The Tulane Hullabaloo

Intersectional Confessional: Looking through a different lens

Gabriel Clark-Clough, Contributing Writer

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Margaux Armfield | Staff Artist

Members of marginalized groups inevitably find themselves explaining … a lot. As a result, most start to develop a few well-rehearsed responses that roughly convey the gist of an experience, without having to overcomplicate the issue.

In the case of people with learning disabilities, the real challenge is in describing a specific way of thinking to a majority of people whose brains aren’t wired for it, from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t understand how the majority’s brains are wired. Fortunately, everyone who has learned to cope with an LD quickly becomes a master of the creative work-around. Over the years, I have come up with dozens of different ways of explaining both the broad sense of LDs and my specific learning style.

The most accurate textbook style definition of an LD describes it as nothing more than a glitch or inconsistency in the way someone’s brain functions. Learning disabilities themselves are not a reflection of overall intelligence. In fact, in order for a learning disability to be measurable, it typically means that a student must posses overall above average mental processes, calling attention to the specific areas that fall short.

Whenever I felt upset or affected by my learning outcomes, I fell back on this definition as reassurance. The reason I was granted accommodations in school wasn’t because I was stupid, it was just a way for me to show my intelligence uninhibited by one or two areas.

My learning disability is most closely described as dysgraphia. Dysgraphia specifically applies to a person’s written output. For people who were confused about why that meant I should get extended time as an accommodation for a math class, even if I could still calculate numbers just as fast, I compared it to taking the class in a different language. Being able to recognize the question, come up with the answer, then phrase it for submission requires several stages of translation.

When I came late to sports practice after my extended-time tests, I explained learning disabilities in a metaphor my coach would appreciate. Similar to how the majority of people are right-handed, meaning that doors and writing desks are designed with the right hand in mind, most classes are designed with the majority thinkers in mind. Like in sports, even though it would be impractical to try and train a left-handed person to throw a baseball with their right arm, it’s a simple matter to accommodate them by handing them a right hand glove, freeing up their left to throw. If they tried to play the game the same way as everyone else, it would be disastrous. With accommodation, they can be as good or better than everyone else on the team.   

Some people I have talked with were already familiar with some learning disabilities. They wanted to know what dysgraphia was specifically, and whether it was anything like its more commonly known cousin, dyslexia. My learning disability is in the same umbrella family as dyslexia but is closer to the inverse. While dyslexia relates to the brain’s ability to take in information through text, organize it and translate that into structure and meaning, dysgraphia refers to its ability to take the information in your brain, organize and structure it into written and visual composition.

This can manifest as anything from sloppy handwriting to fragmented sentences or phrases placed out of order on the page. This is why, despite having one of the highest reading proficiencies for my grade, I struggled to communicate my thoughts accurately on any written assessment when I was younger.

The question I have been fielding most recently is from people who don’t realize I have a learning disability. My skill at writing has improved dramatically over the years, and while not perfect, it is considered to be good. When I explain this to people, I use the example of dictation software. Originally, it was hard for Siri, or any other software, to accurately understand human speech. Over the years, the processing systems still rely on most of the same microphone technology, but use programs to predict language usage and autocorrect inaccuracies. My learning disability hasn’t gone away. The only things that have changed are both my conscious and subconscious editing and the processing of my work as I write it.

Learning disabilities are not a stagnant thing. As I change, so does my learning style, and as new situations arise, the applications of my learning differences change. It would take a million or more metaphors to successfully cover all of the different ways that my learning style has appeared in my life.

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2 Comments

2 Responses to “Intersectional Confessional: Looking through a different lens”

  1. Ann Marie Lewis on April 4th, 2019 10:52 am

    Oh my gosh! So well-said!! You are a brilliant writer! So glad you have pushed on and have made a weakness into a strength! I would like to share this article. Can you send it to me? I work with the Georgia Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Those with dyslexia frequently have co-occurring dysgraphia.

    NC ’89

  2. Stephanie on April 4th, 2019 5:17 pm

    This is a well-written description of how dysgraphia has been a factor in my life. I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in 6th grade. By then I had developed quite a few coping mechanisms, but getting extra time on tests was key to passing my math exams! Also, not having to give all of my attention to copying words off of the board when the teacher was lecturing was a good thing. I can listen and do a LOT of things – crochet, type, paint, etc – but I can’t listen and copy down words or numbers. Especially not numbers.

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Intersectional Confessional: Looking through a different lens