Homeadults with learning disabilitiesWe’ve Come Far, But We Have a Long Way to Go
A black and white picture of two young girls sitting by three young girls as they look at early reader books. They're all dressed in styles from 1940.
Kids learning how to read in 1940.

When my grandmother was a little girl in New York City, she struggled in school. She couldn’t keep up with the lessons and consistently lagged behind the other kids, despite the fact she was a bright child. Back then, children were rarely screened for learning disabilities like dyslexia, and when they were, girls were rarely in that number.

Generational Experience
Much later in life, long after she mastered the basic skills of handwriting and reading, she discovered her dyslexia. Because of how terribly she was treated throughout her life, she viewed it as a curse.

Fast forward to my post high school years. My late teens and early 20s were spent struggling to survive.

I had failed a class for the first time due to the school’s complete ineptitude involving learning disabilities. I was struggling in another school because I knew neither how to advocate for myself nor my rights, while working at low paying, retail jobs. After giving up in school, I worked at a string of jobs I hated to make ends meet.

Grandma took me aside on her last visit to Minnesota and apologized to me. She said that if she knew she’d pass her dyslexia on to my dad, and he’d pass it on to me, she never would have had children.

Since then, I’ve come to view my dyslexia as a blessing due to the strengths it’s given me, but I’ll never forget the pain her eyes. I’ll never forget the shock or confusion that immediately followed those words.

IDEA’s Powerful Impact
The 40th anniversary of IDEA took place this Monday.

Most of my American readers probably already know IDEA is a legal protection for students with disabilities. It’s still incredibly difficult to get the accommodations and screenings needed to help kids with all disabilities, but especially when they’re invisible, like learning disabilities are.

Still, IDEA has been a step in the right direction. Today, I watched the White House’s celebration. Each speaker, including Secretary of Education Duncan, acknowledged the great steps that have been taken, but that there’s a lot of work yet to do.

That said, when I think of what my grandmother went through and compare it to my education, it’s not hard to see how much improvement there was. Early school was immensely difficult for me, but I was still given the chance to expand my academic experience in high school.

I was mostly mainstreamed at the public schools I attended in New York. Although dyslexia wasn’t fully understand, and I may have been missed when it comes to other challenges, the majority of my teachers did their best.

By the time I reached graduation, I had earned a Regents Diploma, and I was on the Honor Roll. I went go on to pursue further education, and even though I hadn’t earned a degree, I still reaped the rewards of the experience.

I’ve studied diverse subjects, including massage therapy, meteorology, literature, insurance, metaphysics, Latin, Japanese, history, and many others. I’ve been able to apply almost all of those fields to various aspects of my writing. I plan on continuing to sponge up as much information as I can and keep applying it to my life for as long as possible.

I love to read, and that hard won ability to write has opened countless doors for me. Many of my closest friendships stem in one way or another from a mutual love of the written word. If not for IDEA, I don’t know think I’d have the wonderful friends I have now, nor would I have today’s opportunities.

A picture of black text on a white page "How We Change the Stories We Tell About Disability, DoubleTree Bloomington Join us for a discussion of hidden disabilities in the media-for example, Iron Man has PTSD-and how it changes our perceptions of ability in the real world. Emilie Peck, Haddayr Copley-woods, Kiah Nelson, Sherry L.M. Merriam, MA, LPC, Vetnita Anderson"
One of the two panels I was on in July. You can read the write up here.

Would I have been able to my educational foundation without IDEA? When I think of all of the other factors in my early life, like family composition, my gender, income level and other factors, I don’t think it would have been possible.

Now, there are more options for children who struggle the way I had way back when. They can go to school. They can attend museums. They can develop the love for learning that’s so vital to a fulfilling life.

There’s Still Work to Do
The problem is, kids are still suffering terribly from the traumas of ignorance and stigma. I have two friends who are involving lawyers to fight for their children’s accommodations. I have another friend who is constantly fighting her local school to provide promised accommodations for her little boy.

I regularly chat with people close to my age who needed extra help in school. Most of their experiences are distressingly similar to my own, regardless of diagnosis. Many of them went to post-secondary school or are currently enrolled, and it’s often just as hard, if not harder, for them to get accommodations.

There are frequent stories of kids with autism or other disabilities being harshly punished for things they can’t help, and situations only get more difficult when other factors such as race, gender and income are compounded with all forms of disability.

We need to do better. Although the situation may seem desperate at times, IDEA is still a beacon of hope. If you watch or listen to the video in the link above, you’ll notice the people at the highest levels of power in the educational system echo the concerns those of us who are not in positions of power have been talking about for years.

The beauty of acts like IDEA is the possibility of flexibility and expansion. As we learn more about how we learn and just how similar kids with disabilities are to their peers, we can make revisions to law and how individual schools function.

It may not be an easy road, but it’s one that must be traveled. Those of us who live in the disability neighborhood didn’t choose to take up residence there, but we can still choose how to lead our lives. We have unique gifts and impressive talents, after all, and we deserve the chance to shine just as brightly as everyone else does.

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