“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.
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