Practicing Empathy Towards Learning Disabilities

A learning disability simply means that your brain is wired differently than other brains. They’re due to neurological or genetic differences that alter the brain function when it comes to reading, writing, or math. It’s basic psychological processes involved in understanding or using language, spoken or written, that may manifest themselves in an imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations. 

Learning disabilities shouldn’t be confused with learning problems, which are caused by struggles in hearing, seeing, and motor handicaps. 

People with learning disabilities often have average or above-average intelligence. 

Some of the symptoms of learning disorders are… 

  • Difficulty telling right from left

  • Reversing letters, words, or numbers, after first or second grade

  • Difficulties recognizing patterns or sorting items by size or shape

  • Difficulty understanding and following instructions or staying organized

  • Difficulty remembering what was just said or what was just read

  • Lacking coordination when moving around

  • Difficulties doing tasks with the hands, like writing, cutting, or drawing

  • Difficulty understanding the concept of time

people on zoom call Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels In some instances, people try their best to master a subject but don’t see the results they want, which is why they may act out. Their feelings of helplessness often result in them withdrawing from their community out of embarrassment. Schools usually do their own testing to see if a student qualifies for intervention.  

Students with learning disabilities can receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the anti-discrimination law known as Section 504. Additionally, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a report describing how healthcare providers have helped children with disabilities.  

Students with disabilities are dealing with discrimination based on the way their brains are wired and have been discriminated against for at least 50 years. 

person writing notes while reading a textbook Photo by Gabby K from Pexels Former American University student Olivia Cronin talked about her year-long struggle with the Academic Support Center to get accommodations for her Auditory Processing Disorder. When talking about her experience, Cronin said that she always thought she was just bad at languages, so she learned to live with it. But in 2018, Cronin learned that she had an Auditory Processing Disorder and ADHD. This is when Cronin’s doctor told her it’d be extremely unlikely that she’d become fluent in a language other than English. 

Cronin was in the School of International Services Global Scholars Program where one of the program’s requirements was to learn a language at an intermediate level. In her first semester, she took French and was able to get a C in the class, despite failing exams. 

During the fall semester of 2018, Cronin submitted her request to be waived from the language requirement of her major because of the increasing intensity of the language. Only a month later, her request was denied. Conin contacted Nichole Nowinski, the Associate Director of Disability Support, who responded by saying that because she passed her introductory class, it wasn’t impossible for her to learn a new language and that the university had resources available for those with ADHD. Nowinski didn’t even mention her Auditory Processing Disorder. 

Later that same month, Cronin’s doctor submitted a report saying that her learning disability is specific to the way her brain processes sounds, specifically with how it processed sounds with unfamiliar words, which was going to be very hard to avoid when studying a new language. 

In a follow-up email from the American Student Academic Center, Nowinski said, “Weakness and difficulty in certain areas do not necessarily correlate to disabling conditions and that recommendations do not automatically mean that an accommodation is approved.”

Due to this inadequate response to her learning disability, Cronin had to transfer from American University to Central Michigan University, where she was able to graduate in the spring of 2020

Cronin wasn’t trying to see if learning a foreign language was possible, the issue was that it would be even more difficult for her because of her learning disability.

The investigation conducted by the Office of Civil Rights indicated that because she filed the proper 504 grievances with American, no further action needed to be taken. 

Woman sitting on bed with laptop and books Photo by Windows from Unsplash This story is particularly important to me because I also have a history of having a learning disability. My disability is test anxiety, which some people have told me isn’t a real disability because having some anxiety during a test can be helpful and make you more alert. 

Test anxiety is defined as, “A psychological condition in which an individual experiences extreme distress and anxiety in testing situations.” 

It’s something that I was officially diagnosed within 5th grade. From there, I was put in a special education classroom of seven students where I would get pulled from class to do the same things they were doing in my regular classroom of 25 students. 

I know that there are more people out there who have learning disabilities and haven’t felt heard-- whether it be through American or in schools prior. It’s why I disagree with the fact that the Office of Civil Rights said that no further actions needed to be taken with Cronin’s case. 

By talking about our experiences with learning disabilities, we can work together to erase the stigmas around them and celebrate our differences.