The courage to get real

Stylized drawing of young woman and lion, sky in background, reaching for heart representing courage.

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”   Anais Nin

In a previous blog article (When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change) I talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s contention that learning disabilities may in fact be what he called “desirable difficulties”. He contends that in spending a lifetime confronting and managing a learning disability, a skill set is forged which turns out to be a significant advantage when harnessed in the right way, potentially resulting in something extraordinary. I believe that one of the character traits forged during this process is the ability to function in the face of fear: courage.

Having courage is not the same thing as being fearless. In fact, appropriate fear plays a very important role in our survival. It would not be smart to ignore fear when we are faced with legitimate threats; it’s the thing that warns us that it’s time to fight or flee. Fear was indispensable to our ancestors confronted by sabre-toothed tigers and marauding enemy tribes. It wears different, less physically threatening faces in the modern age (often, it may in fact be False Evidence Appearing Real) but it still feels just as threatening and provokes the same instincts as it did in our ancestors. Courage is the thing that allows us to rise above the fear, to respond bravely when every instinct is telling us to run (or hide). Courage trumps fear, empowering us to meet challenges, stretch our limits, and find fulfillment in our lives.

It’s hard for me to use the word “courage” without thinking about one of my favourite movie characters, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. The interesting thing about the Cowardly Lion is that he was so focussed on his fears that he couldn’t see things as they truly were. In the beginning he is ashamed of being afraid, not understanding that true courage means taking action despite our fear (something he actually does frequently to protect his friends). In the end though, with a little help from the wizard, he is able to “change the way he looks at things” to recognize and accept his authentic, courageous self. He is finally led to the discovery that courage had been within him all along, and learns that you don’t have to be fearless to be brave.

So what does this have to do with learning disabilities? Just this: That school can be a scary proposition for a kid with a learning disability. Will I have to read aloud in front of the class? Will I be able to plan ahead and practice my passage so that I don’t screw it up? Am I going to blank out on the exam again, even though I studied hard and I know the material? Am I going to be bullied again today? Will I be called stupid or lazy or be laughed at in class? Why am I doing so poorly when I work so hard? And yet these kids get up each morning, marching bravely off to school to face whatever dragons may await them there. If we agree that courage is a kind of inner resolve, a resiliency that allows us to face scary circumstances head on, then let’s agree that these kids have it in spades.

It’s been said that courage doesn’t always roar; sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says “I’ll try again tomorrow”. That is what kids with learning disabilities do every day. But there comes a point for them when an even greater courage is required: The courage to acknowledge, accept, and embrace their learning disability in order to create the kind of life they want for themselves. I was reminded of this recently when a young woman arrived at our office to identify herself to us as a student with a learning disability, and to request accommodations. She explained that she’d had an IEP and received support throughout elementary school, but had decided to go without it in high school because she “didn’t want to deal with the label or the stigma”. She did reasonably well in high school with a lot of very hard work , and had hoped that trend could continue through university. It did not, which brought her to a realization that it was time to fully accept, confront, and manage her learning disability, and she is now well on her way to doing that. She readily admits that the prospect of that is scary, but she is ready to take it on…with courage.

I asked her what had ultimately spurred her decision to finally explore this aspect of herself without shame or embarrassment, and her answer was simple: “I was just tired of being afraid.” She went on to say that what she always had feared was being vulnerable in the face of other people’s judgement and rejection. She had always felt pressure to present her best possible self, and there was no place in that perception for anything resembling a flaw or an imperfection. It occurred to me as we spoke that we are all in the same boat, but that not all of us have the courage to deal with our issues the way this young woman was. Most of us do what we can to avoid confrontation with the “shadowy side” of our selves, but in finding the courage to learn about and accept all aspects of herself she felt lighter and truer and more authentic than she ever had.

Successful people with learning disabilities don’t get there by accident, and they don’t get there by denying who they are. And if it happens that who they are is in small part a person with a learning disability, then they go about learning what that means for them, and doing everything they can to understand and manage that aspect of the “self”. They don’t deny it. They don’t hide from it. They don’t run from it. They find the resolve to confront it and deal with it. It requires vulnerability, and self-acceptance, and authenticity, and…courage. And maybe that is one of the qualities that Gladwell is talking about as one of the positive side effects of living with “desirable difficulties”.

Author and lecturer Brene Brown had this to say about courage: “Courage is a heart word.  The root of the word is ‘cor’, the Latin word for heart.  In one of its earliest forms the word ‘courage’ meant to speak one’s mind by telling all of one’s heart.  Over time this definition has changed, and today we typically associate courage with heroic and brave deeds. But…this definition fails to recognize the inner strength and level of commitment required for us to actually speak openly and honestly about who we are and about our experiences – good and bad”.

A Turkish proverb says that a lion sleeps in all of our hearts.  Real courage is about connecting with who we truly are by entering our own hearts and awakening our inner lion.  It’s about being authentic in the face of fear and vulnerability.  It’s about accepting and loving ourselves (and one another) warts and all, which let’s face it, can be a messy business. But it’s the only way to live an authentic life, and it’s one of the greatest gifts we can give to one another.

Issues facing Adult Literacy Learners

Guest Blog Post by: Shelley Lavoie

Common Issues facing Adults with Learning Disabilities.

Life can be challenging for everyone. If you are an adult with a learning disability, daily routines can become problematic and lead to extra frustrations. Lack of academic skill acquisition causes issues well into adulthood. For those who struggle with low literacy levels, life can seem confusing and overwhelming on a daily basis. For those that don’t struggle, it is hard to comprehend the daily difficulties it creates. The act of buying groceries becomes an embarrassing ordeal in the grocery store. Imagine buying your groceries by the pictures on the product, or never trying anything because you couldn’t read the label, or mistakenly buying cottage cheese instead of sour cream.

As a result of the unsuccessful literacy attainment, people start to believe they are stupid, and develop a low self-concept which is reinforced many times a day. This may lead anxiety and emotional issues! Many of the adults I work with had very painful experiences during the school years and few successes which leave emotional scars. I think this is the toughest part of my job as Adult Literacy Instructor! Breaking those self-deprecating thoughts and helping people realize and focus on their strengths after years of feeling inadequate is a daily struggle. With the introduction of learning strategies and assistive technology to people who have never used them, people realize that there is help and that they are able to complete tasks independently. This is my favourite part of my job, when people begin to see new possibilities for themselves!

Lack of effective communication and social skills look differently in adulthood than they do in children and adolescents, but they definitely do persist into adulthood. These issues may lead to problems personally and in a work environment.

Organization is another issue that persists into adulthood. It is critical that people develop routines, implement strategies and practice the skills they need in order to be successful in their endeavors, whatever they may be.

The Windsor Public Library Adult Literacy Program supports adults who want to improve their reading, writing, and numeracy skills to achieve goals of Employment, further education and training, or independence. If you have any questions regarding Adult Literacy Program at the Windsor Public Library, I can be reached at 519-255-6770 x 4444.

Remember, it is never too late to find success! Celebrate your uniqueness and find a way that works for you!

The $64,000 Question

Guest Blog Post by: Erin Plumb

 

Hello My Name Is…

So I am new to the blogging world. This will be my first ever post and as such I thought I would take the time to introduce myself to you.   My name is Erin. I am an assistive technology trainer who works in a variety of places, including LDAWE, with a variety of age groups and disabilities. I have been an advocate for persons with disabilities for over 20 years. LDAWE asked me to create and facilitate a course for Adults with LD several years ago as Bev, our phenomenal Executive Director, and I share a passion for this under-serviced group.

What do I mean when I say under-serviced? Well, let me explain. Children within the public and separate boards have reasonable access to assessment, accommodation and funding for both. Young adults in either college or university have similarly comprehensive access. Adults by and large do NOT. That is not to say that parents and educators don’t struggle implementing reasonable and equitable accommodation; but, simply that adults have a couple extra hurdles.

Sculpture by artist Su Blackwell featured on the National Art Society. Click on the link to hers and other fantastic art. http://nationalartsociety.com/?p=4165

Sculpture by artist Su Blackwell featured on the National Art Society. Click on the link to hers and other fantastic art.
http://nationalartsociety.com/?p=4165

An Unhappy Ending

Once upon a time, before EQAO testing, IPRC and IEP meetings; there was no standardized system that existed province wide. There was limited resources for exceptional children in terms of testing and accommodation. Special education existed as a separate program for only the most severely disabled children. Many learning disabilities (LD) had not even become widely know to educators and parents. Even today many LD’s are poorly understood and many difficulties persist due to the invisibility of the disability. Adults who attended schools during this time were most often referred to as poor students who were perhaps lazy, deviant, or intellectually stunted. Unfortunately this fairytale does not end with “they lived happily ever after” for those involved.

The Woes of the Many

Screen shot 2013-07-19 at 1.28.59 AM

Many of the adults I have met over the years have expressed fear and loathing as the most prevalent feelings associated with their school years. Many didn’t read well, had poor writings skills and were singled out for it. For many it has led to lower literacy, poor self esteem, and less employment opportunities. Many are chronically under or unemployed. Many end up on Ontario Works and ODSP without even the knowledge that they have rights much less how to stand up for themselves. Many who were either not diagnosed or misdiagnosed. Many who become frustrated, disillusioned with society, angry and isolated. The many are a growing group representing as much as 2.5% of the Canadian population.

The Vicious Cycle

Vicious Cycle 2The biggest problem for this group of “many”is access to funding and support. If they missed out on meaningful diagnosis they run the risk of being trapped in a vicious cycle. A diagnosis is required for any formal accommodation; however, without an understanding of strengths and weaknesses many adults don’t know what they need to succeed and have difficulty asking even for informal accommodations. Assessment is a pricey undertaking especially if you have a fixed or limited income. School or training without accommodation is difficult or impossible. Many adults also have profoundly negative feelings of school based on their experiences and inherently mistrust education. With limited education this population has limited employment opportunities. A lack of accommodation coupled with all the problems associated with poverty leads to difficulties retaining permanent employment. Rinse, lather, repeat. At least until utter the frustration and perceived futility of the exercise causes complete disengagement from the goal of success within the society.

The $64,000 Question

Given the amount of barriers and the difficulties overcoming these barriers is there a functional solution? Can we as people of many different abilities devise an equation that is balanced? My writings on this blog will not likely solve all of these problems; however, I do have some ambitions and caveats.

Stuff that I will do:

  • create a positive space for adults with LD to talk openly about their experiences and ideas
  • try to shed some some light on the available community resources for this group
  • create awareness of  the needs of adults as distinct from those of children
  • discuss possible solutions both high and low tech
  • encourage society at large to embrace inclusivity and understanding

Stuff that I will NOT do:

  • give specific advice to individual cases
  • tolerate any hate speech or demeaning commentary towards any group of society regardless how angry/frustrated someone is with that group
  • engage in an “us vs. them” mentality

I will be writing 9 more blogs throughout the year. It is my sincere desire to generate some discussion so that we can use the collective wisdom of our experiences and ideas for change to make a difference.

Did I mention I am new to blogging? I managed to post this before I wanted to, not figure out how to add tags, AND delete the title while doing so. So here’s hoping the edit will address some of those issues.