If you’re a student with a learning disability, nobody has to tell you that you “think different”. You’ve been figuring that out for your entire life. But it’s possible that you also got the message that to think different was to think wrong. In case you haven’t quite figured it out yet, that message was never true.
One of life’s biggest challenges is being yourself (whoever that is) in a world that wants to make you like everyone else. I’m not sure what it is about being “different” that scares us so much. Its OK to be a little bit different, mind you, within certain parameters that we all subconsciously agree to, but there’s a tipping point beyond which being different is not OK any more. It can seem like a dangerous point to cross, because standing out too much can often draw unwanted attention. It’s been said that “the nail that sticks out farthest gets hammered the hardest”, and I think kids with learning disabilities often learn this lesson at an early age. Being different for some of these kids has not been much fun, so who could blame them for wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to start out clean when they head off to university?
For students with learning disabilities, arriving in a new community to attend college or university can seem like a fresh start. Nobody knows them on their new campus, so they don’t have to be “different” any more. Or to put it another way, they can be different like everybody else. They can step back from that imaginary tipping point, blend in like everyone else seems to, and leave their disability in the past. Or at least it seems that way. It’s easy for students to be seduced by the idea that they can leave their LD behind them. No more labels. No more resource room. No more being pulled from the classroom for special help. No more stigma, or teasing, or shame, or embarrassment. No more being a square peg in a round hole.
So it’s not unusual for students with learning disabilities to start their university career without any supports at all. Many of them choose initially not to identify to the disability services office, opting instead to stay under the radar and attempt university without the support or the labels or the baggage they’ve accumulated in arriving there. It’s easy enough to do, really, given the invisible nature of learning disabilities. In fact, the invisibility of LDs (and ADHD for that matter) leaves some people questioning whether or not they are real, including even some of the students who have them. It can seem easier to ignore that part of the self than to acknowledge, embrace, and love it.
The problem is, ignoring it typically results in bad outcomes for university students, who often arrive at our office after their first semester in significant academic difficulty. They may have failed a course or two, or they may even be on academic probation, but they are usually receptive at that point to talking about their learning disability, and about the supports and accommodations to which they were entitled all along. More often than not, a poor first semester is a hole that students can dig themselves out of, once they are ready to accept that aspect of who they are, to embrace their uniqueness, and to adapt their learning differences to their new environment. But it’s a problem that could easily have been avoided, if they were never made to feel embarrassed about their LD in the first place.
It’s true that we have come a very long way in our understanding of learning differences and disabilities, and in our acceptance of them in one another. The vast majority of students with learning disabilities who choose university, arrive there prepared to self-advocate and accept the supports and accommodations to which they are legally entitled. But…there are still too many who don’t. There are still too many who have been made to feel that they are a little bit too different. There are still too many who feel enough shame and embarrassment about their LD that they would rather risk academic failure than draw attention to this particular “difference”.
But what’s so good about regressing to the mean? What’s so special about sameness? Who wants to be average or ordinary? Fitting in usually involves hiding our unique light under a basket. It is vastly overrated, and often comes at a very great cost. The difference makers in the world have always been people who “think different” (or as Steve Jobs called them, “the crazy ones”), who don’t conform to the world, but who instead find ways to change it. They do it with courage, without apology, and without embarrassment. Which is exactly how students with learning disabilities should embark upon their university careers.
Some of you may remember Apple’s “Think Different” campaign from the late 90s. It bears viewing again, and it’s worth noting that many of the exceptional people in this piece are known to have had a learning disability, ADHD, or both