The disability dilemma

Identifying myself as disabled has been a big step forward for me.  I grew up comparing myself to my peers and feeling like my differences and difficulties were my own fault.  Particularly with regard to academics, after a time I began to feel that my high IQ was misleading, and that the frustrations I encountered trying to master some material meant that I was, after all, stupid.  This has been a particularly painful supposition for me because at the same time, I have tended to value intelligence as the only plausibly admirable feature of myself, a saving grace that could compensate for being irritating, awkward, unattractive and useless.

During my brief stint in a public junior high, I got grades that were not bad, but basically mediocre; not up to the expectations of my teachers or myself.  Verbal directions in class baffled me, so that I consistently failed to complete assignments or totally misconstrued what the teachers wanted.  I lost my textbooks, and dropped my binders in the hall, losing the work that I had done.  Despite being a hyperlexic who learned to read at age 3 and devoured books ever after, my reading comprehension was lacking.  Meanwhile, I was being teased by my classmates for everything from my laugh to the way I walked to my facial expressions, not to mention my social befuddlement.  In a sense, my IQ was a curse, because no one ever thought to test me for learning disabilities or even talk to me about my problems; they just became irritated with me for “not living up to my potential,” and the anxiety provoked by their unconcealed disdain made it all the more difficult to concentrate and succeed.  I became so bewildered and frustrated that I began to suffer for the first time from morbid clinical depression, and started to consistently engage in self-harm to release the unbearable tension that built up within me.  Eventually, when the bus pulled up to the house one morning, I simply melted down, hid, and flat out refused to go to school.  I never went back.

By the time I started college, I had gained some ability to follow what was going on around me and complete the required work– aided substantially by textual syllabi and assignment sheets– so I was able to get very good grades.  Still, I was peddling uphill in many areas.  I spoke out in class too much and was laughed at by other students and frowned at by instructors for making comments that seemed argumentative, pretentious, pedantic, or otherwise inappropriate.  I had no study skills.  I would take notes almost word-for-word on lectures, and to prepare for a test I would repeatedly copy out this entire body of notes– sometimes over 100 pages for a single class– until the exact words were drilled into my brain.  Obviously, this process consumed prodigious amounts of time; luckily as a teenager without a social life I had few other obligations and could afford to spend whole days on studying.  My reading speed and comprehension was still suffering.  When, as a sophomore, I took a senior-level history class in which several nonfiction books were assigned, I would read a page and then forget what I had just read, so that by the time I got to class discussion or writing a response, my mind was totally blank.  I ended up dropping the class because I didn’t feel like I could ever keep up with the reading, and since I was busy blaming myself I didn’t know how to ask for help.  My shame and anger at myself for not managing work that seemed so manageable for other students contributed to my decision to drop out soon after, and that, in turn, helped to confirm that the one attribute in which I took any pride was a false front concealing a mind of no worth at all.

Now, returning to school almost a decade later, I have the advantage of diagnoses that have permitted and encouraged me to seek accommodations in my classes.  Extended time for tests allows for my slower executive function and compulsion to complete only perfect work, and for periodic breaks to re-center my attention.  A private, silent space avoids my discomfort with the overwhelming sensory stimuli and social anxiety intrinsic to a room full of students.  Note-takers in lecture classes make sure that if I am absent due to mood swings or lose concentration, I won’t miss vital information.  My disability status has also given me a sanctioned cognitive arena in which to speak to my professors about additional flexibility I may require on a case-by-case basis.  Although I have also made progress of my own initiative– for example, working to improve my study skills and time management so that I can learn effectively in the much more limited time now available to me– I feel very strongly that without these external accommodations I would not be able to succeed at a reputable university to the extent that I have.

However, my insecurities about my learning and intellectual abilities still jump out and bare their nasty grin more often than I’d like to admit.  I hold myself to unrealistic standards that, more often than not, serve to cripple rather than motivate my performance.  And I am ridiculously touchy about any comments that seem to imply I’m stupid or incompetent.  Sometimes these are blatantly rude interactions, such as when a fellow student recently snapped “Shut up!” while I was talking in class.  However, rather than be offended at his lack of social intelligence and stand up for myself, I took the incident deeply to heart and have been using it repeatedly to remind myself that I am incapable of behaving “normally” in class and making legitimately intelligent contributions.  At other times, I freak out over basically innocent comments, as when a professor who’s overall a first-rate person and instructor sarcastically remarks on “pretentious” pronunciations that I happen to share.  Rather than brush it off as not a personal attack, I again interpret and internalize it as a judgment about myself:  “See?  My bookish spelling pronunciations and efforts to correct my odd tone and diction make me look like a prat trying to be clever and failing miserably.  In fact, I am failing to be smart, and this is proof.”  The disability label, instead of a functional construct, thus becomes, to my mind, a facile and self-indulgent euphemism for incompetence and failure.

The flip side of this flip side, though– making this a trilemma perhaps?– is that at times, I secretly and guiltily wish that I was just a little bit more disabled.  I resent the fact that I had to reach my mid-twenties and discover my problems through trial and error and error and error and happenstance and research, because no one earlier in my life recognized my struggle as abnormal and sought to help me in any way, because I was left to stumble through the world confused and alone and self-loathing, with no comprehension of why I had to feel this way. I was classified as “gifted,” with all of the idiosyncrasies that is assumed to encompass, and the matter was left at that, with no realization that I was more than idiosyncratic; I was living in a different world, and I was miserable.  Had I not been labeled so early as precocious and gifted/talented; had my disabilities manifested themselves in more marked ways; had I failed worse and been less capable of barely floundering through; had I been a problem child instead of a quiet imaginative one; had I been years behind instead of ahead in my verbal abilities– might I have been noticed and helped from the start?  Might I even now receive more sympathy and be more legitimized, if I appeared pathetic and hence inherently courageous rather than just slightly “off,” abrasive, awkward, and a little slow on the uptake?  Might I feel better about myself if I was absolutely sure I had a problem to work with and not just an issue to get over?

These are the perceptions surrounding the disability identification for me.  I am very curious to know whether anyone else has had similar experiences and sentiments.  Even more than usual, I encourage everyone to contribute their perspective and open a dialogue about what the term disability means to you and how you employ it in your thought processes and daily life.  headcheese out.