“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” So said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (beloved author of The Little Prince), and it would seem to follow that if you want children to learn you must teach them to love learning. The reality is that they already know how to do this, if we would only get out of their way. Children are born with an innate curiosity and natural love of learning. They don’t need anyone to teach them this. What they need is for what’s already there to be valued and nurtured and used as fuel to launch them into the world.
In my last post (Tree-Climbing Fish), I somewhat reluctantly invoked the name of Albert Einstein. I say “reluctantly” because I want to be cautious about perpetuating the stereotype of the famous super-human with a disability, who is so extraordinary that he overcomes every obstacle with a smile on his face, providing inspiration for all of the rest of us ordinary folk. The reality is that extraordinary challenges are conquered every day by all kinds of people with all kinds of disabilities, including learning disabilities. I’m privileged to witness this on a daily basis in the work that I do with students who have ADHD and/or LD, who have somehow never lost the joy that comes from learning.
One of those people is my guest blogger this week, Sophie Rutter, who only found out in her last year of high school that she has both LD and ADHD. Now one full year into her university career, Sophie has become an ‘A’ student who is enjoying a level of academic success that she was never able to attain until now. And making it happen wasn’t rocket science. She already possessed the intelligence, the resiliency, the work ethic, the curiosity, and a love of learning. Once she also had the right tools and the right information, she had everything she needed to finally show the world what she can do. I hope you enjoy reading these insights from the anything-but-ordinary Sophie Rutter.
Diagnosis: Learning Ability (by Sophie Rutter)
There are as many possible paths to a destination as there are people. For some, finding a path means checking a map and deciding which arrows to follow. Then there are those of us who have trouble understanding the roadmap we’re given and so go off the trail to forge a different way to our goal. This method requires some extra innovation and can take longer, leading some to call us “slow”. In the end, though, the journey leaves us with the same level of skill and knowledge as those who took the more conventional route. In the world of education, people with learning disabilities/ADHD are definitely off-roaders. As one of those students, I can attest to the fact that the amount of ability far outweighs the disability, if we take the time to consider the road less taken as a valuable discovery. I can also tell you that it is vitally important for parents and teachers, not only to see that potential, but to let their students know that they see it.
I have had people remark on how great it is that I’m attending university “despite having a learning disability”. While it’s true that I’ve worked hard to get here, I think it’s important for people to remember why I’m here. I’m here because I have strengths and gifts, which I’ve learned to use with support from those who see potential in me. Post-secondary students with disabilities are not only able to learn in spite of what we can’t do; we are able to learn because of what we can do.
The prefix “dis” means “opposite”, and so the term “learning disability” implies a lack of ability to learn. This is not an accurate description of anyone I’ve ever met with an LD. What we do have are difficulties in specific areas of cognitive processing that tend to be at odds with the way we are taught and tested in school. When we are given the chance to try less conventional methods, it becomes obvious that our lack of ability is not in learning, but in learning the way we are expected to.
The somewhat misleading term “disability”, along with words such as “deficit” and “impediment”, can cause damage when used carelessly. Kids as young as eight are separated from their peers to receive special education services, and what those students are told about themselves matters. Rather than being told that they “need extra help to understand”, we should be telling them the truth: they have difficulty learning the material the way it was taught in class, so let’s try a different way. They should never, ever be made to feel that they are less intelligent than their peers, and we should never let a label or diagnosis distract us from the unique gifts a child has to offer.
There are people who say that not all of us are “cut out” for post-secondary education. To me, the idea of a cookie-cutter education system is much more of a concern than the people who don’t fit into it. We might not be cut out for the teaching and testing methods often used in school, but that hardly means that we’re not cut out for education itself. When discussing disabilities with students, parents and educators should never equate difficulty with lack of ability to succeed. Furthermore, we all need to look at people in terms of what they can do, not just what they can’t, and use a broad definition of intelligence that allows all types of learners to shine. Test results alone will never show what someone is capable of. With that in mind, let’s not forget what any assessment should conclude: Diagnosis: Learning Ability.