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Personal Stories

Advice About Being an LD Student

By: Caitlin Callahan
Caitlin Norah Callahan

For any student with a learning disability, school often provides overwhelming challenges, which must be faced. The struggles come from both internal and external sources. The impacts of the disability vary and evolve, compounding the student's difficulty. Teachers, friends, and parents often add to the stress, in spite of their best intentions. Although as a student with a learning disability, I myself have experienced great deal of pain and frustration, there are several survival techniques which help me cope. To be student with a learning disability is to be a member of a minority, and as such each of us should share our experiences so that others may develop strategies to help them through their struggles.

I believe one key idea is to find one's own definition of the dual identity within oneself as a learner and as a student. The learner is the one who makes an effort to be curious, involved and motivated. The student is the one who determines how you cope in school. Not all knowledge is taught in school. It is the student identity which gets labeled as disabled. The "learning disability" should not be allowed to overwhelm one's desire to attain knowledge. The learner in you must prevent it.

Another piece of advice besides developing a personal definition is developing one's self esteem, to learn to have no fear of oneself. I felt like there was something wrong with me before I found out I had a disability; when I finally was diagnosed, it took me years to believe that I was not stupid or limited. However I now understand that "to be categorized is, simply, to be enslaved," as Gore Vidal expressed. The label of learning disability should not be allowed to determine one's identity, character, or self-image, nor one's potential.

Support from friends who can be trusted is crucial. It is destructive to believe that if you have a learning disability and your friends do not, you are too different from them to talk about your problems. I know from experience that the only result is self-imposed isolation. Asking for support from friends with whom you are comfortable will help maintain your self-esteem. Everyone wants to feel normal, not different, not disabled. The challenge is to accept yourself as who you are and believe in your own self-definition. Although there may be differences on some levels, you may also find friendships with those with whom you have something else in common. I have come to trust and value those similarities.

Getting help or asking for support in the areas which present hurdles is essential. What is also equally important is choosing carefully which voices or people have influence over you, your goals, your self-esteem, and your successes. Well-meaning or good-intentioned professionals or teachers can be just as hurtful to you as those who speak with prejudice and ignorance about learning disabilities. It is not a kindness to limit opportunities in education when a student experiences difficulty. As a member of a minority group which frequently cannot be detected from behavior or external clues, a student with a "hidden" learning disability ought to be able to acknowledge his or her vulnerability without being overpowered by negative and condescending opinions. No one should determine what you can and cannot do because he or she thinks that having a learning disability automatically makes you less capable. "The power to exceed is not the same as the desire to exceed." (T.P. Gore) A student with a learning disability can have just as much desire for success as a student without a disability.

But most of all, a student with a learning disability should always ask questions -- of themselves, teachers, evaluators, and tutors. The reason is that only when there is knowledge about your disability can there be the opportunity for self-advocacy. Being able to speak for yourself is crucial for getting the accommodations needed for your education and for full inclusion in the class by the teacher. The children's storybook character Winnie the Pooh said appropriately that "rivers know this. There is no hurry. We shall get there someday." The fact is that every student can learn in school, even with a learning disability; we all will get there someday.

This essay was written for my application to the Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Award given by Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. The Marion Huber Learning Through Listening Award is given to graduating high school seniors who have been members of RFB&D for at least a year, have a grade point average of B or better, and intend to go on in their education. Each applicant had to provide a transcript from their high school, two teacher recommendations, and three essays. Essays were to address personal history, impact of using RFB&D services, and advice to other learning disabled students. My essay on advice is shared above.

About the author:

Caitlin Callahan is currently a student at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. During the summer of 1997 she worked as an intern with WETA working on LD OnLine.

Visit the Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic on the Internet to learn more about their services and scholarships.

More from Caitlin Callahan:

The Bright Yellow Planner: A Turning Point in Accepting My Learning Disabilities