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The Positive Side of Learning Disabilities and ADHD

LD OnLine is sharing the positive side of learning disabilities. Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and other challenges can often present possibilities for personal growth and achievement.

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The positive side of attention deficit disorder was shown to the world in August when swimmer Michael Phelps won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics — a world record. Phelps has won 14 gold medals in his swimming career, and he and his mother partially credit his success to his ADHD.

Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD when he was nine years old and began taking medication, but when he was 11, he asked if he could discontinue the medication and focus on swimming. His mother Debbie Phelps believes that swimming helped him with his ADHD. Read more about Michael Phelps.

LD OnLine presents the positive side of learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder each November, when people in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving, a national day of gratitude. Our staff reviews the media and listens to readers of the LD OnLine Newsletter to bring you inspirational stories.

We believe that learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia, and other challenges often present possibilities for personal growth and achievement. And in the United States, Thanksgiving is a time to focus on gratitude and the blessings of our lives — especially those that we don’t ordinarily observe.

People with learning disabilities have much to offer to their families, their community, the workplace, and themselves. We need to overcome the tendency to focus so much on the challenges that we fail to see the triumph. We know that these disabilities can be difficult. We know it takes extra time, lots of effort, and persistence to achieve. We know that classroom teachers use every ounce of their professional skill to enable their students to succeed. We know that parents face a daunting challenge as they raise children who march to the beat of a different drummer. In the spirit of the season of Thanksgiving, we share with you these inspirational quotes from people with learning disabilities and their allies.

From well-known people with LD

Jack Horner

“I suffered from a lack of confidence due to a learning problem. It’s called dyslexia. It’s a word that, ironically, most of who have it can’t spell or pronounce, but maybe that’s the point. I wasn’t diagnosed until well after I had reached adulthood, had struggled through school being considered lazy, dumb, and perhaps even retarded, and had flunked out of college seven times. Most people felt I’d wind up working in a service station, or if I was really lucky, I might get to drive a truck at my father’s gravel plant. Nevertheless, I guess I’ve always found low expectations rather liberating. Disparaging assessments just fired my determination.”

Jack Horner is the curator of the Montana’s Museum of the Rockies, a world-renowned paleontologist, and the winner of the LD OnLine Inspiration Award. Click here to read more about Jack Horner.

Henry Winkler

“If there was one word that I would pass on to all children, it would be tenacity. What your school abilities are, and how you perceive your dreams are two very different things. I was not very good at spelling, math, reading, geography, history - I was, however, great at lunch. That being said, my dream of being an actor never wavered. Being smart does not necessarily correspond to school work. There is intuitive smart, emotional smart, street smart, knowing-how-the-cosmos-works smart. Those incredible pods of intelligence can create a wonderful life without ever getting a passing grade in geometry.”

Henry Winkler is an actor and the author of the Hank Zipzer books. Click here to read more about Henry Winkler.

Tom West

“New opportunities are currently unfolding that may require special talents and abilities in just those areas where many individuals with learning disabilities often have their greatest strengths, such as the visualization of scientific concepts and the analysis and manipulation of complex, three-dimensional information graphically displayed on these same personal computers (or more powerful personal workstations). As these opportunities unfold, it is not hard to imagine that skill with the manipulation of images may become more important, in some unexpected areas, than skill with words and numbers.”

Tom West is the author of In the Mind’s Eye

From the LD OnLine community

“We have two LD children a year apart with multiple disabilities. We are thankful for these two teenagers with their many special needs. They both have learned and excelled through the years and have had some great teachers and aides. My children try their best while never giving up. That’s all a parent could ask for. I am so thankful for my kids. They have humbled me. They have shown me what real unconditional love is all about. Here is my advice: Get involved with school at an early age. Get your child everything he or she needs for learning disabilities. Get support from your school, government agencies, LD OnLine, and doctors.”
—Mother of two children with learning disabilities (2008)

“All three of my sons have learning disabilities. They take pride in their creative sides which I believe relieves some of their anxieties and helps build their self-esteem. All of them love to draw pictures. My oldest son’s pictures usually tell a story or are in the form of a comic strip. My youngest son likes to create his own games or story maps. My middle guy, who has the most learning disabilities, not only draws wonderful caricatures, but has also found a musical instrument that he enjoys. I get excited when he walks around the house tooting away on his trumpet like he’s on top of the world. Many people don’t realize how creative our children are.”
—A parent of children with learning disabilities (2007)

“My daughter was diagnosed as dyslexic in fourth grade. I would not allow her to be placed in a special class. We told the teachers about her disability and how to work with her. Since I am a special ed teacher, I knew that she needed to be challenged. By high school, she was in advanced placement classes. Her teachers gave her extra time to complete her tests to even out the playing field. She graduated from law school but decided that her heart was in teaching. She went back to college and earned a masters degree in math/science. She still needed extra time for tests and used a computer so that she could use spell check.  She is now teaching in an alternative school in a classroom right across from mine.”
—A parent of a teacher with learning disabilities (2007)

“I think my learning disability has made me a more empathetic  teacher. I know how it feels to struggle and work harder than everyone else, yet be unable to do the work.  I know how it feels to try your hardest and have teachers say you are lazy. Having a learning disability has made me realize the importance of using differential teaching strategies to reach all my students with all of their learning styles. Because I learn differently, I understand my students with learning difficulties.”
—A teacher with a learning disability (2007)

“My son is now 16. He was diagnosed with a learning disability and a math disability at the end of kindergarten. Learning to read was such a struggle for him that he would cry if we brought out a book. He set a goal for himself that he would be in the regular math class by the end of grade 6 and he was. Then he set a goal that he would be in the regular English class. By the end of grade 5 he was reading at a grade 2 level. At the end of grade 6 he was reading at a grade 3 level. At the end of grade 7, a grade 5 level, and now at the start of grade 10 he is in ALL regular program courses. He is in regular English for the first time this year. There is NO doubt that he still struggles, but the drive he has built for himself keeps pushing for him to be all that he really can be.”
—A mom in Canada (2007)

“My self-contained class of 4-5-6-7 graders has severe learning disabilities. All my students come from single-parent homes and are on public assistance of some kind. Last spring I took the boys camping. I told them the food would cost $10.00. All but one boy were going so I asked him why he could not go. He said he did not have the money for food. I would have paid, but then the other seven boys would want me to pay for them. I give out raffle tickets for incentives and they can buy merchandise from me as a reward. The boys asked if Devon could pay the $10.00 in tickets and I replied I didn’t think he had enough. They all went in their desks and filled the top of my desk with raffle tickets. I had to get up and leave the room as I was so moved by their selfless act. We went camping and they all caught their first fish. I considered my performance last year a success regardless of what they learned academically. They gave something of value to someone who had less than themselves. I will tell this story until the day I die. My special education students are SPECIAL.”
—A special education teacher (2007)

“As a child, I struggled at school because they did not know what learning disabilities were. I became a speech/language pathologist. Due to my own difficulties, I am able to recognize them in others, no matter the age. My learning differences help me be a better diagnostician and therapist. I still can’t spell or do math but I try my best not to let that overshadow all that I can do.”
—Robbie R. Cox, M.Ed.,CCC-SLP (2006)

“My daughter is my Thanksgiving. From the very beginning, she has had problems with development and was slow to learn to read. She could not remember what was just said to her. The teacher and speech pathologist who worked with us were awesome. She came a long way within a year and has continued for many more. Now she is a junior in high school and advocates for herself, loves to learn, and has made the honor role despite having to work harder and do things differently than other kids. She has a part time job. Her managers think she is the hardest working teenager they know. She is already looking forward to attending college and becoming an architect. I know she will succeed because she has never given up or in to the disabilities.”
—Theresa Logue, Billerica, MA (2006)

“I have heard my son tell other kids with pride that he is dyslexic. He knows he has to work harder than other kids. He knows he is misunderstood and seen as not smart, because he doesn’t “get it” as fast as other kids. But he also knows that he is creative and can think ‘outside the box’ much more easily than others. He knows that his work ethic will help him throughout life. He knows that he sees nuances and spatial relationships that other people simply miss because they are not wired the way he is wired. He is thankful every day that he is dyslexic.”
—Dr. Nancy Burton-Prateley (2006)

“Getting through school was torture. I left school in sixth grade, to get on with real life and to use my talents. Both my husband and I have different learning disabilities and we are now able to help our five children who have dyslexia. We run three different businesses. We paint, sing, and teach. We have a patent on an egg replacement, create foods, and have a support group for people with allergies. My husband is a sought-after electrician. Never give up! School is not everything. The test scores are not who you are.”
—A parent with a learning disability (2006)

“I am thankful for my learning disability. It was a trying time being in special classes and being confused as to why I couldn’t keep up with other students. Fortunately for me, I was able to develop a hobby that would let me join the school talent show. I spun a basketball on my finger and did some simple tricks. I was in seventh grade, and the other kids, especially the younger ones, thought it was cool. That lit a fire in me, and I practiced and practiced. Sometimes, I practiced so much, I wore the skin off my pointer finger and it would bleed. In eighth grade, I spun two basketballs. In ninth grade, I spun three, and by tenth I could spin five basketballs. I was asked to show off my skills for small groups. One day I got a call. The man asked if I would like to perform half-time for the Cleveland Cavaliers NBA game. I said, ‘Are you kidding? You mean on the court? You mean in front of all those people? You mean I can meet some of the players?’ He said ‘Yes!’ I spent the next three years performing around 10 games a season for the Cav’s. I even learned to sign autographs while spinning the ball on the back of a marker.”
—Jim Jones, Northwood, OH (2006)

“When Emily was in fourth grade and still struggling with reading, she was placed in my class. Emily struggled with remembering words and letter sounds. She often came to school feeling tired, which contributed to her reading disability. I found out she had younger brothers at home for whom she provided much of the care. I tried to find ways to encourage her to keep trying, but some days were really tough. Emily did enjoy singing, so she joined the school chorus. She also had a creative mind, so I found a creative writing contest. We sent a piece of her writing. A friend of Emily’s got her into an acting group through a local church. She became involved with this group and developed her singing and acting abilities by starring in a production of “Bye Bye Birdie.” Emily is now in high school. Although she continues to struggle with reading, she has become a self-confident, bouncy and happy young lady. Despite her limitations, she has found a way to succeed — she is my inspiration.”
—A teacher (2006)

For more positive and inspirational stories, go to our First Person section, which has autobiographical stories by people in the learning disabilities community. LD OnLine is interested in hearing your positive stories. Please email us, using “Positive Side of LD” for the subject line.

For more information about Michael Phelps, an athlete with ADHD, visit these article and blogs:

LD Online November 2007
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