Hi everyone! My name is Amy McClelland. I am 23 years old; I love sushi, romcoms and cheap red wine. I am comfortable sharing all of these personal facts, and I’m sure none of them are particularly surprising (well, maybe the CHEAP part in my red wine description, but this is more due to student finances than my tasting palette). One thing you may not guess about me is I have a learning disability. My disability is a relatively untold story that holds complex space in my life as I have struggled with self-confidence, anxiety and trauma due to my learning challenges.
When I was in grade two, I was diagnosed with a working memory disorder. Your working memory is the part of your brain which holds non-chronological information and short term memories. This part does not function properly in my brain, making reading, spelling, and mathematical memorization extremely challenging. To add extra complexity to my school transcript, I was labelled as “gifted” due to my significantly above-average creative thinking abilities, problem-solving, reading comprehension, chronological memory, and long-term memory. So, in short, I was an anomaly for my teachers and psychologists to figure out!
Imagine being a grade two teacher trying to understand a student who could only read half the assigned article because her words per minute reading level was 50% to that of her peers. Yet, she would have the most well rounded and critical journal entry in the class, but every other word was spelt wrong. Well, that kid was me; I possessed a complex learning process that was challenging to understand, teach and diagnose.
Despite my frustration with spelling tests, I still loved school. My grade three teacher called me “The Walking, Talking, Dictionary” because my hand never went down in class. This title would have been embarrassing to most students, but to an eager teacher’s pet like me, it was a badge of honour. Wow, this is maybe a little embarrassing now, but it is an excellent example of the type of kid I was in the classroom.
My independent and successful learning journey was long; I had countless assessments, Independent Education Plan (IEP) revisions and tutors that supported my accommodation plan development. By the time I was in high school, these accommodations looked like a computer with spellcheck and extra time on exams. With these accommodations in place, I thrived in school, on track for university and graduating high school with academic honours.
As I mentioned, my navigation of life with a learning disability came with its fair share of trauma, anxiety and self-loathing. It was hard to accept being at the lowest reading level for a kid who valued education and cared way too much about her peers’ opinions. I can’t describe the embarrassment I experienced when asked to read aloud in class. Even as a young child, I held severe internalized stigma for learning disabilities. I was raised in an education system and society that had wrongly taught me that there was only ONE definition of intelligence, and if you can’t fit this academic mould, you are dumb.
I remember being in grade six and lining up with the other IEP kids to write EQAO in the academic resource room. My classmate standing in front of me turned to me and said, “Why are you in this line? This line is for stupid kids.” This experience sticks out so clearly in my memory as a devastating moment of self doubt…which is not what you want before a big test. And now, as I look back on it, I cry for the flaws in our education system and our primitive understanding of intelligence, which raised my grade six colleague to believe she, and the rest of the kids in the IEP lineup were stupid. This is the most untrue and heartbreaking moment of my education journey.
In line with this month’s theme of fear, I will be brave and share how my learning disability affects me today. Here we go. I hate games. I know, who hates games? Well I do, because games such as Cards Against Humanity or Scrabble are that one area in my adult life I cannot control or accommodate for my disability. I still fear being on the spot in a word game with no ability to hide behind spellcheck. But I am lucky because other than the occasional exponential intelligence crisis, I have gained tools that help me function fairly successfully in adult life. So, sorry if I turn down your games night invite, don’t take it personally.
So that is my story; it has been a painful and empowering journey that has made me work hard for what I want and the life I deserve. My learning disability makes me who I am. It challenges me to be a creative and resourceful learner who thinks profoundly and whose mind works like no one else’s. It has taught me to be a powerful self-advocate and speak up for what I need to succeed. It humbles me as I have learned to accept the non-perfect parts of myself and empathize with others who are struggling with their respective challenges.
One of our most significant flaws as humans is our fear of sharing the imperfections that make us human. When we try to cover up these aspects of ourselves, we are isolated from others’ true humanity. When we let our walls of perfection crack open, even just a bit, a light of humanity and imperfection shines. This light, this messy, vulnerable, imperfect light, is how we can brighten and fill the dark, lonely spaces that separate us. This is why I wanted to share my story of imperfect humanism and why I encourage you to do the same.
I am smart and strong. And I know you are too.
I want to end with three empathy tips for working with people with learning disabilities:
#1: Learning disabilities are often hidden, so NEVER assume someone is comfortable reading or writing in front of a group. When facilitating a group or hosting a games night, NEVER choose someone to read or write without consent. This can be traumatizing for a person with a learning disability.
#2 Ask for people’s access needs. Before starting a facilitated group or organized gathering, ask what people need to feel comfortable and participate fully. We all have access needs, so let’s talk about them and support each other.
#3 Be critical of your definition of intelligence. Many forms of intelligence all look different, and just because someone lacks skills or knowledge in one area does not mean they are not intelligent. It takes all kinds of kinds to make our world function, be mindful of how you speak about and define “intelligence,” especially in front of kids.
Amy is a fresh grad with a degree in Therapeutic Recreation. University does not come naturally to a person with a learning disability, making Amy uniquely proud of her undergraduate accomplishments. Amy is working to be more open about her disability and strives to view her learning challenges as an opportunity for growth in resilience and creativity.
She has worked with rehab patients, people with disabilities, veterans and mental health clients searching for more equitable access to community recreation. She believes wholeheartedly in the therapeutic benefit of doing what you love, as often as you can.