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Personal Stories

Learning Despite Learning Disabilities

By: Dale S. Brown

This is the story of how I graduated from college despite serious learning disabilities. Not only did I graduate, but I learned from my classes and made friends. Fortunately, my ability to think clearly and efficiently was not impaired by my handicaps although they made academic achievement a challenge. My perceptual problems include my visual, auditory, and motor modalities. My difficulties involve sequencing, discrimination, and figure ground tasks. I also have a directional handicap and slight motor problems.

It was hard for me to learn the information presented in my courses. Although my reading level was adequate, it seemed as if I could not read slowly enough to absorb information. Lectures were difficult, because of my problems in auditory perception and taking notes. To make matters more complicated, short term memory deficits made "cramming" impossible. Even when class material was completely understood, I often forgot dates, names, vocabulary words and other details which were necessary to pass tests.

This story also includes my social experiences. My disability was at its worst when attempting to make friends. Social development was given the same attention as my academic studies, in that, due to my perceptual problems, both people and books had to be studied. People were definitely more difficult.

The first week of school

I can't claim to have begun my college career with the "right" attitude. My parents insisted that I go. I wanted to work, but they knew I would not be able to find a good job. During high school, studying was not my highest priority; I had spent my time writing and publishing poetry, volunteering in schools for handicapped children, and doing political work. As a consequence, my grades were low, and naturally most colleges rejected me, including Antioch and Goddard, two alternative, nontraditional schools. Pitzer was the only school that accepted me, so I went there.

Orientation, a chance for new students to get to know each other and the college, occurred during the first week. Social functions were lonely for me. The crowds and the noise were overwhelming. Everyone talked to each other. People quickly formed groups, and I did not know how to join these circles. I would sometimes stand on the edge of the group and listen to the conversation. When I tried to join it, people would block me with their shoulders and their bodies.

Nobody approached me, and the wish to know people was so strong that I often approached them too boldly. I did not understand the need to make eye contact with a person before speaking to them. I didn't hear the sound of my own voice and didn't realize it was loud. Consequently, when I introduced myself to people, they would frequently reject me. One girl told me, "I don't mean to be cold, but I want to be alone right now." Later she was talking to someone else. More often, their eyes would wander all over the room as we spoke. I would ask question after question and listen to their answers. My "interviewing" style made people uncomfortable, and when they saw someone they knew, they left me.

I imagined myself having "the mark of the outcast." It seemed that everyone saw this mark in their unconscious minds and that this caused them to avoid me. The only way to overcome this mark was to approach as many people as possible. I believed that, with enough hard work, I could find a person who was not sensitive to this "mark."

Meals were a problem. The cafeteria was a large, noisy room with many long tables. Whom should I sit with? After getting my food, I had to balance the tray while looking for someone I knew. It was difficult for me to locate individuals in a crowd and to remember their names. I didn't know the rules. Once I sat next to a girl and a boy who were eating together. I felt rejected when they finished eating, picked up their trays, and left. If there was a group of people whom I didn't know and there was an empty seat, could I sit there? I dreaded eating alone, but his often happened.

It was difficult to complete the common tasks of student life. When I arrived at the bookstore, most of the books were sold out. At the meeting on registration, I couldn't follow the instructions. When the meeting was about to break up, I asked a question about community government. I needed the information, but the inquiry was irrelevant to the previous discussion. The meeting was extended for about ten minutes. Probably, my classmates did not appreciate this.

My first semester at Pitzer

I signed up for four classes: Spanish, Mass Movements and Extremism, History of the Holocaust, and Fundamentals of Mathematics. I have to admit to irregular attendance, for I often overslept, confused the time and place of classes, and arrived late.

I took Fundamentals of Mathematics in hopes of learning the math that I had not absorbed in high school. I did my homework and studied hard. I checked my work carefully to be sure that the teacher could read my handwriting and that the numbers were in the correct order. Many concepts were difficult to learn, but I didn't give up.

In Spanish, I also worked hard and did the assignments. When the teacher asked us to repeat words or answer questions, I recited enthusiastically with the class. But I was not able to recite alone, and I could not remember what the words meant. The written assignments made no sense to me, although I struggled through them using Spanish-English dictionaries and context cues from the texts. My problems were exacerbated by the fact that I didn't have a textbook and had to borrow from my classmates. I couldn't schedule enough time to study.

My social skills problems affected my academic life. For example, once in Spanish class, I asked the girl sitting next to me if she would share her book. We both looked at the book. Suddenly, in the middle of class, she glared at me and said, "Do me a favor, Dale. Keep the book." She practically threw it at me. Her actions startled and mystified me. Now looking back, it is clear that I leaned too close to her while looking at words on the page. I did not understand that people had a zone around their bodies that was not supposed to be violated.

In Mass Movements and Extremism, we studied political movements with fanatical leaders. Why were these leaders followed so blindly? This question fascinated me, but I had to strain to understand the lectures and books.

History of the Holocaust gave me similar problems. We had to write a term paper, and I couldn't seem to get started. It took me several weeks to choose the topic of Zionism as a movement. What made the Jewish people join together to develop the state of Israel? It took me a while to find the appropriate books in the library. When I found them, they were difficult to understand, and taking notes did not help.

Finally, I used the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature to locate magazine articles on the subject. While reading material in lay language, my understanding of the topic improved. I decided to write my paper as if it were a journalistic article written after World War II, using the information in the magazine articles.

Not only was I working academically, but my efforts to meet people became more systematic. I attended meetings and seminars listed on the bulletin board or in the student paper. Structured groups were easier than informal socializing. I liked sitting in a group and listening to the discussion, even when the subject did not interest me. If I wanted to participate, it was helpful to raise my hand and wait to be called on. That solved the worry about timing my comments so they didn't interrupt anyone.

I approached people who were also new to the meeting, concentrating hard while hearing their names and writing their names later. I greeted people by name the next time I met them. I was wrong much of the time, but people corrected me and I learned some names. At Hillel, the Jewish student group, I found two friends, Debbie and Susan, who were seniors. (All names have been changed to mask the identity of the persons involved.) We ate meals together and sometimes planned programs.

Although my social life was improving, by the middle of the semester, I faced serious academic difficulty. Only one class, mathematics, was going well. My consistent work there was paying off. The other classes were not going as well. My adviser and teacher told me to drop Spanish. This flew in the face of my belief about not giving up, but the alternative was failure, so I dropped the class. Although the research for my paper on Zionism was completed, I tried to write it and no words came. I clearly did not understand most of the material in Mass Movements and Extremism. What could I do? There was no hope for passing the final examination. I could not memorize the material. I gave the matter deep thought.

I remembered my fascination with T.W. Adorno's study entitled, "The Authoritarian Personality." Using a survey called the F-scale, he had identified a set of personality characteristics which led certain people to crave direction from leaders and to obey them. The survey was excellent, but many questions were slanted toward the politically conservative person. Clearly, authoritarianism was as common on the left as on the right. Could the questions be rewritten to tap the same characteristics in people with more liberal ideologies?

It seemed worth trying. I composed the leftist questions, then asked Mr. Clark, my teacher, if I could use these questions to survey the student population, write a paper on it, and have the grade on the paper substitute for the final examination. He was impressed with my idea and allowed me to substitute the paper for my final examination. But the survey would have to be "validated." We had to make sure it measured what it was supposed to measure. He agreed to help me with the statistical tasks and said we could use the computer with "Pearson's correlations."

I wrote out the survey and administered it to thirty Pitzer students. Then the trouble started. The statistical tasks did not make sense, and I asked my teacher the same questions over and over again. Fortunately, he was patient. Reading the paper now, ten years later, the problem seems obvious. The thinking required for this task involved directionality, positive and negative numbers, agree and disagree, left and right. At the time, I didn't know what was so confusing.

Toward the end of the semester, the computer broke down. Mr. Clark gave me an incomplete, and we decided I would complete the class the next semester.

My paper on Zionism still seemed stuck. I had a hard time writing it. I resented the task. It seemed useless to write something that only one person (my professor) would read. "Sometimes I just sit there paralyzed," I wrote in my diary — not knowing how to handle writing the paper, feeling afraid to write the paper. Once I spread all of the work on my desk, then I ran away. I spent three hours walking around. Then I was tired. I began to work. Exhaustion helped me to smash through my resistance. I would stay up all night and not eat or sleep until a certain number of pages were completed.

I did not have a historical or chronological sense of events. This paper was my first experience with footnotes and bibliographies. My first draft was a mess. Someone taught me to cut and paste with scissors and scotch tape and I did another draft and retyped it. Finally, it was complete and I turned it in.

My professor asked me to rewrite it. "This paper is not a research paper as assigned," he explained in a note. "There is only one type of evidence; your sources are very limited, your footnoting makes it difficult to assess the validity of some of your statements."

I was devastated. My grades for the semester were a B in math, one course dropped, and two incompletes. My parents would be furious if I failed. I didn't want them ashamed of me, and they were paying a lot of money in tuition.

Second semester at Pitzer — Passing my classes

Passing became my priority. The next semester, I signed up for courses that gave only A's. For example, one creative writing teacher promised an A to any student who wrote 1,000 words a week, regardless of the work's quality. Tom Mitchell was teaching Vietnamese history. He guaranteed A's to the entire class, and I signed up. I was not proud of my technique of selecting classes, but for me there was no alternative.

While deciding on my classes, a desire to transfer schools began to form. I needed a non-traditional learning environment where classes could be chosen on the basis of what I needed to learn. Perhaps Antioch or Goddard would accept me the second time. I had a B in math, and my second semester courses would lead to A's. Perhaps these grades would open their doors to me. I also needed another chance to meet people already, most of the students at Pitzer had stereotyped me as a "wierdo." Before beginning work on my incompletes, I filled out my application to Antioch.

The computer was finally fixed, and Mr. Clark and I completed the statistical analysis of the results of my survey. I did not have an undue amount of trouble writing that paper. Unfortunately, the paper on Zionism gave me tremendous difficulty. I didn't know how to revise it. The difference between academic and journalistic writing was not clear to me. The idea of approaching the professor for help frightened me. While reading the books written in academic language, I couldn't understand the "big words." I didn't know what was wrong with my footnotes. I had honestly done my best the first time. Staying up all night and staring at the typewriter did not help.

One morning, I ran into a sociology teacher whose class I was auditing. We began to chat. At a certain point, she said, "Dale, what's wrong? You seem upset this semester. You always look so tired!"

I sighed. She looked so understanding. "I can't write papers," I said. "I'm spending this semester doing last semester's work."

She asked me many questions, and I talked for a long time about my academic difficulties.

"Did you get your grade on the paper on the authoritarian personality yet?" she asked.

"Yes, I got an A on it," I replied. "But that was only because Mr. Clark was nice to me. He did most of the statistical work I didn't understand," "Dale, don't you see what you are doing?" she asked. "You're explaining away all of your successes. Your failures you accept. You've accepted the bad judgement on the other paper. Stop putting your ego on the line."

Her words struck me. I knew she was right. "Well, what should I do?" I asked.

"Take the original paper and rewrite it the best you can. Make sure your footnotes are in the correct form. Recheck the bibliography. Maybe you can polish up the writing. Check your transitions. Cross out any emotional words or opinions. Frankly, I doubt he'll make you rewrite it again. He's not an ogre. Just do the best you can and see what happens."

I raced to my room, wrote out her instructions, and followed them. I turned in the paper and passed the course.

Once my incompletes were finished, I again turned my efforts to making friends. I deduced a few of the hidden rules of social interaction. If you wanted to eat with someone in the cafeteria, the best thing to do was to go to lunch with a friend. Failing that, you could approach a group provided there was an empty seat and you knew at least one person by name. It was okay to approach two people sitting together, but they would often ignore you. I didn't yet know how to join a conversation. I was in the process of learning small talk. This passage from my diary illustrates my perception of one social situation:

Debbie and Susan were debating whether or not the bagels were fresh.

"They're very hard," said Debbie.

"But they're hard! Doesn't that mean they're not fresh?" "But if they're stale, they should be soggy."

The debate went on and on. I began to feel intellectually above it all which aggravated me, since one of the most important social skills I had learned this year was how to debate about cafeteria food and not go crazy.

"Dale," said Debbie. "You are not participating." "I'm afraid I shall have to take points from your class participation grade," said Susan.

"Well, what do you think about the bagels?" asked Debbie.

"Actually, I don't," I replied.

"Don't what?" questioned Debbie.

"I don't think about the bagels, I merely eat them," I said.

They laughed. I didn't know if they were laughing with me or at me.

As someone who is now familiar with learning disabilities, I see that I understood the necessity of small talk, but had difficulty paying attention and joining in. Everything was taken literally. When asked, "What do you think about the bagels?" I sequenced the words correctly, but answered in a literal way. I did not have the visual or auditory perception to determine if they were laughing at me or with me. The fact that they were reaching out to me shows my excellent progress that year. I still keep in touch with Debbie and Susan today.

My grades at the end of the year were five A's, one B, and one P for pass. Antioch had accepted me as a transfer student to begin that summer, and this excited me. I could start over socially with a new group of students who surely would be more compatible. Antioch's work-study program would give me the opportunity to travel all over the country and try out different jobs. And their classes were ungraded; students either passed or failed them.

Antioch first quarter

I decided to take easy classes my first quarter, since social adjustment was my most important task. Immediately, Antioch made me feel at home. The first night there, Lynn, my roommate, arrived. We talked for hours. Clearly we were on our way to a friendship.

In the morning, we met Eileen, a women across the hall. On our way to breakfast, several residents of our hall joined us. As we eating, Lynn said, "You know, Dale, it's funny, but it was easier talking to you last night. Your staring is bugging me."

"It bugs me too," said Eileen. "Is something wrong with your eyes?" "I think so," I replied. "But, I don't know what's wrong with them." "Well, lot's of people stare," said Mark. "It doesn't bother me at all." "Well, you're not sitting right across from her," replied Lynn. "I feel like she's looking right through me."

The conversation moved on to other things. It took me awhile to absorb the feedback, but at Antioch I began to understand why I made people uneasy. The "mark of the outcast" was real, but I could control it. I became conscious of moving my eyes and not letting them stare at a person or an object.

At Antioch, feedback was frequently given, requested, and received. Many students had been through encounter, sensitivity, and other forms of therapy. Through listening to the comments of my peers, I learned that certain aspects of my appearance made it difficult for others to relate to me. I tilted my head slightly. In order to look at something, I often moved my head and entire body instead of my eyes. To repress my hyperactivity, I held my muscles rigid. I was often startled and would make sudden movements. These were the visible signs of the dysfunction of my central nervous system. They were not obvious, yet people registered them in their subconscious mind. They often said they could feel a "strong aura", a "force field" around me. Students told me that I "tried to hard" and "looked nervous." During my years at college, I learned to control my body. This helped me make a good first impression.

Real learning begins

Classes at Antioch were very different from the classes at Pitzer. In my printing class, the teacher announced, "I am here as a resource. Everyone is expected to turn in a printed project at the end of the quarter. But I won't be teaching you. Just ask questions if you need help with your project."

A student shyly asked, "Do you have any guidelines for this project?" "No," he replied, "except it should be longer than one line."

An upperclass student took charge and requested that the teacher name each machine in the room, tell us the order in which they were used, and demonstrate the functioning of the light table. I asked if there were any instruction books for the machine. The teacher said "No," but several of my classmates looked at me with respect.

The unstructured educational approach at Antioch did not work for everyone. The dropout rate was high. It was rumored that some students graduated without having done any work. However, Antioch was effective for me, and I began to enjoy my studies. Now that I didn't have to fear failure, it was possible to attempt difficult classes. For example, I took Spanish again and passed it. I got organized and wrote out my schedule each day. The first few days of each quarter were spent practicing the route from class to class, from dormitory to class, and from lunchroom to class. My attendance became close to perfect. I liked small classes, so I took the ones that met early in the morning and tended to have less students.

Antioch assumed that everyone learned differently. I never felt handicapped or special. For the first part of my school career, I didn't know I had learning disabilities. Yet, at my request, faculty made the following accommodations for me:

  1. It took me longer to complete my work, so I would always ask permission to turn in one paper or project late. Unless they had a reason not to, this request was granted. The communications department allowed me to practice with the equipment for longer amounts of time than was needed by other students.
  2. Papers and projects could be substituted for taking examinations.
  3. Remedial classes were not labeled negatively. In a writing workshop, I wrote a paper each week and met with a teacher who helped me with structure and grammar. Students competed to get into this class. They had to be interviewed and show motivation. I was proud to get in, not ashamed of taking it. Antioch also offered a math workshop and a science workshop.
  4. When asked, faculty helped students. I frequently approached professors for help with difficult material. They were generous with there time, always checked extra work that was handed in, and often complemented my efforts.

Course work was still a struggle, but it was manageable. Classes were smaller and more social. Discussion was more common than lecture. Often the whole group worked together to complete a project such as making a film, building something for the campus, putting on radio programs, or writing a paper. On any project, there was always the option of working with someone else.

In this way, my social skills developed as an integral part of my academic work. Social skills and class material were thought about in the same analytic way. For example, I remember talking to someone when we were both standing on the library steps. At one point in the conversation, she stepped down one step and leaned slightly away from me. "That means she wants to end the conversation," I thought and drew my comments to a close.

I watched people, analyzed what they were doing, imitated their behavior, and watched how people reacted to me. I learned how to time my comments in a group so that I didn't interrupt. Joining conversations became easier. I discovered the importance of making eye contact before beginning a conversation. I practiced "leader" and "follower" body language. My academic success and problem solving skills helped me. I became more confident and accepted rejections more philosophically.

My social development was enhanced by the work-study program. Students studied for three months, worked for three months, studied for six months, worked for six months, studied for three months and repeated the cycle. Jobs could be found anywhere. The constant variation in peer groups helped me. I never established an eccentric reputation, and I could consistently improve.

My learning disabilities caused me problems on the job. In a factory, while working on an assembly line, my production was low because of my uncoordination. In a Montessori school, I had difficulty learning to use the preschool equipment which required perceptual-motor abilities. Filling out forms and following directions were difficulties in all of my jobs. However, I was usually successful. In a large institution for retarded children, 70 percent of the children met treatment goals which staff had warned me were too ambitious. When I taught English in Columbia, South America, my students did well, and I enjoyed teaching. Even in the factory, my work on an employees' committee resulted in several positive changes in working conditions.

Discovering my Learning Disabilities

One of the most important moments in my college career was when I realized I had learning disabilities. I saw a counselor about my work-related problems. She told me it sounded as if I had perceptual problems and instructed me to go to the library and find out about learning disabilities.

When I realized I had a handicap, I knew the problems I had been struggling with were real. In comparison with the learning disabled people who were described in the books, I had done quite well. I became proud of my academic success rather than ashamed of my long hours of study. I felt clever about coming to campus early to practice the routes to and from classes. My need to analyze the "social code" made sense. Up until that point, I thought my unconscious mind was making me feel distant from other people. Now I knew I was fighting a perceptual problem, and as my self-image became stronger, I became more understanding of my failures.

I had always felt different from everyone else. Now, I knew why. I was different, but in a specific way. My understanding of that difference ended my fundamental loneliness. Now it was possible to be open to the similarities between me and other people.

It wasn't easy emotionally to accept this new information. I had to go through stages of self-pity and anger at people who had hurt me in the past. It was clear that I had to learn more about my own handicaps before I could help children with handicaps, and I changed my major from special education to communications. I learned how to use video equipment, make a film and to work in a radio station.

For the next few years, I continued to work hard. Knowledge of my specific areas of weakness made me more efficient while studying. My coping skills were reevaluated. For example, once I realized that my hearing was inaccurate, I learned to relax while listening to people. When following instructions, I was careful to remember the first and second commands. I often asked several people to teach me the same material so none of them would get impatient. I always wrote down what was important to know. I also accepted my limitations. My last four classes at Antioch were divided so that I only took two per quarter. This gave me time to learn the material thoroughly.

Receiving my diploma was one of the proudest moments of my life. After the students graduated, we had to say our goodbyes. Males and females alike were crying and hugging each other. As I hugged my friends, I clung to them not wanting to leave the community that college had formed, where we had strengthened each other. But eventually I let go. Antioch had taught me how to work, how to learn, and how to be part of a community larger than myself. I was ready to face the next phase of my life.

Implications for educators

Since graduating from college, I have formed a self-help group of learning disabled adults, which became a model chapter for the nation. In the process of assisting the formation of other groups and advising many parents and professionals, I came into contact with hundreds of learning disabled adults. Later the self-help groups of the country formed the National Network of Learning Disabled Adults, and I served as it's first President.

My story and the stories of many other learning disabled adults lead to the following recommendations to post-secondary educators:

  1. Learning disabled students need academic accommodations. I would not have gotten through college were it not for the accommodations I received from Antioch. More traditional schools should consider the following suggestions:
    1. Allow learning disabled students to audit classes before taking them. Permit them to attend more than one section of a class. Request that professors let the students know about the work ahead of time so they can study before the class begins. Extend deadlines if possible.
    2. Be flexible in evaluating students, without lowering academic standards. Judy Agard, who studied the impact of PL 94-142 on learning disabled adolescents, states, "LD students, generally speaking, do not need a separate grading standard. But they may need additional opportunities to bring their grades up; e.g., doing extra homework, turning in homework or quizzes a separate time after corrections, doing individual projects in lieu of or in addition to tests, being allowed more time on tests, or being allowed to take the same test a second time." (Agard and Brannon, 1980, p. 119)
    3. Advertise "remedial" classes in a positive way.
    4. Provide tutoring if possible.
    5. Learning disabled students should be realistic about their course loads since most coping skills for learning disabilities take extra time.
  2. The social aspect of the college experience is as important as the academic material. Learning disabled students usually appreciate being taught social skills. They need to practice such skills as beginning a conversation, entering a circle of people, and making a request to an authority figure. It is also very important to give honest feedback to these students about their social adeptness.
  3. Faculty and counselors need to help students with learning disabilities develop self-esteem. Some learning-disabled students have a poor self-image because of the reactions that others have had to their handicaps. Helping them to develop self-esteem can be done informally, as when my sociology teacher helped me with my paper, or in more structured ways. Universities can provide counseling through their counseling services. Giving the students information about their handicap will also develop self-esteem. Without knowing what their problem is, the learning disabled students may blame themselves for their failure and will be unable to develop optimum coping skills. Finally, when learning-disabled students triumph over their handicaps, give them the congratulations and support that they deserve.

Students with learning disabilities can achieve successfully in college as I did. However, they need to be identified, supported by the institutions with reasonable academic accommodations, and encouraged by faculty and student alike.

About the author

Dale S. Brown is the author of five books on disabilities and employment including Job Hunting for the So-Called Handicapped, which she coauthored with Richard Bolles. She was a key player in the development of the Americans with Disabilities Act and has won numerous awards for her work in the field of learning disabilities. She is now the Senior Manager of LD Online.

Author's Note

First Published 1982, a chapter in Helping the Learning Disabled Student, by Marlin R. Schmidt, Hazel Z. Sprandel.

Brown, Dale. (1983). Learning Despite Learning Disabilities. Excerpted from Helping the Learning Disabled Student by Marlin R. Schmidt and Hazel Z. Sprandel.