Marginalization and Learning Disabilities

Over the past several months I have had conversations with individuals with disabilities who have been marginalized on college campuses due to the actions and attitudes of their non-disabled peers regarding disabilities that cannot be seen with the naked eye.  Living with a disability, especially a disability that is considered “invisible”, is difficult for many people to navigate.  After all, we don’t LOOK like there is something wrong with us. This often leaves the door open to those who think that these conditions are either made up by therapists in order to give those therapists something to do, or “faked” by us to gain attention.

The hard issue is that many individual’s who do not have LD, do not appreciate how difficult it is to navigate the world when you have disabilities. I my own life, I am often told that I must not be disabled if I obtained a college degree.  This is the type of statement that would not normally be said to an individual who had a prosthetic limb.  One might presume that life with the prosthetic would be easier to navigate, but we would never presume that the limb had grown back or that the individual was better because they had a prosthetic (if you did make that leap – it would be because you had not experienced the issues that come with having to use a medical device such as a prosthetic).

I have to make a side note here.  When I use the word “disability”, I use it universally to describe a condition or set of conditions that interferes with or prevents one’s ability to participate in the world without accommodation.  This is a simple definition, because it incorporates all forms of disability, not specifically learning disabilities. Many people would say that a disability does not make one “disabled” – which is true.  Lots of people live life with disabilities and they are not limited in what they can achieve or do.  Others will try, but will be stopped by the disability itself. And others will be unable.  No one person copes with a disability in the same way and no one way is better.

But I have noticed a backlash from groups who are frustrated that so many new conditions are being identified – in their opinion.  I continually hear statements such as, “When I was a kid, there was no such thing as dyslexia/AHDH/”insert learning disability here”. It is as if the very idea is preposterous because someone had not seen it or had not recognized it in the past.

The fact is that unless you have it or your related to someone who has it, it’s hard to understand the impact.  In our society, people desire to live a life that is complaint free.  We pat those on the back who have pushed their conditions aside and beaten the odds – so to speak.  Unfortunately, in the disability community, when one does a great job of moving on with their lives, the rest are often seen as victims, bringing down the system or sucking it dry – which is not the case.

The people I spoke to over these last few weeks did not see themselves as victims, they only knew that to be successful they needed accommodation.

Accommodation is such a tricky word.  People think it means taking from what others need to give something to someone else. I venture to say that in some ways every person on the planet uses some type of accommodation.  The mother trying to feed her young combative toddler uses a restraining devise (commonly called a high chair) to help her to feed the child without incident.  A young boy painting the house for the first time uses a ladder to reach the higher parts of the house.  Neither of these individuals is disabled. They use these devices because they are acceptable forms of accommodation.  They might have found a way to cope without it, but it would have been much harder. This is no less true for individuals with disabilities.

This appears to be the sticking point. or requested accommodation for the disability, they received public backlash – backlash that lasted for weeks and ended with the person feeling broken for asking for something that was necessary, just like the ladder and the highchair (yes – these are very simplistic examples).

Before you speak about a condition or a situation you are not living with or in – THINK. The heart you break with you choice words could take a lifetime to heal.

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The LD Experience Continues

This week I had the pleasure of conversing with a great group of people online about how it feels to be dyslexic. This is such a great thing to talk about because we often hear clinical definitions about terms like dyslexia, but rarely do we experience the individual perspective.

When I first read the title of this discussion thread, I was nervous to express my opinion because I have more than one LD. Still, the only way for any of us to really dive into such an issue is for someone with the issue to share – eventually the bits and pieces will create some kind of picture.

In thinking about my experiences with my children and throughout my life, I began diving into this question.  I explained to the group how individuals in my home had issues with the following (these are not all of the issues – its a baseline to help continue the conversation):

  1. Word recognition – We would practice a word all week, pass the test on Friday and though we knew what the word meant, we were unable to spell it by Monday.
  2. Word and letter reversals – Though there is discussion in the field as to weather this is a left-right issue or dyslexia or whatever.  What this means to members in our house hold is that we typically start from the wrong end.  Which means if I need to use a letter like b, d, q, or p, I might not know which one is B.  It means we might start from the wrong end of the word when trying to sound it out or we might start from the wrong end of the sentence.  For my son however, this meant he wrote backwards entirely for many years.  One could hold his papers up to a mirror and read them.  He is now in his teens and finds that this still happens from time to time.
  3. Direction – Only one of us can go to a location one time and find our way back. The rest of us must use directions, landmarks, and or symbols to get back to that location.
  4. Wrong Word Usage – It is common to hear the wrong word used for any particular item.
  5. Hand Signals – There is a lot of finger snapping, pointing, hand movements (jazz hands), and jabbing because the words will not come out and this forces us to improvise. It’s like a huge game of Pictionary – the image of what you desire to say is at the tip of your tongue and you just can’t get past it. It is not that we do not know the information, it is there and that is one of the most frustrating parts.
  6. Lists  – Forgetting is common, so we attempt lists, but we often forget those lists if we sit them down.
  7. Vocabulary – We all have limited verbal vocabulary and often write using simple vocabulary, but we have a vast vocabulary in our heads that we struggle to utilize.
  8. Recall – We struggle to verbally recall – though we can often write what is missing since we developed the writing skills.
  9. Vocal Sounds – Grunting is also common in our house when we struggle to use our words.
  10. Clumsiness – At any given time one of us will hit a wall, fall down stairs, trip on nothing, fall out of a chair, or collide into one another.
  11. Headaches – Those of us with LD struggle with learning headaches, as I like to call them. This occurs from the strain that happens when you are trying to make sense of what you see.
  12. Difficulty reading the words on the page – there are many things associated with this one items, for now I will just say that it’s like the page and the words play tricks on you even though there is nothing wrong with your vision.
  13. Forgetfulness – We continually forget important details or how to follow through when writing things out. We may begin on a thought and never branch out to the other details. We might forget why those details are important or that we forgot those details at all.
  14. Mistaking – This is harder for me to describe today, but say I write a paper and I read it over in an attempt to edit. Because I know what I wanted to be there, I have actually read the paper via what is in my head and missed mistakes that were actually in the test.

What this tells you is the experience to some degree, but not specifically how we have felt. We have swung the pendulum from feeling “stupid” because we are dyslexics, to feeling “acceptance” because we cannot change this condition, to feeling “joy” because we have found something special about our selves as a result of dyslexia.  There are days when I am proud to say I have dyslexia and days where I long to read/write/think without problems.

With these types of issues, how then did we learn to read and write?

We began slowly. Taking things one-step at a time, often to the point of exhaustion.

Attached I am providing the layout for the  5-paragraph essay. I created this and have used it to teach my children to write. I use this layout during the school year, in the summer and on breaks to re-enforce what my children learn in school. This is not a stand-alone tool; there are other tools you need when working with your children on how to write, read, understand, and express.

I began using this tool when my children where in the 3rd grade. It took a very long time for it to sink in, but we continued to work on this until they got it right.  I hope it is as beneficial to you all as it has been for us.

I will try to post more of these tools as I work through this blog.

If you have tools that have worked for you, please share them or send them to me so I can share them with a link to your website or whatever profile you choose. The more we share our stories, the more we learn.

Until Next Time,

Dr. Richmond

Organizing Your Essay

Also, if you notice errors, please contact me. I am happy to fix them. I knew going into this experience that my LD might show and while it might be embarrassing sometimes, the only way you are going to understand what I am saying is to see those mistakes in my writing. I maintain this set of facts: (1) Writing is not my first language, (2) I write this blog to share information and to practice the skill. I hope each day to grow this part of my life. I will gladly make changes because it makes this a more efficient page. And I thank you in advance for your assistance.

Everything you need is at the tip of your fingers: 4 Tips for helping a struggling learner

As a parent with children who struggled with LD, I often felt overwhelmed and undereducated. There was so much to learn about the condition(s) that I was not sure how to help my children on a day-to-day basis.

I was not an expert on reading and writing and I HATED math. The “experts” at the school and even those I looked up online (when I finally got internet access at home) talked about all of these various programs that I could buy into. They all sounded like they could work, but most were expensive and as a full time student, employee, and mother, I had no idea where I would find the time, the energy, or the money that was required for the program to be successful.

Unfortunately, not having the ability or the means to afford programs and not having what I thought was limited time to put those programs into practice, was not going to stop my children from needing the help. I had to get motivated.

So, what does a parent do now? 

Tip 1: Get educated

Use your local library to learn about the learning disability(ies) your child(ren) are dealing with. This will help you to understand what your school and/or teachers are talking about. It will also help you to understand your child(ren)’s behavior. Are you being too harsh? Are you being too easy? Knowing the pertinent facts will help you to navigate behavior appropriately.

Tip: 2: Use simple tools

Parents always ask what the best tools are for teaching children to learn. In my opinion the best tools are a pencil and a piece of paper. I was a parent on a limited income. At my best, I could afford these two materials. At my worst, I could borrow them. They are not phenomenal tools because they are cheap. They are phenomenal tools because they teach skills that all students with LD need. That skill is writing.  I will touch on this subject in another post, but it is very important that children with LDs learn to write – they should also use a computer and type – but writing is vital – don’t fear it and please don’t allow your children to fear it.

Tip 3: Find Books you can read fluently

Having an LD myself meant that the best way to teach my children how to fluently read, was to read to them content that I was able to fluently read aloud. This presented a problem because while I was a good silent reader, I was horrible with reading aloud. Teachers were pressing me to read books that were challenging to my children, but I was growing so embarrassment from my own out loud reading that it made it hard for me to comfortably read to my children.

I happened upon a book called “How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have?” It was a series of small fables with amazing pictures by author Julius Lester (http://members.authorsguild.net/juliuslester/). I read and re-read and re-read this book until I knew it almost word for word. I then read and re-read and re-read the stories in the book to my children. It became a type of bonding tool for us. Every night before bed my children would pick a story from this book and we would all read it together. I cannot express to you how great it is to see my teenagers pick up the book and read it. They smile from ear to ear and I can see the memories flooding back to them.

I had always presumed that I needed to read longer and more dynamic books as my children grew.  It was my assumption that doing that would teach them to do the same. However, reading the stories in this book helped me to discovered that all my children actually needed was to find so much enjoyment in a book that it sparked them to want to read more.  And they did. They were trying to find more books that made them feel as happy as the stories in Mr. Lester’s fables.

Parents you may not be Albert Einstein (I sure am not), but this is something you can do. Find your favorite book. Make special voices. Read by candlelight. Set up pillows on the floor and light your children’s imaginations on fire.

Tip 4: Get creative

What does it mean to be creative when you feel overwhelmed? When I tell people that we worked with my son to write a book, we often hear statements like, “But I am not a writer.” I then laugh and explain that I am not a writer either.

I believe that our modern dictionaries have ruined this term because they have made it appear very simple. Dictionary.dom defines it as:

1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.

2. a clerk, scribe, or the like.

3. a person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing: an expert letter writer.

4. (in a piece of writing) the author (used as a circumlocution for “I,” “me,” “my,” etc.): The writer wishes to state….

5. a person who writes or is able to write: a writer in script.

Now, this sounds odd to people because I published a few books of poetry. I write a blog. I taught journal writing. I attend school. I write in a journal. Etc. Etc. Etc.

I do those things. But they do not prove that I am a writer. In my opinion, doing those things shows I am practicing writing.

However, writing as a writer is much deeper then that – or it should be. A writer is someone with the skill to not only understand how to use the vernacular, they also understand how not to use it. I am a long way from that space.

As you learn to get creative with your children, don’t compare yourself to other parents or other writers. Make up things with your children and share your ideas (good or bad) with them often.

And remember creativity is not solely defined in writing. Creativity comes from using what you have around you. You can use food, blankets, toys and even dirt to teach. Remember your childhood. Remember writing with your fingers in the mud? Remember recording the clouds as they blew across the sky? Remember seeing the deep green shades of the beautiful green grass? Tag? Hopscotch? All these games are tools that can be used to teach your LD children how to read and write. Look around you and then search inside yourself, the answer is right there with you.

You can do this and you are not alone!

From the inside Out

I have spent a great majority of this blog, providing definitions, discussing characteristics and outlining some interesting behaviors, all in an attempt to explain what having an LD is like. The problem is that having an LD is a highly individualized experience. It’s like sharing a dream, you can describe what happened, but, it is harder to help another person fully experience that dream in the exact way that dream made you feel.

Over the last few months I have been in the editing stages of my dissertation. During this time, I have worked with my Chair on the appropriate edits for my topic. A Chair (not the one you sit in) is a person who is an expert in your field of study. This person checks your work for quality and validity. Not every Chair helps in the editing process, but some will. I was lucky enough to have a Chair who participated with me through the editing process.

Editing a dissertation means that you will go over each chapter and determine if you are using the correct voice (your final will be written in past tense), if you are using the correct format, if your table of contents is correct, if your references are clear, if you got everything done up to the standard that is required for this degree. It’s pretty grueling process for many people, not just people with learning issues.

This was complicated for me due to the LD, so let’s discuss what that really meant.

Throughout my educational career, I have had a hard time reading black text on the white background. When computers began to be used by schools, I discovered that reading from the computer proved to be more problematic then reading from a book. Something about the color of the words on the screen made it hard for me to read and understand what was written.

I had difficulty tracking the line. This meant that I would be reading on the computer and find myself on a different part of the page a few lines down. If I was holding a book, I could use a ruler to help me track the page or I could underline the text so that I could see if I was having tracking problems by the marks moving from one line to another.  I could hold a paper to the screen to try to mimic a ruler, but found that the computer screen would light the paper in such a way that it  made it more difficult for me to remember the text. As a result, I was printing my entire dissertation.

Printing was the easiest way to see what could not be seen on the computer. However, once the document was printed, I had the other problem of trying to find mistakes while also having trouble reading black words on white paper. I found some errors, but not all and I had to mark those errors with a bright color so I could see them and go back and edit them on the computer.

At some point, my husband bought me an iPad because he thought it would be helpful. I sent the document to my iPad one day out of curiosity. The iPad proved to be a good tool, but it was not a stand-alone. I could change the color of the background to Sepia and that allowed me to see some of the errors that I had missed on the computer and in the printed text.  I am not advocating that the iPad was better than the computer or the written text. I used a combination of all three throughout the process. I would start on the computer; switch to the printed text and the load the document to my iPad.

Visually, when I am reading, what I see is something like blinders on the sides of my eyes. The blinders close off parts of the text. If I try to see around the blinder, the page becomes a white space without any words. Alternating colors helps me to see more of what is on the page, but not always. It’s like having a pair of spyglasses, and reading disappearing ink. If you use the glasses you can see the text, but if you raise your head and look around the room, the world looks strange. Now imagine using different pairs of glasses, some designed to help you see disappearing ink, some designed to make letters bigger, some designed to make letters smaller and consider all the various other ways glasses can alter your vision. Now, imagine moving from one set of glasses to another and that would be close to what I see when I am reading and writing. What I see at any given moment determines what I find on the page, the number of errors I miss, and/or my perception of the text itself.

When reading, I get segments of the text, which forces me to go back and re-read the text. When re-reading, I attempt to get all the way through the paragraph to make sure I have understood what I have read. This process, in combination with writing/editing makes me fatigued. So, I pull away from the text, take a deep breath and start again. Is this a complaint – no – it is really a statement of fact. Reading and writing are difficult to me because I experience them in this way. Having these difficulties does not make it impossible to learn, it complicates it.  This is part of what I deal with when I am reading and writing. This is also why I read my favorite books over and over – I find that I learn so much with each new reading.

Over the years I have developed strategies for helping me to cope with these issues. I firmly believe that I should use every tool within my grasp to assist me with these kinds of struggles.  But notice that I did not say that these tools would assist me “through” my struggles. I have heard some people proclaim that people “grow out” of their learning disabilities. This ideology gives people the impression that learning disabilities are a childhood problem. That is not my experience and it is not the experience of many who suffer with an LD. I am happy for those who experience something different – I just don’t happen to be one of those people.

I am not on the other side of the bridge looking back at and evaluating my journey through the land of Learning-Disabilities. Nope, I am dangling over the Grand Canyon, standing on a thin rope, in slippery shoes, as I hold a 3-ton weight on my shoulders. The thing that has kept me from plummeting to the bottom of the canyon is a solid support system, a drive to want to get the other side, and a tempter that could light a thousand torches. I am not a single individual working on my own to learn – I have had a lot of mentors, a wonderful support system, tools to help me help me, and I made the choice to want to push for something I presumed was outside of my reach.

Not everyone with an LD has these types of resources. Some are not able to articulate these problems. I am just learning to articulate them and I have been in school for a very long time. As other individuals come forward and share their experiences with LD, I am confident that our community will find the specific tools we need to deal with the types of issues I have described above.