Note: October is Learning Disabilities / Dyslexia / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Awareness Month.
By: Erin Crosby
The Young Adult Leadership Council, a community of young adults aged 18–30 with learning disabilities and attention issues, unite their experiences and voices to advocate for the learning rights community.
With Learning Disabilities (LD) Awareness Month upon us, I have been thinking not only about awareness of what LDs are but how they impact people and how we break the myths and stigma about LDs. I’m also thinking about the amazing, successful leaders with LD that society has not seen as leaders.
Whether we lead in school, the workplace, or for a cause, there are infinite ways to lead with LD.
When I first thought of what it means to be a leader with LD, I thought of my self-advocacy and my time on the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC). I also realized that I was leading by being a special education teacher with learning disabilities.
My teaching philosophy is to change how the world views students with learning disabilities by helping students see that they, too, can be successful students with bright futures. I often use my experience as an LD student to inform my practice, and it has had great success with my elementary students. There are many ways that I lead with LD as a special education teacher, but the most prevalent way is how I engage with my students, especially on the harder days.
I will never forget one day this past school year with my second grade reading group. We were learning a tricky sound and how that one sound shows up in two different, yet very similar, diphthongs (a nightmare for dyslexic and LD students).
That day was what we call a “hard day” in my class. It is when something is still hard no matter what, even when we are doing our best. I noticed two hard-working students suddenly go from engaged to silly, and then they somehow ended up under the table. Rather than continue the torture, I realized we needed to stop and do something different.
I said, “Let’s stop and do something else since I see we are having a hard day. I have a story I want to read to you.”
I pulled out a book about a child who also has trouble reading and felt the same frustration my students were feeling. I remember sitting on the floor, showing the pictures, and reading the story to my students as they listened wherever they were. My students slowly chimed in and shared their connections with the story. One of them said, “That’s what it looks like when I read!” with such enthusiasm, it still fills my heart when I think about it.
The read-aloud and conversation allowed my students to express their frustrations, have their feelings and experiences validated, and see how learning differently does not mean you won’t be successful or have a bright future.
To add to the conversation, we talked about how it is okay (and normal) to feel frustrated about our challenges and to have hard days. As their teacher, I wanted to make sure my class knew that this is a space where they can feel frustrated and talk about it when they need to.
I told my students that I had a hard time learning to read, write, and do math when I was in school, and that I felt frustrated and hopeless, just like them. But I made it through school, was working as a special education teacher, and preparing for further education—all proof that they have the potential to be successful and future leaders for those with LD.
I told them that it won’t be this hard forever, even if it feels like everything will be hard forever. I felt like I was never going to be good at anything, no matter what, but I eventually found what works for me. I wanted them to know that they will find it, too, and when they do, they will be unstoppable. You can be the successful person you want to be, especially when you find the right tools and people to cheer you on.
The read-aloud and conversation with a “successful” LD role model is something that my students needed but didn’t know they needed. I certainly needed to interact with LD role models and leaders when I was their age, but I had no idea I needed that until I was in college.
Reflecting on this experience with my students and thinking about LD Awareness Month made me realize that teaching with LD is an underappreciated and highly needed form of LD leadership.
Conversations and teaching moments like this show that LD special educators, their experiences, and their leadership are essential for students with disabilities and truly equitable and safe schools for all. Because when students with disabilities feel seen and heard, they thrive and become strong, confident, successful students, people, and leaders.
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