A Simple Message by Gerald Homme

When I was asked to share a message through Joyce’s blog about living with a learning disability, I spent a long time just thinking about what message I wanted to share with others living with learning disabilities. In the end, the message was simple, and I think I always knew what it would be, I just had to get it onto paper.

When I was asked to share a message through Joyce’s blog about living with a learning disability, I spent a long time just thinking about what message I wanted to share with others living with learning disabilities. In the end, the message was simple, and I think I always knew what it would be, I just had to get it onto paper.

And that is the start of my message. I have a learning disability that impacts how someone writes, called dysgraphia. So, while I knew what message I wanted to share, I also knew that my disability would impact how I would go about sharing my message. With dysgraphia, the writing process is slowed down and more focused on correctly navigating the motor moments, or mechanics, of writing as opposed to focusing on the language. Imagine if you will, that you, a native of the United States, were asked to write out the numbers one through ten using Japanese symbols for the numbers. Your focus would be on the length of the lines, where and how lines intersect or join, and whether lines were straight, angled, or curved. Now imagine you were asked to manage your checkbook using these characters. For each number added you would need to draw out the character representative of that number. You would need to spend a portion of your focus and attention on how that number looked to ensure it was correctly portrayed. This focus on creating the character would detract from your focus on the addition and subtraction that would normally be your primary focus. When you have dysgraphia, regardless of how long you have practiced writing, the process always requires intense concentration, additional time, and even with all of that, the writing will still often be illegible. Typing can be a benefit, as it removes the need to create the shapes and lines of each character or letter, but there is often a stronger focus on key strokes as opposed to language. The most effective accommodation is using dictation software to remove the physical act of writing all together.

With all of this, the main barrier someone with dysgraphia faces when writing is a barrier of self-expression through writing. The non-language parts of writing receive the majority of the person’s focus, which interrupts the natural flow of self-expression. This can result in spelling errors, grammatical errors the person would not make when speaking, or a disorganization of thought in writing. The process of writing becomes a burdensome and distracting task and can, at times, feel overwhelming. Taking notes during a meeting for example can feel like a herculean feat for someone with dysgraphia. With most of your focus being required to draw out each letter, you miss vital information and become distracted from the message being shared.

I can remember being a child, sitting with my sister for hours, night after night, working on homework assignments. When I was given assignments that required me to write out my thoughts and feelings, such as book reports or essay questions, I struggled with the tasks. My sister would ask me questions and write out my responses to the questions, so that all I had to do was copy them over into my own handwriting. She would struggle to get me to give more than one- or two-word responses because I knew each word I spoke would be one I would have to write. I can remember falling asleep at the table trying to draw each and every letter of every word of every sentence in every paragraph, frequently over and over in an attempt to make mine look correct, only to turn in my homework and receive a bad grade because it was illegible. I was spending hours for every minute my classmates did on writing assignments. Frustration was a constant in my educational experience.

My parents didn’t know what was causing the issue or how to get help. Words like lazy, distracted, and inattentive echoed in the hallways during parent-teacher conferences. They all agreed, I was an intelligent child but didn’t see my struggles with assignments as being a result of a disability but rather a lack of effort on my part. Being singled out in class for problems with writing, led to classmates poking fun at everything from the way I wrote, to how I dressed, or even what I liked to watch on tv.

Then one day something amazing happened. One of my teachers connected my parents with a specialist who tested me for a learning disability in fourth grade. The determination was that I showed all the markers of having dysgraphia. This explained all the struggles I had been experiencing and they were able to make suggestions for how to make learning easier for me, by removing the barrier of my disability with specialized equipment. My family was ecstatic that there was an explanation and a solution to help me reach my potential as a student. However, being diagnosed as having a learning disability was just the first hurdle in my academic career; the next hurdle was attitudinal.

I doubt there is anyone who has a learning disability, or indeed any invisible or hidden disability, who has not experienced first-hand the obstacle of other people’s misconceptions. Disclosing or being identified as a person with a learning disability exposes you to stigma. I could pretty much expect one of three reactions: pity, shock, or disbelief. The first would often take the form of either being babied or treated like I didn’t understand or hearing whispered concerns to my parents of ‘what does this mean for his future?’ or ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ The second would include praise for not ‘looking’ disabled at best or cutting comments such as ‘you don’t look stupid.’ It was like people were patting me on the back for hiding my deficiencies. Meanwhile, I wasn’t trying to hide it; but the expectation that I should keep it secret, a hidden shame that I should count myself lucky that people couldn’t see when they looked at me, was constantly thrust upon me. The final reaction, disbelief, was incredibly common in the school system. I actually had people, especially teachers, tell me “No, you don’t,” when disclosing dysgraphia. They didn’t know what it was, so either I or the doctors were making up my diagnosis. Rather than taking an approach of providing me accommodations, they would make me try to legitimize my disability. This is something that has followed me into adulthood. I once had someone tell me that I just needed to practice writing more. They had no clue that as a kid I practiced over and over with little to no improvement in my writing.

These whispers were just new echoes of old barbs, each one hitting with a sharper point. Growing up with a father who was blind, keeping my disability hidden or being ashamed of it was something that never occurred to me. You can’t hide being blind, and my father was a talented musician, a leader at our local church, a college graduate, and as a technology professional, the provider for our family. He never saw disability as a limit to success, but beyond the walls of our home, disability and success were never connected.

I went from being exhausted trying to manage an undiagnosed disability, with no accommodations to fighting every step of the way from grade school through college to get any access to my accommodations. The main problem I had to face in school were the teachers. Every year the fight started over. There were two types of problem teachers. The first were the ones trying to ‘fix’ me. They were convinced that practice writing would cure me and that my accommodations were just giving me an easy out. They would force me to write more, and grade me harshly for poor handwriting, convinced that this was the cure. At a young age this really made me feel incapable of writing, and just made me not want to do it. Then there were teachers who just didn’t want to be bothered providing the accommodation because either they saw it as more work for them or viewed it as special treatment or cheating.

In grade school I had been authorized to use a word processor which was later upgraded to a laptop in high school. I had teachers who would take these tools away from me in class because they said it was a distraction or would refuse to allow me to use it to take tests because they thought I had answers in there and would use it to cheat. Despite having a clear and documented record of needing these accommodations, every year brought a new group of teachers who would decide they knew better than the experts who determined appropriate accommodations for me. My parents spent hours fighting personal belief to assure my rights to accommodations. They met with teachers, administrators, and community resources every year, and often with limited results. Even when school administrators agreed accommodations would be provided, many teachers disregarded these decisions for what they believed was right. Regardless of the reason for denying me accommodations, my grades always suffered as a result. However, in the classes where accommodations were provided, I had the opportunity to succeed.

In addition to facing challenges with receiving accommodations and support from teachers and administrators, I also had to deal with stigma in other ways. Teachers often taught two lessons not in their curriculum: what it was like to be judged not on my abilities, but someone else’s preconceived notions and how leaders can perpetuate social ostracization by applying their own bias without restraint. This was especially true of teachers who did not want to provide accommodations but were being forced to abide by school regulations in allowing them. Being identified as different or singled out by teachers leads to being labelled different by students as well. I experienced intense bullying throughout my school career. As a friendly, outgoing, and social person, this had significant impact on my own self-image and my feeling of worth. My friends and family members knew me as someone who was filled with joy. The phrase most often used to describe me was ‘genuinely nice.’ Yet, inside, I was often depressed and frequently felt like there would never be relief from the constant struggle to be accepted by my teachers and peers.

The opportunity to work changed everything. When I got a job working with Bender, I got the opportunity to work in an environment that not only allowed for my accommodations but saw those accommodations as a solution rather than a burden. I got an opportunity to work in an environment where differences were celebrated rather than ridiculed. For the first time my ability to succeed was based on my ability and not on someone’s whim. Working brought up my confidence and redefined my self-image. This experience not only turned me into a self-advocate, but an advocate for others. I became empowered and wanted to share that sense of dignity and pride with others. At college I studied music education. As a child with a disability, music was not just something I loved, it was something I felt deep inside of me. It was the one area where my disability did not overshadow my joy. It was my escape. Teachers, such as Mr. Hertrich, who I worked with in my music programs were often the ones who saw my talents and made my day brighter. I wanted to give that gift of music to other children, but I discovered a new passion and new direction working for Bender. This new direction allowed me to expand my impact on others’ lives by connecting them with the same experience that work afforded me.

Every day at work, I get to talk to people like me. People who have faced hurdles and barriers throughout their life placed on them not because of their disability but because of stigma. I get the opportunity to work with employers, like Gary Dick, Tom Sieg, and Lisa Krause, at Highmark who support the Careers2B program in identifying new positions for people with disabilities. Every day, I hear a new story from a candidate with a disability or one of our amazing hiring managers that re-cements my commitment to working at Bender Consulting Services. I get to make a difference through the Bender Lead On Team for young people with disabilities. Through this social media forum, I can support their own journey to self-efficacy and self-advocacy and combat the toxicity of bullies. I can share my story so that others can realize their full potential and worth.

So, what is my message for others like me living with learning disabilities? It remains simple. You are not alone. You are not worthless. You have power and you have talent. Find your strength. Become a self-advocate. Research and understand your disability inside and out. Don’t be afraid to try new accommodations and learn what works best for you. Don’t ever allow anyone to make you feel like you are dumb because you do things differently. Those differences are also your strengths. The fight you face each day teaches you perseverance, conflict resolution, and problem-solving techniques that others don’t have to develop at an early age. Own those competencies and apply them in the workplace. When you want to give up, don’t. Remember you have people like you who go to work everyday to make a difference in the unemployment of people with disabilities.

And finally, and perhaps most importantly, know this: I am the voice on the other end of the line when you interview with Bender Consulting Services. I want to you to succeed, because your success is also my success. To me, your disability will not be what defines you, it is what skills and competencies you bring to the table that will determine your fit for one of our open jobs.

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