Finding New Routes: Jessie's Climb to Higher Education Success

[Jessie] Young people with learning disabilities enjoy a wide spectrum of talents and capabilities because in most situations this "invisible" disability is not obvious to other people, it is difficult for some people to understand why these bright children struggle with tasks or thought processes that come easily to their peers. They get labels like lazy, non-compliant, defiant, impertinent, and stubborn. Some conclude, "If these kids would just sit still, listen to their teachers and parents, pay attention, follow rules and control themselves like everyone else, all would be fine." With this thinking, adults conclude that children with learning disabilities just need to try harder and, when they seem not to, they need to be punished. But, punishments that focus on changing or eliminating behaviors over which the child has no control, along with criticism and reprimands, just add to the layers of frustration and failure that young people with learning disabilities experience on a daily basis.

My name is Jessie, and I am no stranger to these experiences. Although I have had a lot of success with physical activities throughout my life, such as track and ballet, I first became aware of my learning disability in the second grade when everyone in my class was reading and I wasn't. My mom approached the teacher, who minimized the problem saying I was just a 'late bloomer,' and this was true my entire life. Even in third grade I still couldn't read. They kept telling my mom "don't worry, don't worry." I struggled in every grade as I progressed through school.

When I was in the fourth grade, I was in a first grade reading level and that was very hard. And my writing skills were just non-existent. It was impossible for me to keep up with my peers in reading and writing tasks and my difficulties affected my performance in other subjects as well. Science reading is really dense, and I get completely and totally lost in it. Even in math classes I do dyslexic-like errors such as dropping negative signs. It gets me all mixed up. There's no area in which I am free of it. It's a part of me.

I managed to get to high school and college and experience success. I was determined to be "academically independent." With support from my mother and a perceptive tutor, I figured out how to tap into my own resourcefulness to reach my own self-defined goals. Ever since I was in third grade, whatever the teachers and other students were doing, I didn't get it. I had to think of something else. I got really frustrated because I couldn't get it the way they were doing it. I was always behind. So my mom would help me by finding different ways to do the work. Now that I'm in high school, I'm finding my own way, developing my own methods. I learned how to study. For example, I would create whole tests of the subject material and just quiz myself, and quiz myself, and quiz myself. And, you know, it works. I've gotten A's from doing this.

I discovered an assortment of resources at DO-IT, including a network of peers and mentors with whom I share common experiences. We communicate year-round on the Internet. I listen to taped versions of my textbooks. I have a speech output system on my computer to read me all text that appears on the screen. A computer program allows me to talk into the computer rather than type on the keyboard. With this speech input system, I dictate my work to the computer and then use a standard word processor to edit it into final form. Having note takers in class to alleviate my difficulties with both handwriting and screening teacher lecture material is another strategy that has helped me focus on my strengths instead of my deficits. Every day I better understand my learning style and as a result I am able to figure out alternative strategies to tackle my classes and assignments in college. I also seek out activities that don't require accommodations for my learning disability like running and dance.

I do fear failure sometimes, but I've learned that I'll fail if I don't even try. One of my tutors described a learning disability as a "hill." It's as though I am an avid skier, but, instead of using a chair-lift like everyone else, I must continually climb the hill in order to ski back down with my peers. She and my mom always reminded me of this example and told me "you're smart Jessie, smarter than a lot of these kids, you just have to struggle and work hard sometimes, but you're finding a different way." They would tell me about people who overcame their disability and were successful, so I never felt like I was dumb. Finding new methods was part of the climb up the mountain. When I was younger my mom would turn out the lights and quiz me orally on my spelling. It was weird. Sometimes I could do it and sometimes not- it was a mystery.

My relationship with my tutor was special, different from my friends. Unlike my friends, my tutor understood the immense effort it takes me to achieve what seems to come easily to others. When I was younger I didn't mention my disability because I was ashamed of it. It wasn't something I talked about a lot because I didn't want to acknowledge it. My mom and sister are the exact opposite of me. They never have to study, and everything seems to come easily to them. I have friends like that too. They don't seem to have to work at all, so they can't understand what I have to go through. On the other hand, I know that because of my disability I have learned how to be resourceful and adaptable. I am able to see the world from multiple perspectives and find alternatives. Now instead of hiding my disability I am involved in a campus group advocating for students with disabilities, DASA (Disability Advocacy Student Alliance), and this year I am serving as its president!

I see things in a different way. I know how to work hard. I'm determined; not being able to attack a problem one way has forced me to learn new skills that I may not have learned if I didn't have a disability. As I have gotten older I have developed a stronger and stronger work ethic. Just remember, if you work hard, you will get a payoff, and it will definitely be worth it.

[This success story has been modified and reproduced with the permission from the following publication: Burgstahler, S. (2006). Creating an e-mentoring community for teens with disabilities: How DO-IT does it and how you can do it, too. Seattle, WA: DO-IT, University of Washington, pp. 45-47]