Learning Disability

I believe in disabilities. I mean, I don’t think they’re an invention of a cruel, capitalistic, oppressive system. People are all different, and some of them have a lot more trouble with things that are basic for the majority of other people. But a lot of learning disabilities make me suspicious. And sometimes they just make me really sad.

When kids aren’t learning to read on time, for example, there’s a lot of panic. And there shouldn’t be, because kids learn to read at very different points. Some kids don’t learn to read until they’re fourteen, and then they read like everyone else. And no one can tell that they were a kid who didn’t read until they were fourteen.

Kids are like that with learning in general. Not every eight-year-old brain is ready to absorb the information that a nationally approved 3rd grade curriculum demands it process. And then what happens when they don’t learn it on time? They learn that they are “slow.” They might get left behind.

I remember in Hebrew School when I was twelve there was this funny kid named Seth who was nice to everyone. He made everyone laugh with his antics. He was good at making ridiculous faces. He was good at people. And one day the teacher said, “We’re going to go around the room and each take a paragraph.” We were reading a story about the biblical Jacob and his very large family.

I showed off, because I was an obnoxious little kid and I was really good at reading aloud. The teacher smiled at me and everyone else silently hated me with all their brief, concentrated might. And then it was Seth’s turn. He was haltingly trying to sound out the first word. “Is-ra-el-leets.”

We all knew it was wrong. And there was a long, stunned pause. How could he not know that?

How could he barely be able to read?

He was bright red. His head was bowed so far forward it was practically on his desk. It was his moment of reckoning.

And I realized in horror that he had gone through this hundreds of times already. That he was used to being this humiliated. But that he was still just as humiliated anyway.

One of the other boys started giggling. “Israelites,” he said, a little too loudly. “It’s Israelites, man.” (I don’t know why twelve-year-old boys called each other man, but it happened a lot.)

“Yeah, yeah,” said Seth, stretching his mouth into a sick grin. He tried to make a joke. He tried to keep reading.

“Can someone take over for Seth?” said the teacher.

He changed a little after that. His secret was out. We all knew there was something wrong with him. We treated him differently. His humor was less lighthearted. We all knew how stupid he was.

Except Seth wasn’t actually stupid. He was quick and kind and funny. He just couldn’t read well yet. But “yet” wasn’t good enough. It was too late.

He dropped out after his Bar Mitzvah and I heard years later that he’d joined a band, and later was trying community college. Which may have been fine. Community college isn’t failure. But it can definitely feel like failure when your classmates are going to Princeton and Duke, which they were. Which the guy who laughed at him did. Well, not both at once. But you get the idea.

It’s wasteful.

People do better at life when they feel smart. When they think they’re worth a lot.

And it’s really hard to make someone feel like they’re smart and worthwhile when they aren’t on the level that the kids who are defined over and over again as “smart” are on. And when being “smart” in that way is so critical to being whole. When no one is giving anyone an “A” for being hilarious.

(struggling doesn’t have to be shameful. source)

12 comments to Learning Disability

  • Jennifer

    Thank you for that really wonderful post. wonderfully written. I’m pulling my 8yr old out of public school to begin homeschooling next month. Just got the paper work done. She’s not keeping up with the “norm” and it hits mighty close to home thinking of that little Seth, embarrassed.

  • It reminds me of the parable by Charles Swindoll, the Animals’ School:

    How long did my oldest son have to take swimming and climbing classes, when he was really able to soar? (The real-life example? My son, who was reading at a college freshman level in 5th grade, was getting an _F_ in reading….because none of the books he was reading were on the Accelerated Reader book list, or weren’t books that the school had purchased the tests for. So he “flew to the top” by taking all the tests on the Harry Potter books – that he had read two years’ prior – just to git’r’done.)

    Great post.

  • Great post. Thanks. It’s the very reason I homeschooled. My son’s self esteem is too valuable to risk on being humiliated.

  • this is huge Kate:
    He just couldn’t read well yet. But “yet” wasn’t good enough. It was too late.

    we’ve got to change that thinking..

    super post.. thank you.

  • I train and work side-by-side 6 nights a week with people who are labled with “disabilities”—learning, psychological, or physical. These are the most beautiful people I’ve ever known. Not a day goes by that I don’t leave my work environment and head for home without feeling so completely blessed for the privilege of working with these people who teach me so much.

  • I really love this article. I recently wrote in my own space about my daughter learning to read. We have an eclectic approach to homeschooling, but we mostly unschooled for reading. It was amazing to see her just do it. http://www.gypsyforest.com/welcome_to_gypsy_forest/2011/02/on-reading.html

  • I’ve just found your blog and loved this post. You put this story in a real personal context, a different spin than I’m used to seeing. Very powerful. Keep up the good work!

  • It’s true that you can’t tell a difference at 15 years old between a child who naturally started to read a year before and a child who naturally started to read at 3 years old. The ‘gifted’ kids suffer from those labels also. Truly sad in both directions. The only thing that those labels are good for is getting help when it is truly needed. The problem is that the labels are so frequently misplaced that many children suffer as a result.

    My husband’s cousin was labeled ‘stupid’ and ‘learning disabled’. He wasn’t. He just had no aptitude or interest in school learning. He does, however, have a genius level aptitude for motors and machines. He owns his own heating and air conditioning business now and makes much more than any of his siblings or cousins – well over the $100,000 mark. But don’t forget. He’s stupid. *big eyeroll*

  • Debra Bucklen

    My 18yo son did not become a proficient reader until he was 14. He struggled through a few sentences a day until that time and then suddenly he took off. Within months he was reading anything he wished. He still can’t spell well and his handwriting is slow and labored, but I think that will come. I’m just so glad that he never got the idea that it would never come!

  • Michelle

    Interesting. Not only do some kids learn to read at different points, some of them require a completely different method of instruction to make sense of the letters and numbers. I happen to be mom to 2 kids like this. Both of them have been “labeled” by our local school district as learning disabled. However, I hardly see them as disabled. They have dyslexic brains. I know this to be true, because my husband and I both are carriers of the dyslexic gene as are my children. My hubby and both kids have been diagnosed with dyslexic brains. What does this mean? Well, it means they are all incredibly logical thinkers, who are able to view the entire world three dimensionally. It also means that they all have a difficult time making sense of phonemes. While having a dyslexic brain can complicate things for a person sometimes, it also has it’s advantages. The dyslexic individual is usually very creative. They can think laterally and make connections that the non dyslexic brain cannot. And, who wouldn’t want to view the world around them three dimensionally?

    Sadly, public schools do not design their curriculums to the meet the needs of their dyslexic population. There are private schools that do, but they are often quite costly and out of reach for many families that have dyslexic brained learners. In our family, we have tried to work with both. But, after careful thought we have decided that the best “teacher” is a mom who genuinely understands what it is like to learn with a dyslexic brain. And, who is more concerned with her children’s ability to feel confident and smart and accepted, then the time frame in which they learn stuff.

  • Kelley

    Brilliant article and feedback. Michelle stated what is likely the real problem, method of instruction. One size doesn’t fit all. When a teacher or parent sees a child “struggling”, maybe the first thing that should be looked at is how the child is interpreting what is being said.

  • Bubba

    Wonderful post!

    We homeschool our three kids, I for one had some concerns about our 10 year old who struggles a bit to recognize certain words, while our 6 year old grabs them rather easily.

    To be honest, I just did an intense research on this, to see whether he had a disability. And if he did, wanted to see how we can help him… After reading this post I am convinced it is ‘natural’ that he is the way he is, it will all fall into place. He is very intelligent at other things for crying outloud, you should see hi drawings, such class and attention to detail.

    I actully did make up a new (weekly) schedule to include reading/writing. So far, I’ve only showed them simple stuff “Bully Class (how to protect themselves, or fend off bulllies, help others being bullied)”, or science/computer-related items; I think I will get back to doing that schedule, let him continue reading on his own. My wife and I do think we need to approach his reading differently, as said above by Michelle ‘some of them require a completely different method of instruction to make sense of the letters and numbers….’

    It is a dangerous world out there, if we did not homeschool, he would probably be labelled the s word already, we actually banned that word @ our house, you know with ‘id’ at the end:-) When kids are called that, it just sounds so wrong and hurtful. Thanks so much guys, please keep up the good work, you saved us!

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