What is it like to be learning disabled?

(reposted from Daily Kos)
Being learning disabled sucks.  But it doesn’t completely suck.  It’s not like I’m a Republican or something.

Being LD defines me, but it doesn’t completely define me.  I’m LD.  I’m also a liberal, a Jew, an atheist.  A man, a husband, a father.  An American.  A New Yorker.  Most of all, like all of you, a human.  Humans are complex.

So, below the fold, I talk about what it’s like to be me, what it’s like to be LD, and, most specifically, what it’s like to be LD me.  I don’t talk much about my politics, my religion, my ideas, and so on.  But don’t get the idea that LD is the most important thing in my life – it isn’t.  It’s just the most important thing in this diary.

And don’t get the idea that every LD person feels the way I do about being LD.  They don’t.  Some feel the way I do; some are angrier.  Some are less angry.  And LDs differ a lot.  I’ve got nonverbal learning disability, and even we NLDers vary.  A lot.  We say

  When you’ve seen one person with NLD, you’ve seen one person with NLD

enough preamble!  Follow me below the fold

One guy tried to show parents of LD kids what it was like to be LD.  I like what he did.  It won’t work as well here, you’ll have to use your imaginations a bit, but here goes.

Enter an auditorium.  It’s large.  It’s impersonal.  It’s a bit dark.  There are lots of other people.  Suddenly, there’s a man at the podium.  White-haired, three piece suited.

He points at you and shouts

  What’s the last book you read that started with an M?

he waits.  The others wait.  Expectantly.



Again, waiting.  You sense you should know this. 
The others in the room begin to snicker.  You hear whispers “he’s kinda stupid” “must be a retard”


Now, imagine that, instead of being an adult, you’re a kid.
Imagine that, instead of this happening once, it happens every day.
Imagine that everyone treats you that way.  All the time.

Welcome to my world.


OK, it’s not all like that.  Not for all of us.  Not all the time for any of us. But that gives a sense of it.  You know you’re smart, but maybe not.  You know you’re supposed to know these things, but have no clue how.  Let’s get to something a little more realistic.

With my LD, one area where I have enormous problems is reading visual information – things like facial expression and body language.  What does one have to do to do this? Let’s look:
  In real time, one has to examine all the aspects of a person’s face and body position, compare them to some sort of database, and then process that information, all while all those things are changing, in different ways, for different people, all while there’s a shifting visual background, at the same time as listening to the person talk, and think about what you’re going to say, at the same time as remembering to shift your face in the right ways, and move your body in the right ways, and not move your face or body in the wrong ways…… 

How does anyone do that? It’s impossible.  Of course, you NT people (NT = neurotypical, the acronym for people who don’t need one) don’t do that anymore than I do.  Because it really is impossible to do that consciously.  You do it automatically.  Somehow.  I know I’m supposed to be able to do that, but I can’t.  Oh, I get the basics.  I know an angry face from a happy one (usually).  But I miss almost everything

Welcome to my world
Try watching a TV show with your eyes closed.  Make it a show (a sitcom or drama) that’s familiar to you.  What did you miss with your eyes closed?  Quite a bit, I bet.

Welcome to my world.

Now, not every LD person has what I’ve got.  There’s lots of kinds of LD.  Anything which an adult knows that a baby doesn’t know had to be learned somewhere along the way.  If you don’t get reading, then that’s dyslexia.  I got reading early and fast.  I find it hard to imagine puzzling over words.  I see them, they’re read.  I can’t see text and not read it. 

If you can’t do math/arithmetic, that’s dyscalculia.  I got math, although I had trouble with my times tables.  It’s hard for me to imagine not getting it.  My wife has some of this, though.  No matter how often I, or anyone else, explains percentages to her, she won’t get it; same with foreign currency.  If she were a kid today, she’d be called LD, but back then, it was diagnosed a lot less. 
Back to me again (hey! I’m what I know best 🙂

LDs are tricky.  If you have NLD, you’re not supposed to be good at math, and you’re not supposed to have a sense of humor.  Thus spake Byron Rourke, one of the pioneers of NLD.  So sorry, Dr. Rourke!  Where should I go to give mine back? 
Then there are the folk who will tell me I can’t be LD because I’m smart.
Excuse me.
You can be LD and smart, just like you can be tall and fat.

I went to graduate school and got a PhD in psychometrics
One of the hardest things was finding the cafeteria, and then finding my way back.

I don’t recognize people.  Once, it took me 30 seconds to recognize my father.  really. 

I can solve quadratic equations, but I can’t figure out how to make the bed.

I tutor statistics, but I can’t roll up my sleeves.

I write poetry, but can’t tell if my eyes are rolling.

Welcome, again, to my world.

There are some other things to know about LD.  One is that, for a lot of us, it takes a long time to realize just what we are missing.  It was only about a year ago that I found out that most people make the bed the same way, every day.  To me, it’s a new mystery each time.  A few years before that, I read in some anthropology book that, if you look directly into someone else’s eyes for more than 6 seconds in a row, you either want to kill them or make love to them.  Hmmm.  Try it some time.  If you do this to someone, they will get very nervous; and if you’re NT, you will too.

Another about my particular LD is that I get lost in time and space. I don’t know when things happened, and I don’t know where.  My wife remembers where she was when things happened.  To me, that’s a mystery.  And when I put something down, it falls into a black hole.  Once I came home holding  cup of juice.  I put it down to go to the bathroom.  A couple minutes later, I spent 10 minutes looking for it.

Yesterday, I got a special request from DaveV to add something on what to say to LD people. 

Well, it depends on the LD person, of course, and on the person’s LD. 
I’ll speak mostly about NLD, and let others in the comments talk about other LDs.

The first thing to remember is that LD people, are people.  We all like being treated with respect.  But DaveV knew that.  Many NLD people have problems with certain aspects of communication.  Dave mentioned he is often sarcastic.  Sarcasm is denoted by tone of voice, and a lot of NLD people have trouble with tone of voice.  So sarcasm may offend. OTOH, as a person who is, himself, sarcastic, I recognize it’s hard to stop being how one is.  So, if sarcasm seems to offend, why not explain? That is, when yo say something sarcastic, and the person seems offended, say “I was being sarcastic”; we all know what sarcasm is, we just have trouble recognizing it. 

As I noted above, we also have trouble with facial expression.  Try having a conversation with your eyes closed.  Tricky, huh?  Now, if you can imagine being like that all the time, you may be able to modify your talking so that we can better get what you are saying.

Other LD people may have trouble with metaphor, simile, and various expressions.  Many LDers take things too literally.  So, when this seems to fail, explain!  Why not?  Just say “It’s an expression”. 

If you want to go farther than this, and be friends with an LD person, then it’s possible to develop better methods for use with that person.  Let’s say you make friends with someone, and find out they are LD.  Well, if communication seems to suffer, develop some methods or signals.  Maybe the person can move his/her hand a certain way when he/she doesn’t get what you are saying.

Hope that helps, feel free  to ask more in the comments (and any LDers out there, feel free to add more advice).

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    • plf515 on September 8, 2007 at 4:32 pm

    Does this belong here?

    What did I leave out?

    Should I bring over more of my LD diaries from big orange?

    Should I wait til we launch?

    Should I stop this comment now?

    • byteb on September 8, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    with LD and as a social worker and attorney who has worked with and represented LD families, I think your diaries are necessary and important. So keep ’em coming.

    As a mom, it was heartbreaking to see the emotional damage done to kids by dense teachers and cruel schoolmates. My daughter is in college now and with the help of a good tutor, she’s close to graduation but her LD (mainly dyslexia) will remain with her forever. LD kids grow up to be LD adults who have to develop coping strategies in order to function in the working world.

  1. Kind of like describing music for the deaf, or painting for the blind – we all are limited by our own filters, and so providing us with bridges for better understanding, tolerance and – gasp – inclusion and development, is incredibly helpful and generous of you.  Thanks!

  2. Gremlins in my machine today….

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