understanding learning disabilities

“i have this young man sitting here, george. i’d like to send him over to you. he’s a real sweetheart but he’s got a problem and some things got a bit messed up.” my friend tessa at the neighbourhood church didn’t tell me more than that; probably he was sitting right beside her and she didn’t want to say more. so we made an appointment for the next day.

a few hours later, tessa called again to tell me his story. his company had closed down a few weeks earlier but he hadn’t applied for employment insurance. there was an insurance claim for a car accident george had been in a month ago but he hadn’t dealt with it. his landlord was causing him trouble but he didn’t want to file a claim.

what was happening?

george had a real hard time reading and writing, explained tessa. when everything went well for him, he could function at a slow grade 5 level but when things heated up, when he felt challenged or threatened, letters just started jumbling up on him.

when we met, it was quite clear that george wasn’t “stupid”, as he called himself. he wasn’t “slow” either – all of the jobs he had held required a high degree of alertness and quick reactions. his problem was simply that he looked at letters in a different way than 80% of the population. 20% of the english speaking world struggles with letters and/or numbers, people like tom cruise, cher or walt disney.

for those of us who were fortunate enough to learn letters and numbers without any great difficulty it’s often very, very hard to understand what it’s like to live in a world where the alphabet and simple arithmetic are always about to slip into a weird, chaotic mess of incomprehensible symbols. george had experienced that a lot, even from teachers and counsellors. that didn’t make him feel better – it heightened his feelings of frustration, shame and fear.

i am grateful that when i sat across from george, i was able to see his reality. because tessa had warned me of his fear of forms, i made sure not to have him fill out any written material. instead i listened to his story. yes, it was a story of frustration over not grasping what other people seemed to grasp so easily; of shame because he seemed so “different” from others; of fear that people would laugh at him; but more than that, it was a story of amazing resilience and intelligence. for example, in order to make up for his difficulty with reading signs, he had trained his memory to almost photographic precision, and had thus become an expert navigator.

“you know,” he said, “it’s not even so much that i have this learning disability. i know people who have it worse. but what hurts the most is that i keep telling myself that i’m stupid, slow, worthless.”

the amazing thing was that he had really never told anyone how he felt about his learning disability. the focus had always been on what he cannot do. when we took the focus off that and simply started talking about what it was like to be george, it was as if a new door, one he had never seen before, began opening for him.

if you know anyone with a learning disability – and chances are you do – don’t let them walk through it alone. acknowledge who they are in their entirety, celebrate the special skills they have, and let them tell you their story. chances are you’ll learn something.

isabella mori
counselling in vancouver
www.moritherapy.com

3 thoughts on “understanding learning disabilities

  1. admin

    (this comment by peter w. from http://www.blogger.com/profile/28662464 was posted on my old blog at blogger; i have copied and pasted it over here)

    Isabella, what a lovely insight into your contact with George. I have been working with people who have a learning difficulty or whichever stereotypical label you would like to use, and was fascinated by your insight into the man not the label. George sounds like a very interesting chap! I have been in a senior position within a charity providing services for many years and am constantly battling with the labels and manner with which colleagues relate to the people we are providing support for. Things have vastly improved since my early days of nurse training in a very large institution but we are still years away from real and true acceptance and integration of this group of people. I am working with many hundreds of staff and people who access our services and have been trying to facilitate real \’Person Centred Services\’ but this continues to be incredibly challenging for more reasons than I will go into now. However your closing statement about looking at the person in their entirety and listening to their story is heartwarming.

  2. admin

    (this comment by peter w. from http://www.blogger.com/profile/28662464 was posted on my old blog at blogger; i have copied and pasted it over here)

    Isabella, what a lovely insight into your contact with George. I have been working with people who have a learning difficulty or whichever stereotypical label you would like to use, and was fascinated by your insight into the man not the label. George sounds like a very interesting chap! I have been in a senior position within a charity providing services for many years and am constantly battling with the labels and manner with which colleagues relate to the people we are providing support for. Things have vastly improved since my early days of nurse training in a very large institution but we are still years away from real and true acceptance and integration of this group of people. I am working with many hundreds of staff and people who access our services and have been trying to facilitate real \’Person Centred Services\’ but this continues to be incredibly challenging for more reasons than I will go into now. However your closing statement about looking at the person in their entirety and listening to their story is heartwarming.

  3. Pingback: blogging and neuroscience » change therapy - isabella mori

  4. Pingback: blogging and neuroscience » change therapy - isabella mori

  5. ClinicallyClueless

    Having worked with persons with developmental disabilities and some without, but have other conditions that they cannot make living or need assitance without supports.

    One thing that this post brought to mind is that we are not our diagnosis or label that is put upon us. We are a person first.
    .-= ClinicallyClueless´s last blog ..What Would You Do? =-.

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