@erin_c416 | contributor
Erin is an aspiring first year special education teacher who has a Nonverbal Learning Disability (NLD/NVLD) and Dyscalculia. Her life goal is to change how the world views individuals with learning disabilities. Through teaching, she hopes to empower students and reduce the burden of educational trauma on students and to continue moving forward herself.
Ramona Dawson

How the Special Education System Fails Students With Disabilities

The American education system has been around since the 17th century, and it feels like we’re still living in that time period. Our education system has made only minute changes over time. It is so outdated that it would not only benefit but needs to modernize within our vastly different world. As our world slowly makes a step into a better understanding of disability rights and disability pride, our education system must make that change as well. The current system is created for and around neurotypical students and learners. It thrusts neurodivergent students and learners into an environment where they are almost set up to fail — creating an environment that perpetuates feelings of internalized ableism. I’ve been in the special education system since I was in first grade. When you’re a young girl that struggles to count and has trouble focusing, there are only minor accommodations needed to be put in place to help. However, once I grew older, the presence of my disabilities became more evident in a classroom setting, and the little accommodations in place were not enough. My needs soon changed from needing someone to read and scribe for me to needing extra time on tests and projects, alternative testing settings, large print text on exams, breaks, etc. The small needs that teachers were previously happy to give me turned into what was viewed as horrible things that got in their way of teaching. I soon went from a cute little girl that teachers loved to a “lazy” student. I had lost my “cute” charm. Once the baby teeth and cute J-crew kids’ clothes were replaced with braces, awkwardness, and anxiety, it seemed like they didn’t want to help anymore. The more help I needed, the less I received, and the more I needed to be seen and begged for help, the more I disappeared within the system. The accommodations I needed as I became older, although basic and necessary to complete an equitable classroom setting, screamed “more money and effort required,” not “equal accommodations for learning required.” Education as a whole is already so poorly funded that there is no denying that “there’s not enough money in the law to accomplish all that it requires” to factor in the needs of a marginalized community such as the neurodiverse student population. The lack of money given to the special education system within school districts encourages teachers not to provide proper accommodations and necessities to teach equitably. Gaining accommodations in a school setting is tricky enough, and even if you can get a proper diagnosis of a “learning disability” the school has to approve you to get an IEP or 504 Plan. It’s not until you get one of these plans that you can request accommodations. Even with these plans in place, it’s still very common not to be properly accommodated in a school setting. In fourth grade, my parents and I were called into a meeting, and we watched as our new principal had taken away my IEP. She congratulated me for performing at a normal and sometimes above-average level, and she used her perception of my performance in school as a way to justify removing my IEP plan. Well, of course, I was. I had my accommodations in place that allowed me to perform in that way. Because I showed intelligence, they didn’t believe I had a disability that needed to be accommodated. I was no longer a problem in their eyes. They allowed me to have an equitable opportunity to learn with those accommodations, and the second they took it away, I was destined to fail. It was as if they wanted me to fail to fit the stereotype of being a child with disabilities that’s bad at school. They eventually got what they wanted, because as soon as my accommodations were gone, so were my good grades, along with any confidence I had in myself. Not until years later did it come to light that the principal at the time took away the disability services of numerous students to save money and appease our district. “Failing to identify and evaluate its students properly keeps special education enrollment numbers artificially low,” essentially cutting the money needed down completely. In fact, it came to light when she was honored for it, getting awards for saving money; but of course, the whole story was not shared. As usual, those with disabilities were left out of the conversation. In my sophomore year of high school, I was finally confident enough to publicly announce my disability during a Ted Talk project assigned for class. I decided to take this time to educate my peers on the inequalities in special education. To get this topic approved, I had to meet with my teacher and discuss the proposal. I scheduled a meeting with Mr. E and was fully prepared to present my argument in the case. However, within the first sentence of explaining the problems with IEPs, he had to stop me, awkwardly, and ask, “What’s an IEP and 504 Plan?” I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt since he was a newer and younger teacher. However, to hear that he didn’t know a single thing, and I had an IEP in his class left me astonished and was so infuriating it became a joke. It was almost laughable to teach a teacher about a whole group of students and their support in an education system. Is that truly what our education system has come to? Students teaching teachers how to teach? Explaining the education system that I was into a teacher made me embarrassed and made me feel weird. If a teacher didn’t know anything about disabilities, was I that hard to teach and work with? It’s important to remember where the problem started and that “how children are taught depends on how teachers are taught.” It’s very easy to write off someone’s ignorance as their fault, and while in some cases that may be true, it is important to remember the underlying cause of that ignorance. In Mr. E’s case, his ignorance stemmed from his own education systems’ ignorance, the very institution that is charged with preparing our teachers. He was never equipped in his own educational training with the proper instruction and knowledge in how to teach all types of students because that wasn’t considered a priority in his training. Our college education programs are not adequately setting up new teachers for properly teaching and understanding students with disabilities or learning and attention differences. If universities do not incorporate science and evidence-based practices, they can not expect their future teachers to be properly prepared to support all. As a child, you are taught from a young age that maybe kids can be harsh or rude with their words, but you can always go to a trusted adult for help or support if that happens. You are never taught what to do, though, when the bully happens to be your teacher. Although I was fortunate enough to never experience blatant bullying, it was clear that stereotypes of special ed students were perpetuated within the school system. Teachers “had relegated [special ed] students to lowered expectations when they were more than capable of meeting the high expectations set forth.” Throughout my high school career, I felt undermined by teachers because of their low expectations and lack of understanding of me as a student and learner. During my sophomore year, my IEP case manager tried to blame my struggling grades on my “lack of effort and care,” claiming that I was just “lazy” no matter how hard “she” tried to help me. The truth was her lack of support and inability (or disinterest) in providing the very support explicitly outlined in my IEP made it crystal clear that my education and success were of little importance to her. She often forgot about me, and when issues came up, it was always my fault. She could not, or would not, face the mistakes made in supporting me, and when called out by her boss, she blamed the vulnerable student at hand. When a student does not learn or respond to instruction that is geared toward a single learning style, teachers’ first thoughts are not to find a way to help that student bridge the gap. Rather, their first thought is to place the blame solely on the student and assume it is due to the student not wanting to learn and due to behavioral problems. “Often, unless [teachers] have SPED [special education] training, they assume that the student either cannot learn, will be a behavior problem, and will increase their workload.” In elementary school, during reading and writing time, I was a part of the “gifted” group. We left class to do special reading and writing projects. Still, once it became evident to the teachers that I had a learning disability, I was quickly un-invited to the “special honors” group sessions anymore. They couldn’t fathom that I could be gifted in reading and writing while also having a learning disability affect my science and math skills. How could you be intelligent and have a learning disability? Those two things never seemed to be used in the same sentence. You either had one or the other. Once I was un-invited to attend the advanced reading group and moved into the general reading class, I was left bored, sad, and unchallenged. Most of all, I was left confused. It seemed as though I was left behind with no explanation because I did not fit their uninformed beliefs of intelligence. As soon as I felt like no one believed in me, I struggled to believe in myself. To this day, I struggle with fully believing in my strong intellectual abilities, because for so long the explicit and implicit messages I was hearing were that I was not intelligent. So much of the academic ableism within our school system stems from accommodations and learning disabilities in a classroom setting not being normalized. Taking tests inside the classroom was what was normal. Going out to an alternative setting to get proctored, read to you, or scribe for you was not. Any, and every, teacher’s job should be to normalize learning for all students in all different kinds of ways. Conforming to the belief that learning only looks like one thing conforms to the belief that school is only made for neurotypical students to thrive and blend in, inherently making neurodivergent students stick out and struggle. It is part of teachers’ job to “help [us] find those ways and not cast off the ways that seem odd, like doodling or taking breaks, not wanting to read out loud, etc..” This should not only be part of a teacher’s job, it should be a primary job requirement. Freshman year, when my best friend Natalie and I were in high school, we shared the same “regular” classes and special education classes. When taking tests, we would both get pulled out of the classroom for an alternate setting and tests. In special ed classes, we would feel no shame in getting up and leaving the class for our accommodations, and we would make jokes and smile and join our other IEP friends. It was nice to have a class where you knew that your peers had the same struggles and needs. We could all be open with each other, whether we were friends or just classmates. When it was time for tests in normal classes, Natalie and I were always the only ones to leave the classroom with a proctor that came to pick us up, as if we needed our hand held to the “other” room. Even though we were fully able to lead ourselves to our settings, our school did not believe that we would not cheat, so we had to first go to the general classroom, then wait for an adult, then leave the classroom in front of all of our peers. This soon became our daily walk of shame. The embarrassing and awkward walk from sitting at your desk and getting up and leaving in front of everyone testing. It was a joke between us; but of course, all jokes stem from nuggets of truth. After dealing with this for so many years, the embarrassment and trauma that came from school were so normalized, we were forced to deal with our struggles in the only way we could: with laughter and jokes. It was not until recently that I was able to take a step back and address the discrimination and ableism I felt within a school setting, not to mention from educators themselves. For so long, I went through life believing that I was always the “dumb” one, or that I was always the “wrong” one. I was quick to allow myself to be belittled, and in some cases, belittled myself. My whole experience in the education system made me think the internalized and constant feeling of ableism was normal. I had no idea what being treated as an equal felt like. It took me so long to analyze my experience truly; because, at the time, I was treating the thing I faced as just being “annoying.” It wasn’t until now that I have been able to identify my experience in the education system as a traumatizing one. I believe that is why I blocked out parts of it, along with trying to blame myself for my disability. The way my teachers treated me inherently led me to succumb to depression and anxiety and the constant questioning of my intelligence. It was, and still is, very hard for me to acknowledge my intelligence and academic achievements. For so long, I was told it would not be possible for me to end up where I am today. It took a lot of self-discovery and realization of what I needed to do for myself, what I should not stand for, and what the rest of the disability community and I deserve. If it was not for having such a great support system from parents, friends, therapy, and a few select special teachers in my life, I would not have realized the importance of standing up for myself, and in turn, standing up for others. Although I still have a long way to go on my journey with self-love and internalized feelings of ableism, hearing stories and creating a better future fires my passion for continuing. We must work to take down and reform a systematically ableist educational system. We must work towards building a system that caters to all types of students, creating not an equal but equitable education system for all.

Community Voices

I think I need a new job. Every time I think I’m getting the hang of it, I mess up again. The job I do requires a lot of math, and math (especially problem solving) has never been my strong suit. Just yesterday my manager had to explain to me how to total the amount of hours I’d clocked, something anyone else my age would probably know. Depending on what shift I’m working, sometimes customers will come to me with questions, and because of the slow processing speed that comes with NVLD, I can never think of the answer in time. So I end up constantly having to get my manager to answer the question for me. If she’s not around, I’ll just ask my coworkers. I feel like my manager and my coworkers are getting sick of me constantly bothering them. I don’t blame them. I don’t want to be a burden. I just wish it didn’t take me so long to process information. Of course, it doesn’t help that my GAD makes me dread going to work or fear the possibility of failure. I feel like I’ll never learn, so I need to find a new job that plays to my strengths—something I’ll actually feel comfortable doing. But what if no workplace accepts me? What if there’s nothing out there that my GAD and NVLD won’t affect? I feel like I’ll never be skilled at anything I work at, and I hate knowing I’ve already defeated myself. I’m just sick of feeling so unskilled and worthless all the time. I just don’t know how to placate the self-doubt and anxiety plaguing my restless mind. I know I have strengths and a lot to be proud of, but somehow I doubt the very things that are supposed to be my skill sets, too.

Sorry, this is my first post...still getting the hang of this, so I’m kind of just venting.

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Becoming a Teacher to Help Kids With Learning Disabilities Like Me

“They tried to bury me, but they didn’t know that I was a seed.” As a special education teacher for students with learning disabilities and developmental disorders, and as a neurodivergent individual myself, this quote defines my life. I was formally diagnosed with nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD) at 23 years old. As a child and teen, I struggled in ways that most people cannot possibly comprehend. When people think of learning disabilities, they often picture a child with dyslexia or dysgraphia who cannot read or write very well. They do not envision an intelligent and articulate child for whom tying shoes or making a paper fit into a folder is arduous at best. Many of my teachers resented me. To them, I was arrogant, lazy and too “normal” to be disabled in any capacity. They saw my strengths but did not recognize the unimaginable visuospatial and motor deficits that made it difficult for me to do many “everyday” things like button a shirt, copy from a board or count change. I failed gym every year. I could not figure my way out of a paper bag or navigate a hallway without getting lost. I also had few, if any, friends. Social situations baffled me, and I’d experience debilitating anxiety. Relentless bullying didn’t help either. Many times, I felt like I did not belong on this planet, as I did not feel any sense of normalcy in the slightest. My neurodivergence was more than a mystery; it was a scarlet letter. Home was unfortunately no different. Family is supposed to provide a safe haven at home, where your loved ones understand and validate you. But my home life was actually my greatest source of unhappiness and angst. It was an environment that was toxic and detrimental to my self-worth. The criticism, labeling and the manner in which my aspirations were used as a comedy skit was destructive. I can vividly remember the comments made about my character, capabilities and what my future looked like. I felt like an albatross. As my condition became increasingly frustrating for adults to navigate, my relationships became tenuous. Day after day, I was essentially told that I was worthless, that I would end up in a “group home,” and that my dreams were a dead end. “You will never be a special education teacher,” they would taunt. “You’re special ed yourself.” I vividly remember struggling one time to join papers with a paper clip, and the roaring laughter from adults in my family as they watched me. On many days, I felt like I did not have the strength to go on. But each time I fell down, my dad was there to offer his hand. He was the only family member or friend who continued to support me, no matter what. In school, my only sanctuary was my math teacher, Ms. Pappas. She validated me every single day and made me feel special. She told me that she envisioned me teaching very young students because I was kind – words I still remember. I wanted to be another Ms. Pappas and change lives by the dozen. So I made up my mind: I was going to go to college to be a special education teacher and rescue other students like myself. The more cruelty I experienced at home, the more it ignited a fire in me. I knew my college degree would be my escape to finally free myself from the never-ending barrage of negative comments. I was accepted into college with a full list of accommodations. I was missing so many pre-requisite, fundamental skills (like basic addition and subtraction) stemming from a childhood without a proper diagnosis, that I enrolled in tutoring and therapy. College was difficult, to say the least, and my struggles stretched beyond academics. Finally, in 2013, I graduated and started my rewarding career as a special education teacher. Every day I teach, I feel I am exactly who I needed in my life when I was a child. My philosophy as a special educator is this: Before learning can begin, students need to feel successful, empowered and loved. Anything less is counterproductive — and uncaring. I need my children to feel safe in the classroom so they will take on challenges and grow. Because of this, I do not hand out “failing” grades. I strive instead to create an environment where students know they will be successful, no matter what. It’s the environment that would have provided safety and success for me as a child — one that is encouraging, warm, and free of judgment or anger. I know my approach works. I am often rated as a highly effective educator, and I’m commended by parents for the impact I have had on their children academically and emotionally. If my students take one lesson from me, it is that they are not their diagnoses or disabilities. In spite of any challenges in front of them, they can and will achieve success in whatever they choose. I want them to know that I will cheer for them as they conquer every mountain, and that I hope to be witness to it all. Children will forget what we taught them, but they will never forget what we said and how we made them feel during their most impressionable years. To my readers, please know that you are not your disability or the limitations others have foisted upon you. You are capable of making every dream a reality even if it takes more time or an unconventional route. Saturate yourself in your strengths, not your weaknesses. Remove negative people from your life and fiercely go in the direction of your dreams. That’s what I’ve had the honor of doing – proving all of my doubters wrong along the way. Additionally, I’ve learned to surround myself with people who speak positivity into existence while understanding my weaknesses. Today, I am a teacher and a mentor for other people in the field of learning disabilities. I’ve even presented at conferences for learning disabilities. I am, at last, the champion I needed most as a girl — the child who couldn’t tie her shoes but ended up changing lives nonetheless.

Community Voices

Why didn't the article give the definition of dyscalculia?

The author still didn't get her point across to people that don't know the definition or have the learning disability that hasn't been defined. Not everyone does get tested or can afford the test.

The purpose is to explain to the readers, exactly what dyscalculia is. As well as, what's it's like to live with it.
She only did the later.

For future articles, always drop a definition. It makes for better understanding. Not everyone is going to stop and search for the definition, while reading or open a window to find a definition.

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Community Voices

Cognition and memory

<p>Cognition and memory</p>
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Community Voices

I’m still too embarrassed to admit that I have an Learning Difference. What should I do? 😞 #Dyscalculia

<p>I’m still too embarrassed to admit that I have an Learning Difference. What should I do? 😞 <a class="tm-topic-link mighty-topic" title="Dyscalculia" href="/topic/dyscalculia/" data-id="5b23ce7900553f33fe991971" data-name="Dyscalculia" aria-label="hashtag Dyscalculia">#Dyscalculia</a> </p>
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Community Voices

What’s something you would have wanted as a kid with dyscalculia?

So I do not have dyscalculia, but I tutor a younger student in math. I’m not going to go into detail but I’ve been tutoring this student for 3-4 years now and I would be willing to bet a lot that they have dyscalculia (I’ve been told she also has suspected dyslexia but I work with math with her so that’s not my area of knowledge)
Anyway, I am trying to do my best to help her as she gets dragged by the school system into harder and harder math (read: algebra and geometry) even though she still doesn’t grasp addition/subtraction, base ten, etc. I am working on some things but I was wondering what other people with similar struggles wish they would have received as far as help, or did receive and appreciated? Any recommendations would be appreciated. Thanks!
#Dyscalculia #Dyslexia

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Erin @erin_c416

What True Inclusion Means to Me as a Neurodiverse Student

Inclusion is a hot word that has a universally understood general meaning, yet has lots of interpretations between people and groups. Some people define inclusion as everyone being in the same classrooms, workplaces, and residences with no exception while others define inclusion as being in the same place and still having access to the “separate” places or organizations in the community (such as Special Olympics, group homes, etc.) I’ve noticed that lately, the definition has shifted towards the “same everything, no exception,” approach. Well, I hate to tell you, but that alone is not real inclusion. Allow me to explain. As a student with a learning disability, I have been in many “inclusive” settings. All a school has to do in order to check off the inclusion box is to have the student in the same classroom. Sounds reasonable, right? But what if I told you that said student doesn’t do/isn’t allowed to do the same academic work as their mainstream peers? That they go in and out of the room all day every day because of pull out, speech, OT, etc.? Then when they are in the class, they often sit in the back to work on multiplication while the rest of the class is up front working on advanced division? What if I also told you that teachers and other students in the class socially reject said student by bullying her, nagging her about small things that her mainstream peers don’t get nagged about, and regard her as an “other”? Is that inclusion? I assume you said no. For those who may have said yes, allow me to elaborate further. Would you want to be in a class or a workplace where your fellow students/coworkers regarded you very poorly or as “the dumb one”? Would you want to deal with a teacher or boss who constantly tells you that your work is inadequate and that you aren’t trying hard enough? Would you want to be the “punching bag” of the class or workplace? Obviously no, since who wants to be in that kind of environment? Not me! Real inclusion is more than being in the same classroom or workplace with nondisabled and neurotypical people. It is being in a space where your neurotypical and nondisabled peers and coworkers accept you for who you are, reasonably accommodate you, and feel like you truly belong. There is no “otherness” feeling nor are there bullies. There are people who genuinely care about you, appreciate your contributions, and have universal accessibility to the class or work environment. An example is going from high school where many teachers and students bullied me to a specialized college for students with learning disabilities. Even though the college was exclusively one population (so are Harvard, Yale, and all X demographic schools) there was real inclusion. The campus community accepted me for who I was, accommodated me, and made education and campus life accessible for all students. The result? I learned like I never learned before and I found my passions and got a degree. I was the happiest version of myself since I felt empowered. I also internalized the idea that there is nothing wrong with me, but rather there is something wrong with society for not accepting the disability population as part of a free society. That is my definition of what real inclusion is and what it should be.

Erin @erin_c416

Being Mistreated by Teachers as Someone With Learning Disabilities

In life, many unbelievable, yet true things happen. Some of them are so unbelievable that you can’t believe it happened either. This is a common experience many students with disabilities have in school. From negative comments from others to other uniquely strange events, they all have one thing in common: they are “unbelievably true.” This then leads to us not being believed when we tell these stories to others. People either don’t believe us or downplay it like it’s no big deal. I have many “unbelievably true” stories I could tell, but right now I will tell one of the many stories I have of a particular teacher — we will call her Ms. X. In early high school, Ms. X was my special education teacher. At first, she was nice, but after a while, I realized how harsh she could be. She didn’t seem to have a problem with pointing out student shortcomings when students were struggling, nor with insulting students both in private and around others. One day, she decided to pull me and one of my mainstream peers into her classroom for the extended learning period to help with positive and negative number concepts. So my peer and I go and she gives us a quick overview and hands us worksheets to do. Of course, my peer finishes quickly and gets another sheet, while I’m stuck on the second problem. A few minutes later, my peer finishes the second sheet and I’m still stuck on the same problem. Ms. X then tries to help me to no avail while my peer says, “This is so easy, how do you not get this?” Ms. X then says, “This is obviously going to be more difficult for me,” and sends my peer to the next room. I then ask Ms. X if she could help me with my math homework and she angrily says, “No, I will not. You should’ve done your homework last night. I guess you’ll have to take a zero.” I went to math next period in tears. Would someone like your parents, another teacher, or another close and trustworthy person believe this story if you told it? What if you told similar stories multiple times over a long period of time with each story getting worse? Would they be on your side, or would you have to fight this alone? Would the school take action, or would this kind of conduct continue with no one to help you heal? If your answers were mostly no, this is how many students with disabilities experience school and everyday life. This is what it means to have another arrow be shot into your freshly stitched wound repeatedly and then have others say your wound isn’t real. I hope that by telling these stories, more awareness of the impact of the “unbelievably true” stories will spread and maybe improve life and the odds of being believed. I also hope increased awareness will help current and future members of the disability community to properly heal instead of suffering from numerous unhealed psychological wounds.

Community Voices

What Does CARES Act do?

#LearningDisabilities #Dysphasia #Education #HighSchool #College

So I saw that the CARES Act passed.

I'm scared though I'll lose accomodations from both my college dual credit side and high school side. I'm also scared College Board will take away my accomodations for the already altered test (which I'm scared I'll fail the first year they offer the course at my school because it's ONLY an essay and I have dysgraphia and I already had enough problems with AP tests). I'm on a 504 plan and I get this is probably the last worry that some people have, but I want to graduate as expected this upcoming May from high school and go to college.

If someone could explain how the Act impacts me as a student, that would be great. I mainly needed it out and need help to know that I'm not alone in education being really scary right now

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