Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Living with a Learning Disability

I was recently contacted by a young, South African, boy who is a self-declared astronomy fanatic.  He reached out to me because his dream is to be like Albert Einstein, but he is failing his math and science classes due to a learning disability.  He fears that he’ll never be able to realize his goal and wanted my insights and advice.

I have a learning disability.  When diagnosed, my reading skills tested in the 20th percentile -- meaning that 80 out of 100 people are better readers than I.  I am also a Marshall Scholar, published author, and have a doctorate in physics from Berkeley.  During my exchange with this boy, I realized that perhaps some of my experiences regarding learning disabilities might be helpful to educators in this community (who have LD students) and readers of this blog who themselves have learning differences.

For me, the most challenging aspect of having a learning disability has been to accept how different I am, and to learn to advocate for myself such that I get the appropriate help and accommodations.  I live in a world that is set up for people who learn a certain way, I don't learn that way.  I have to work five-times harder to absorb the same information that a "normal" learner can take-in easily.  This is incredibly frustrating, time-consuming, and demoralizing.  I used to constantly compare myself to others and feel stupid because everything took me longer.  The challenge was to internalize that I am just as smart, but that I need the proper help to demonstrate that intelligence.

I was able to make real breakthroughs when I started working with an educational therapist who specializes in learning disabilities.  Many schools and universities have such professionals available to LD students.  My educational therapist helped me understand where my strengths lie and how to accommodate my weaknesses.  It was through working with him that I realized that physics was a good area for me to study.  He also helped me realize that I could more effectively process written words by using books on tape or having my computer read text out loud to me.

Joining a support group for students with learning disabilities was also very helpful. I learned about study techniques, resources, and how to advocate for and accept myself.  For instance, there is a college specifically for people with learning disabilities.  Some professors are willing to allow learning disabled students to turn in alternative assignments, like a video or audio version of the paper or an oral final exam instead of a written one.  I learned how to explain to my professors and peers why I needed extra time on written exams; how it wasn’t an unfair advantage, but merely leveling the playing field such that I could demonstrate my knowledge.  I had lighter course loads throughout my schooling.  As a result my education took longer, and I’m fine with that.

I would encourage anyone with a learning disability to try to find alternative ways to absorb information.  There are many videos and demonstrations on the web that can help you learn science and math.  Join study/discussion groups with friends, so that you are forced to explain the material to others, not just read about it.  Remember that most people diagnosed with learning disabilities have above-average intelligence.  Unfortunately, the pathways in your brain are connected in such a way that it is harder for you to process information and communicate your knowledge.  So the challenge is to find ways to make shortcuts in your brain, or find areas of study where these connections are less jumbled.  Experiment and try to figure out what works best for you.  Be patient with yourself, and know that there are many successful people in this world who have been able to overcome their learning differences.

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