Don't let a disability get you down: Accepting new challenge can lead to major mental breakthroughs

"Finding out that I had a learning disability changed everything. It gave me an explanation for many of the things I struggled with all my life, but also pointed out a lot of my strengths—many of which I didn’t know I had."

It was 3 a.m. Instead of sleeping, I sat awake on the couch trying to finish the homework I had been working on since 4 o’clock that afternoon.

It’s late, and of course, I was tired. It was hard to stay awake, but I continued to push through, determined to get the work done.

The next morning, I turned in the homework only to get low scores on everything.

“You’re not trying,” my teachers told me.

Up until that point, I had been getting by in school and managed to get good grades. However, as I advanced in school, the work only seemed to get harder and harder. Over time, the English assignments I used to breeze through took me all night to finish. As the readings became more difficult, I had trouble deciphering the complex concepts underlying the material. Eventually it got to the point where I couldn’t keep up any more.

I felt like a failure. All of my friends were doing well in school without having to put in much effort. Why couldn’t I be like them?

HITTING BOTTOM

Frustrated and exhausted, I finally gave up, refusing to go to school. If all the work I put in seemed to amount to nothing, then why should I even try at all?

My parents noticed my sudden change in behavior—a total burnout—but could not understand why their once motivated student would not go to school. Unaware of all the time I was putting into my work, they also believed I should be trying harder. But they knew something else was wrong. They decided to get me evaluated for a learning disability.

The process of being diagnosed was long and hard. I spent the day with a neuropsychologist where I struggled to arrange blocks into nonsensical patterns, categorize pictures and attempt to memorize lists of words. In the end, I was diagnosed with a nonverbal learning disability, which causes difficulties with problem solving and reading comprehension in people who are, as it turns out, exceptional in verbal communication.

Finding out that I had a learning disability changed everything. It gave me an explanation for many of the things I struggled with all my life, but also pointed out a lot of my strengths—many of which I didn’t know I had. Now that I was diagnosed, I could stop focusing on what I couldn’t do and use my newfound strengths to my advantage.

One of those strengths I’ve discovered is writing. Since being diagnosed, writing has become a passion of mine. For the past three years, I’ve been writing for ThreeSixty Journalism, where I get to use my strengths by working with concrete information and write using facts and information obtained through interviews. And as an introvert, writing also gives me the chance to think about what I want to say—in my own time and without interruption. At ThreeSixty, I’ve recently been promoted to Senior Reporter, the highest rank in the program. In addition, I have even won awards for my work from the Minnesota Newspaper Association.

ACCEPTING ADVERSITY

It just goes to show that people with learning disabilities can accomplish great things. I am merely one example.

Unfortunately though, many still assume that people with disabilities will never succeed. Some people make fun of students with disabilities in class and seldom give them a chance to showcase their strengths. But that shouldn’t be the case.

Having a learning disability doesn’t mean you’re incapable of doing something: It just means you may have to do it differently than others. It’s about learning how to focus on your strengths rather than battle your weaknesses.

That’s a lesson I’ve learned to keep in mind every day. For me, it means that I have to be aware of my disability—and how I need to counter problems with my strengths. If I get stuck on an assignment I’m working on, it’s not because I can’t do it. I need to find a different way to look at it so the problem or question eventually makes sense to me.

I am a student who has faced adversity and I intend to continue to excel in life. My future goals are to go to college and become a journalist. However, the struggle continues as I apply for colleges and try to convince admissions counselors that I am more than my ACT score, a test that reflects my disability more than it shows my ability. That doesn’t mean I can’t succeed, though. With proper accommodations for my unique learning style at school—extra time and modified tests, namely—I’ve been more successful.

ADVOCATE FOR YOURSELF

Getting those accommodations wasn’t so easy, though. As a student with a learning disability, I’ve learned the importance of self-advocacy. It’s not easy, but in order to get the accommodations you’re entitled to, you have to speak up for yourself.

Sure, it still upsets me that my teachers simply assumed that I wasn’t trying, that they couldn’t spot the signs of a learning disability, or at least help me get the resources I needed to succeed. And I definitely think they could be trying harder to help students who are really struggling.

But there’s also a lot I could have done. I could have reached out to my teachers, told them I was struggling and that I needed help. Self-advocacy is a hard skill to learn, though. In fact, it’s something I’m still working on today. But I’m getting there.

And these days, instead of staying up all night to get my work done, I sleep soundly knowing that despite my disability I can do anything.

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