The Dragonfly Forest

They have been given names such as devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, horse stinger, skeeter hawk, and the snake’s servant. Actually, Dragonflies are beneficial, peaceful, and stunning. You are a Dragonfly if you are: ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, Asperger’s, NLVD, autistic…

Friday, October 3, 2014

Why it's better to use the word disability instead of difference!

(click on play if you want to hear me read this to you - remember that I am dyslexic so I make a few errors, but I'm okay with that - because I want others, like me to be able to hear what I have posted).  

October is Dyslexia and ADHD Awareness month!  Yes a whole month in honor of ME!  Okay, that’s a little lot egocentric of me to assume that this month is about just me.  I know I am not alone in having ADHD and Dyslexia, so the odds are you have at least one of these and if you don’t then you are related to someone who does!  

I think it is great that we have a whole month devoted to awareness because it gets the word out that ADHD and Dyslexia are real – there is scientific evidence that they exist!!!! 

What I want to discuss here is the importance of the word disability instead of “difference.” 
As a person who IS dyslexic and ADHD, I am often asked why I still use the word disability instead of the word difference.  Here’s why.  There is NO cure for dyslexia or ADHD.  I have dyslexia and ADHD because of the way my brain is formed, and nothing will make that change.  When a deaf person gets a cholera implant they may be able to hear, but they are still deaf- the implant is only a device to help them hear.   My brain can learn new things just like any brain, but the general structure of my brain will always be the same. Because school and society are structured for non-ADHD & non-dyslexic brains, and since I often don’t fit into these molds I struggle in some settings. In many environments, I am just fine, and I have learned exceptional ways to accommodate for my ADHD and dyslexia so I can “fit in” or “pass.”  

The legal definition of a disability is – “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual.”    Well, this IS me, especially in a school setting.  Because of my dyslexia I am a very slow reader (that’s an understatement), I cannot decode unknown words (really- no joke), I have terrible spelling (unfortunately I can never spell unfortunately without having spell check or looking it up), and I do not know my times tables (no clue on the 4’s & 6’s).  These make it challenging for me to keep up with my peers in a classroom setting and substantially limit my learning, reading, and writing (I am also dysgraphic, so that makes it even worse).   Because of my ADHD, I am highly distracted by my own thoughts (I can live in Jill-Land), other people (love people watching & interpreting body language), and auditory/visual distractors (I hear/see something I lose track of what I’m thinking & saying).  In a classroom setting I have way too much stimulation and therefore my learning, concentrating, and thinking are substantially limited.  I am disabled in classrooms, workshops, & some work settings but I can still be successful if I have appropriate accommodations. 

As mentioned I have exceptional ways to accommodate.  I use technology consistently.  I rely on auto correct and spell check for spelling and writing.  I type almost everything that another person is expected to see, so my dysgraphia and dyslexia are not visible.  I use a calculator, and I triple check my answers just to make sure I keyed it incorrectly.  I ear-read as much as I can and always have a book on audio in my car while I drive.  If I cannot ear-read the written material, then I just take my time and read slowly.  Even though I cannot decode unknown words I have an excellent visual memory, vocabulary, and ability to infer (strong reading comprehension).  So even though I may mispronounce the word, I understand what I am reading.  For my ADHD I have strategies to keep me focused and on task, such as, standing, walking around, taking breaks, and doodling when listening (this allows me to pay attention & keep the distractions in check).  Since I am no longer in a classroom environment I have the freedom to use these strategies.    

So to me, saying I have a learning difference actually trivializes my challenges making me feel shame.  By saying a child has a learning “difference” instead of a learning disability is, I believe, harmful.  If you, as a parent, are uncomfortable with the word disability then just call it what it is – dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD…   Using the word disability does NOT make it negative but using the word “difference” does not make it positive.   Telling me that I just learn differently makes me feel judged that I am not working hard enough despite working my butt off but still experiencing challenges; which then makes me just feel stupid.  Calling it a disability makes me understand that it is not my fault just like it is not a blind person’s fault if they bump into furniture.    

I am not stupid!  Saying I learn differently makes it seem that I’ll be able to academically perform as my non-dyslexic/non-ADHD peers.  This will not happen because of the way my brain is set up.  I have been taught my times tables in many different ways – flash cards, timed tests, repetition, colored coded, with stories, & via songs but I still struggle with remembering most of them and my math fluency is still slow.  I need to use a calculator so I can keep up with my peers in learning math concepts.  Same is true for reading.  I’ll confess that I have never been taught via an Orton-Gillingham method and do know that I would be able to decode words had I been taught phonics instead of whole language.  Even if I learned how to decode words, my reading fluency would still be slow and therefore ear-reading is much easier for me than eye-reading.  I need accommodations to keep up with non-dyslexic/non-ADHD peers in some areas – not all because I excel in the area of reading body language, empathy, and many others abilities I have that my peers do not have.

Let me explain it this way because I know some of you are shouting right now that it is a “difference” not a disability. I assume that you are a parent and you yourself do not have dyslexia and/or ADHD or you would be more understanding of why the word disability is a positive term.  We all have differences but the differences of being a person with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, Asperger’s, blind, deaf…. are huge when having to function in an environment that is not conducive to those “differences” and that is what makes them disabilities.  If a deaf student is in a classroom of other deaf kids and students/teachers that sign instead of using their voice, then the deaf student is not disabled but put that same student in a classroom of speaking students/teachers they are now disabled.  A student with dyslexia in a classroom of non-dyslexic peers who are decoding and reading fluently while the student with dyslexia struggles to keep up and has to be taught to read in a different classroom-- IS disabled! 

There is nothing wrong with the word disabilities and when we call dyslexia a disability in certain settings assures us that our rights are protected.  Students with ADHD and/or dyslexia (and any other disability) need to be protected in schools from having their rights violated so calling it a “difference” will not protect your child.  It will also not damage their self-esteem if the word disability is used.  Call it what it is – dyslexia, ADHD, Asperger’s…. and teach them all the great things about who they are as a person and all the other people out there like them.  Help them learn ways to accommodate with technology and other strategies.  Focus on the positive and you will get positive.  

Finally, during Dyslexia and ADHD Awareness month please understand that the word disability isn’t negative it just provides a more accurate description of what is happening so a person’s rights can be protected.  See, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) provide protection for people ONLY if they have a disability.  They don’t protect people with “differences.”  Unlike other laws to protect people from being discriminated against (Civil rights law of 1964) to be protected under ADA and IDEA you have to have evidence that you actually do have a disability and that this disability substantially limits a life function.  I want to make sure my rights are protected.  I want to make sure the rights of my children are protected.  We need to assure that people with dyslexia, dysgraphia, ADHD, Asperger’s… are NOT discriminated against and to do this we need to use the word disability.  I am dyslexic, dysgraphic, and ADHD and I am proud.  These are disabilities when in certain settings but these are also the nature of who I am and are my superpowers. 

We must first have awareness and then eventually we will have acceptance. We need to embrace the word disability and know it is not a bad thing but will help protect us from discrimination.  We need to also accept the labels of dyslexia, ADHD, dysgraphia, Asperger’s…. because these labels provide insight into who we are.  We cannot stop there with one label we need to redefine ourselves every day with new labels.  We need to not let others define who we are!  I am NOT stupid, lazy, unmotivated, ignorant….  Once we have self-acceptance then we will be successful!

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