Learning Disabilities Teach Us to See the Brilliance in Everyone

In first grade, I failed every spelling test. I remember the shame I felt peeking at others’ quizzes for a glimpse of the right answers — I simply couldn’t figure out how to put the letters into words. After struggling to learn how to read and write for a year and a half, my teachers placed me in a special reading group. I felt isolated as one of only two students leaving the classroom for extra help every day.

When I started working with students with learning disabilities, I drew on the empathy I developed as that young girl behind the learning curve. I tutored students at a public elementary school, focusing my energy on empowering students who struggled to learn in a traditional classroom environment. I noticed that students who experienced learning challenges often felt defeated at a young age. For some students, learning disabilities were combined with difficulties at home or the added challenge of learning English as a second language. The mountain seemed insurmountable because of the compounded expectations. Without positive mentors, it’s easy for young people with learning challenges to think that they are not up to a very steep climb.

Finding and appreciating each child’s unique attributes nurtures personal and academic growth. If you empower children to love themselves because of their differences — and not despite them — they transform challenges into remarkable gifts. I found that students who faced learning disabilities head-on experienced high levels of compassion for their peers and exhibited a strong desire to help others. One of my students always expressed gratitude for my help with the biggest smile, offering me thank-you cards on a weekly basis. Others carried natural capacities for the creative arts, tactile learning and innovative thinking. Communities built on an environment of appreciation thrive because of the strength of the differences between individuals.

In my last tutoring session, I wanted to offer my students something that would stick. I wrote on a big piece of paper, “I believe in myself.” I asked each student to write down the sentence with a big marker and bring it home to place it somewhere where they could see it every day. I reminded them that, more than any achievement, believing in yourself is the most powerful thing you can do for yourself and the world.

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