiences that I find to be extremely frustrating and even stressful. New places, planning lessons, or novel experiences that should be fun lead me to break out in an anxious sweat. And math? I still struggle with basic multiplication. I mix up numbers frequently. I miscount ALL of the time. It’s like the part of my brain that’s supposed to do “math things” just simply does not exist. Every test I have taken has placed me in the lowest percentile possible. Yet I’m stuck in a world where 95% of the people around me is conversing in a language that I was never programmed to take part in. Unable to catch up with my peers, I floundered for years.
Approximately 15-20% of Americans identify having some kind of disability. This number is accurately reflected among U.S. undergraduate students in data from 2017 (approximately 19% of U.S. undergraduate students identified as disabled). The number significantly drops when compared to graduate degree seekers (11.9%). In 2008, only about 7% of U.S. Doctoral students had a disability, and in my field (Humanities), only 5% of Ph.D. students identified as disabled. I am a statistical anomaly.
This journey hasn’t been easy. Graduate school can be extremely isolating, especially since I already struggle interpersonally. I’ve been rejected by graduate programs on more than one occasion because I had disclosed my NVLD in an application. I find conferences really overwhelming, draining, and stressful as I rack my brain, surveilling every move I make, trying to be a model graduate student- especially not one that loses balance and trips over her own feet in public. How do I let people know that I belong here?
I’m not sure if I have the answer, but I firmly believe in the power of imagining alternatives. Educators need to be more supportive, inclusive mentors for their students. We need to redefine how we evaluate intelligence. We need to reconsider who gets to be a classroom citizen, who belongs in the classroom. I have been lucky to have many educators in my early childhood, undergraduate, and graduate degrees who were willing to see my disability as a strength, a gift, something that made me unique.
Disabled people are valid. We belong in academia. We belong here. Count me in.
Jessica is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication and Multimedia at McMaster University. Connect with her on Instagram: @disabledphd.