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Personal Stories

Through a Glass Darkly: Creating my own place in the world

By: Madeline Harcourt

I painfully recall not being able to remember my teacher’s name. I didn’t know where my classroom was located, so that I could find her. I was eight years old and all the kids were laughing at me in the schoolyard at recess. I knew I was different, but I didn’t understand what was wrong. It was in the late 1950s and there was no such term as learning disabilities. I wasn’t diagnosed with learning disabilities until 34 years later, over 20 years in the workforce and five years of college. Being diagnosed so late in life was both devastating as well as relief. It was devastating because there is no medication, no cure or operation. It was a relief because I learned that I am not a failure.

Childhood memories

My family moved nine times by the time I was age 12, with each geographic move resulting in a change in elementary schools. My inability to learn and problems encountered at school were attributed to being the new girl in class. By the time my academic records arrived, I moved on to a new school. As a result, I avoided the authorities who would have put me in a retarded class had they caught up with me. Back then all I seemed to be good at was art and writing. I would feign sick as often as I could so that I could stay home from school. I recall one year that I had 42 absences and I was in the fifth grade. In the sixth grade, one of my teachers wrote on my report card, “Madeline is not very intelligent, but she is a very polite girl.” My parents were thrilled with this news because at least I was a good girl. I can still hear the sting of the principal’s words when I dropped out, “You will never be anyone without a high school diploma.” It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the system failed me; I did not fail the system. At 17, I found a job through family members that I remained in for 12 years. I was happy to be working in the white collar world as a file clerk and secretary at a psychiatric hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. I was still afraid of trying new things and I still didn’t understand why.

GED to Ph.D. (student)

In 1981, while working at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, I was exposed to coworkers who encouraged me to go to college. I went on to get a GED and moved to Hawaii. It would take me five years to get to college. I was diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities in 1992 when I was a senior and could not learn a foreign language. I was surprised to learn, that in 1992, just as in 1962, the educational system was not prepared to help me. When I began to disclose my disability to faculty for accommodations in certain classes, I soon learned that they did not understand learning disabilities. Frustrated, I was determined to come back to the university to assist students like myself and educate the faculty. I developed a handbook in 2002 called, Great Expectations: Creating A Welcoming Classroom Environment for All Students and created companion workshops by the same name.

Living in a different world

My deficits are severe and involve organization, reading comprehension, dyslexia, audio discrimination processing, sequencing information, rote memorization, spatial relations, new language acquisition and more. I now know that I couldn’t remember my teacher’s name because I have dyslexia. I could not find the classroom because of spatial relation deficits. I understand that if I take on too much, I will hit what I call, the invisible brick wall. It seems that I am often on a roller coaster ride of successes and failures and emotional highs and lows. Today, I know I can’t “run the marathon,” but what I can do is take different routes and discover new things. I have embraced my creative side and develop successful transitional programs for people transitioning from jail, homelessness, prostitution and drug and alcohol programs. I understand now that I am a “different” learner and I need accommodations in which to be successful. Today as a doctoral student, I use assistive technology, student help, tutors and accommodations in the classroom. I am still learning about my disability and how to ask for what I need. I understand the environment I work in is very important and determines whether I will excel or even function at all. I accept that it will take me much longer to complete certain tasks than it does other people. Being an adult with learning disabilities is often challenging, so I use positive self-talk, affirmations and creative visualization to keep me on track and moving forward in my life. I can’t get my childhood years back or years that I wasted, but I can work towards a successful future. Life is just too short to dwell on the past or on one single negative thought! There are too many things I want to learn!

About the author

Madeline Harcourt lives and works in Honolulu, Hawaii. She is a doctoral student at the College of Education (Exceptionalities) at the University of Hawaii. She also works as a Leadership Trainee at the Center on Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii. She is author of Great Expectations: Creating A Welcoming Classroom Environment for All Students, a handbook to educate faculty about disability related issues and developed workshops by the same name. She was one of ten people nationwide to receive a National Service Inclusion Project grant and created Ready, Set, Go! a transition project for people with disabilities. She works on various Center on Disability Studies committees and advocates for access for people with disabilities, including learning disabilities.

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