by Maggie McDonald, Learning Ally member
Frustration was normal, struggling was expected, low grades were customary, and stunted self-esteem was routine. In my eyes, my grades were the determinants of my worth, and I was worthless.
This was my perception of life two months before my fourteenth birthday as I sat in front of a dyslexia tester.
She asked me to spell rudimentary words, and I could not. She asked me to identify my right and left hand, and I could not. She asked me to name everyday objects in pictures, and I could not.
When she asked me to repeat a series of numbers backward, I felt like she had just asked me to swallow a nail. I could not do it. This terrible experience led to my diagnosis with dyslexia. Any confidence that had withstood the seven and a half academic years of frustration was obliterated.
I, like most people, saw dyslexia as a label, and the devastation of my self-esteem.
During the next three years, I persevered through countless remediations in addition to my normal class load. I was home educated, and for one hour a day, five days a week, I sat at a table with three of my younger siblings. Together, we trudged through a phonemic remediation taught by our mother who was trained in an Orton-Gillingham program. Remediation was onerous and humiliating, and I was angry with myself for needing it.
“If I had worked harder,” I told myself, “I could have avoided this diagnosis; I could have continued to hide it.”
I knew, however, that my self-esteem and learning process could not sink any lower than they already were. “All I can do is try,” became my response to every remediation that confronted me.
By my sixteenth birthday, I had graduated from two intensive twelve-week vision therapy sessions, completed occupational therapy, and logged over four hundred hours in phonemic remediation. Now, I could learn; the problem was, I still could not. My grades had increased but at the price of my energy. Shortly after my sixteenth birthday, I was once again in a physician’s office. This time, it was a psychologist’s office, and I was answering questions about my focus and exhaustion. I could not even organize my thoughts well enough to answer her questions. I was preparing for the ACT, attending community college classes, and beginning my college search. Another diagnosis and more remediation were not in my perfectly planned out schedule.
When I received a diagnosis of ADHD, I once again swallowed my pride, accepted the diagnosis and the work that came with it, and told myself, “All I can do is try.”
I began executive function remediation and started taking ADHD medication shortly after my diagnosis. After ten years of struggling to learn, I finally experienced the ease of learning that most people take for granted. For the first time in my life, I could form an active thought after 7 P.M. Life was no longer a series of overwhelming tasks.
Dyslexia remediation was the key to the door of my learning, but it was not until I remediated my ADHD that I had the strength and focus to push that door open.
Dyslexia and ADHD taught me what hard work can accomplish. I was an angry, frustrated, substandard student at fourteen; I earned a thirty-four on the ACT at seventeen.
Success came only through hours of relentless effort. As my learning became less encumbered, my work ethic did not change. The energy that I once spent pushing through my disabilities was now solely devoted to learning.
Dyslexia and ADHD are weaknesses; however, inside those weaknesses dwell my greatest strengths.
Dyslexia allows me to view the world in a three-dimensional way. While this makes two-dimensional tasks like reading and writing more difficult, three-dimensional tasks like art come naturally to me. My dyslexia inspired me to draw, and my success with drawing inspired me to choose architecture as my college major. I may never be able to spell "sure" without googling it, but I am confident that my paintings and sketches convey more than that four-letter word ever could.
My bouncing focus gives me the ability to view problems from many different angles, and to synthesize a solution from all the criteria. ADHD allows me to think “outside the box” because I am incapable of thinking inside the box.
My “weakness” has become the means of my success, and the means through which I will impact the world.
Nothing has come easily to me in this journey. While preparing for the ACT, I had to submit documentation for accommodations three times with increasing detail before my request was accepted. The final request was thirty-four pages long.
At every college I visited, I met with the disability office about my specific needs. I encountered a range of reactions. At one college, the dean told me I should probably go to a different school. While this response wounded me, it only fueled my determination to utilize the talents my disabilities represented.
I am the first diagnosed dyslexic in my family. Since my diagnosis, eight of my younger siblings have also been diagnosed with learning disabilities. My siblings are watching how I own my disabilities. It is imperative to me that they, and others, know learning disabilities do not hold us back, they only push us forward. I want to transform the cloud of shame that permeates dyslexia, ADHD, and all learning disabilities into rays of hope and pride.
Regardless of what my future holds, I have already won a great victory. I have conquered my insecurities, embraced my disabilities, and learned to love who I am, and who others with learning disabilities are. My greatest hope is to use my diagnosis, my academic success, and my experience advocating for myself, to advocate for what life with a learning disability can be.
My story is still being written, but with every new chapter, I hope to shed more light on the hope and talents that learning disabilities give us.
Learning Ally is a leading ed-tech nonprofit organization proven to transform the lives of struggling readers with learning differences. Not a member yet? Try a quick start package for your school or an individual membership, and then sign up for our Summer Reading Together – a free summer reading program for Learning Ally member schools and families.