October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month
Lena McKnight was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Harlem, New York. She attended public school in New York City until 10th grade and later enrolled in a YouthBuild program where she achieved a High School Equivalency Diploma. Lena then went on to graduate with an associate’s degree and later a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Sociology in May 2017. Lena has served as a Student Advocate for 10th graders through the Harlem Children Zone and remains involved with YouthBuild. She now works full time and devotes her career to serving kids in her community. Lena is committed to using her voice to have a positive impact on the field of education and on society at large.
Have you ever sat in a classroom and your teacher asks everyone to read a paragraph out loud? You skim through to see which paragraph has the easiest words to read out loud.
That was me. I was the young girl shaking in my boots when I knew I had to read out loud. Often, I would try to identify the “easy” paragraph, and if I couldn’t find one, I would make the class laugh by getting myself into trouble and taking the pressure off me. I was scared, although everyone thought I was the girl who didn’t fear anything and was tough. I was scared because I saw others do things that I struggled with. Middle school was hard for me. Not only was I dealing with social pressure, but keeping up with my academics was a lot of work in and of itself.
Have you ever just felt like you were different from others? Have you thought that people wouldn’t understand when you expressed your thoughts?
It was very hard for me share the challenges I was facing and explain what was going on for me. I always thought people would think there was something wrong with me. People still tell me, “you’re a tough girl, don’t sweat it.” As a young student, I didn’t talk about my struggles as a way to avoid embarrassment.
What I didn’t know back then was that I have a learning disability. I struggled every day with reading and processing issues. No one had explained to me what my learning disability meant. I had no idea that my individualized education program (IEP) could actually help me succeed. I couldn’t understand how I could do so well in my theatre classes but struggle in others.
Eventually, I fell so far behind in high school that I was not allowed to take any arts classes. I had too many academic classes I needed to complete if I wanted to graduate. So, I dropped out of school. I remember thinking that I would never get a GED (general equivalency degree). But with hard work and determination, I passed the GED exam after trying three times. I was so proud when I passed, and I wouldn’t believe it if anyone told me that I had a disability or needed extra supports after that to succeed. It wasn’t until college that I discovered I was still having trouble.
Soon after getting my GED, I began working at Harlem Children’s Zone. I was listening to the disability specialist speak about the problems high school students will encounter when they enter college. It clicked for me. For the first time, I was able to explain the challenges I faced and I admitted to the specialist that I had an IEP while I was in school. The specialist helped me get testing done so that I would finally be able to prove that I have a learning issue and could receive supports in college. It was like the world turned upside down. I was finally able to get the help I needed. I saw the “perks” of having a disability and getting the services I was entitled to. And, for the first time, I understood what it was I needed help with.
It took me a long time, but I have finally found my voice. I used to be ashamed to talk about my learning issues because I thought I was the only one who struggled, and I worried no one would believe me. But accepting who I am and taking the time to understand what I need has made all the difference. I was lucky to have advocates and people who believed in me. Because of them, I believe in myself and have achieved more than I once thought I could. I am grateful for the ones who stood up with me. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be working to empower others to speak up as well.
Every person with a learning disability deserves the chance to realize their potential and reach their dreams. Understanding yourself and being able to ask for what you need is the first and most important step.
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