College Life with a Learning Disability

By Gabrielle Blachman

I’ve been called brilliant, stupid, genius, disabled, gifted, talented, slow and creative. I was never called normal. When I was six and had to repeat kindergarten, I was diagnosed with learning difficulties. I thought by doing the reading therapy, and my second year of kindergarten, I would rid myself of these learning challenges. I stopped therapy before second grade and struggled all the way through high school with zero confidence in my scholastic abilities. My teachers constantly told me I was not fulfilling my potential. I was shuffled from the gifted classes to the “slow-kids” classes and back again.

I re-discovered my learning disabilities (or, LD for short) in a diagnosis class at community college five years ago. Once I found I had LD, I researched like crazy. Before I knew I had LD, I was constantly angry with myself for not “fulfilling my potential.” I thought I was just being lazy, or a slacker as my friends said. Really, I was struggling with so much more than they could have dreamed. I am decidedly not an audio learner, which means I don’t understand lectures, they sound to me like the Charlie Brown teachers, “Wa wawaw wa. . .” When I concentrate on a lecture I only frustrate myself. When I take notes I end up focusing on my spelling and my horrid handwriting; important concepts whiz by my head as I wrestle with jotting down the ideas in any comprehensive form. But when I have a note taker and a knitting project to occupy my hands, I find I relax and allow myself to grasp more than I would if I “concentrated.”

After the class, I have to go over the note taker’s notes if I want to understand the lecture. This extra work is par for the course of LD. If I want to do well, then I have to put in twice as much effort into things I do not understand. In reaction, I’ve developed a brilliant memory; once a concept is in my head it goes nowhere. To burn concepts to memory I make flash cards, re-re-re-read passages, work extra problems and quiz myself.

Speaking of quizzes, I find tests terrifying. I tend to choke under time constraints. Regurgitating memorized equations and their appropriate uses paralyzes me. To counter this I get extra time and a separate room for my exams. Despite efforts by the university to offer support I usually find myself disadvantaged by the process. For an example, I’ve been bumped from a “distraction-free” room in the middle of an exam. It’s happened multiple times, in the middle of tests. I can’t tell you what a definitive distraction walking from building to building with a distraught proctor desperate to find a quiet spot for me to use my last twenty minutes so I can stare painfully at my half-finished proof now that my train of thought has completely left me, is. So what to do? I recommend students contact their professor immediately afterward. Tell the Prof what happened and how it affected your performance. Make sure you follow up by reporting the whole experience to your DRC advisor.

At this point in my life, after struggling through five other colleges, three of them community colleges, I’m pretty satisfied. I have had to work harder than most of my classmates to get to this exact same point. I excel in the work place, since I’ve had to develop a work ethic my colleagues will never have. I know the intricate steps of the bureaucracy shuffle from my college education on the fringe of what is considered a “normal” college experience. I know I am more determined. I know intimately my strengths and weaknesses and how to use both to my advantage.

Recently, I discussed what LD means with a child I tutor. He has LD and was frustrated because the other kids could type faster than he could, write faster, do lots of things faster. Just wait, I said, your hard work will pay off. Even though these other kids can do the everyday things better or faster, you think differently, which means with hard work you can type as fast as they can, but no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to think as creatively as you. Look at Einstein, he had LD and definitely used his creative problem solving skills to his advantage.