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How My Aunt Helped Me Feel Seen With a Learning Disability

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Sometimes there are multiple blessings where it seems like there are none. I remember when I heard the struggles my aunt Fanny faced, my heart just about broke. There were people who told my grandma Mary that Fanny was a “curse from God.” People in the church told Mary that Fanny was “punishment” for the things my grandma had done in her life. However, no child — whether they have a disability or not — is a “punishment” or “curse from God.” What those people saw as a “curse” actually turned out to be a blessing.

Fanny was born before the Civil Rights Act. She didn’t get enough oxygen when she was born, so she ended up with a disability. Back then, the world was cruel to people with disabilities. Fanny was constantly picked on — to the point where she didn’t want to go to school or to church. In fact, the schools in Oregon didn’t even accept children with disabilities at that time. My grandma didn’t give up fighting for her daughter, though. She worked through the challenges Fanny faced and made happen whatever the doctors said would never happen.

People often struggle with what is different from them. What I have never understood is why some people feel like they have to be cruel about others’ differences. People with disabilities often want good, happy lives — just like everyone else. People with disabilities may have struggles that other people don’t have, but they’re human.

There was hope for Fanny. There was a senator in the state where she lived who had a son with a disability similar to Fanny’s. This senator wanted to make a difference for those like her son and Fanny. The year I was born, Senator Barbara Roberts worked on passing a bill that allowed children with disabilities to go to public schools in Oregon. Senator Roberts was passionate about education and advocating for people with disabilities. She was so passionate that she made a career out of politics and became the 34th governor of Oregon, changing the lives of many people with disabilities.

Governor Roberts found out about my aunt Fanny and invited my grandma Mary and her husband to her home to share her idea of creating a space to help people like Fanny. This new building would offer a home, a job, education, and community for those like Fanny. This was the blessing Fanny was to become a part of. She lived a long life and got to see the ADA come into existence in 1990.

But this wasn’t the only blessing Fanny was part of.

By the time I reached high school, my mom started to really see that something was different about my learning process but couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Testing showed that as a freshman in high school, I was testing at the level of a freshman in college, but I still struggled. I would always hear, “Nicole is so smart, but…”

My mom found a place that did testing for learning disabilities. We went in, and I took the test, which is when I found out I had a processing disorder. My mom found my learning disability, but my mom wouldn’t have known what to look for if it wasn’t for aunt Fanny. You see, my mom watched my grandma work with Fanny. She watched the struggle my grandma Mary and aunt Fanny went through. It gave her an awareness she would not have had otherwise.

I found this out later in life. My unseen disability was made visible because of Aunt Fanny. She brought my disability into the light so I could get the help I needed.

Many times, we do not realize that our struggles in life can be gifts to others who struggle like we do. We often have the opportunity to give hope where there seems to be no hope. So those who tried to make my aunt out to be a “punishment” to the world, missed that she was a blessing, a gift to this world. But most importantly, Fanny was a gift to me.

Getty image by Portra.

Originally published: March 21, 2022
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