Finding the Correct "Label" Was My Turning Point
by Joan T. Esposito
"When you walk through a storm hold your head up high and don't be afraid of the dark". These were the words to a song that I sang over and over to myself when I was a teenager. I could never remember the rest of the words of the song but I knew it had something to do with light and hope at the end of the storm.
I lived in a storm all of my life until I learned at age forty-four that my reading and spelling problems were a direct result of my having a neurological condition which results in dyslexia, a difficulty with language. As a young child in Liverpool, England, the time I spent attending classes and attempting to learn was literally hell. Every morning I woke up sick to my stomach knowing I had to attend school. Going to school for me was a form of child abuse. I could not understand why my parents made me go to school every day and struggle. I simply could not learn no matter how hard I tried. The teachers were not able to teach me in a way I could be taught. It was all a waste of time and, needless to say, exceedingly painful and humiliating.
Because of my inability to learn like many of my classmates, I did not socialize with them. How could I? I could not read like they could, I could not correctly spell words like they did. I was constantly teased by classmates. I had only one real girl friend at school. I did not play with the rest of my classmates because I felt different from them. I could not understand or explain why I felt different, I just did!
Sprawdź, tylko u nas!
Even without a label, I knew deep inside that I was different. Every day I would sit in class and pray that the teacher would not call upon me to read out loud. I would go home from school every night and cry myself to sleep because I did not understand why I could not read or spell as well as my classmates. Some of the things I would say to myself, as I tried and tried to spell and write legibly were: "I don't look retarded but I must be slightly retarded"; "I must have brain damage"; "The teachers say I can spell if I try harder, but I do try and it does not work"; "Maybe I can't spell because I was born during the war while they were bombing Liverpool (England) and somehow the noise of the bombs affected the way I can learn"; "Maybe I can't spell because I am the fifth of six children and they got all of the brains from my parents and left none for me"; "I must never have any children in case they inherit my damaged brains"; "I will take a class in shorthand and typing when I leave school and go to college; then I won't have to spell." I was too young and immature to think through the last statement. I didn't realize that I would never get into a college or that I would have to translate the shorthand into correctly spelled English words as I transcribed them to a manuscript or a letter with a typewriter.
I would spend hours alone in my room, trying to figure out how to hide my reading problems from my family and friends or how to get around my struggles with spelling words correctly in the English language. One of the ways I felt I could hide my reading problem was to go to the public library and check out four or five books at a time. I would take the books back to the library four or five days later pretending to have read them. I now know it was impossible to read so many books in so short a time but because I had no idea how long it took to read a book I just guessed at the time. I felt like I spent most of my time lying and cheating my way through school.
I became a people pleaser. I thought that if teachers liked me and I did not cause any trouble, they would not find out how dumb I was. I stole apples (food and especially fruit was hard to get after the war) from my mother's cupboard to give to the teacher so that she would like me.
As I went through high school I realized that my plan to go to college and take classes in shorthand and typing was only an unattainable dream. I left school and got a job brushing floors in a factory with my one and only friend in school. Several years ago I met my friend in Liverpool. She asked how I could have dyslexia when I was so bright and she was the stupid one. She told me that she had copied from me in school. We laughed together as I said to her "That explains why you finished up working in a factory brushing floors with me". If I had never been diagnosed and given a specific label for my disability, I may never have been able to laugh over my reading and spelling problems with my friend. Our laughter meant I was starting to heal from all of the pain and abuse I had experienced in school.
"WE NEED TO GET AWAY FROM LABELING STUDENTS!" I hear the echo of these words over and over as I attend the Special Education Advisory Commission meetings in Sacramento, State Department of Special Education meetings around the state and Individual Education Plan (IEP) meetings with parents in our public schools. Every time I hear those words, my stomach turns over and I become physically ill with memories of howl felt in school before I received the correct label. We have come so far and now some well meaning educators want to take us back to the days when the student with dyslexia will feel as I did, afraid that we might be retarded, stupid, lazy, or slow.
The labels I gave to myself as an uninformed and innocent child were stigmatizing. The label of dyslexia freed me to fulfill my dreams and go on to become a functioning adult and a contributing member of American society. We finally have an appropriate label for our learning disabled population. I needed this appropriate label in order to find a teaching method that had helped other people who had dyslexia learn how to spell. In my particular case, it was the Slingerland method that turned my spelling and reading problems around.
Although I have several learning disabilities, including Attention Deficit Disorder, the one that impacted my life most severely was dyslexia. I could read words that I had learned through whole word recognition but with new words I struggled to match the sound to the written symbol on the page. If you can't read, how do you learn about your other learning disabilities?
"Dyslexia is a waste basket term! "I can't count how many times I have heard this comment from educators. Dyslexia is one of several learning disabilities and if identified and appropriately treated the label can literally save a child's life. The term "Specific Learning Disability" (SLD) which is often written on the form for a student's Individual Education Plan (IEP) may also be viewed as a waste basket term when school personnel do not identify for the teacher or parent which specific learning disability or learning disabilities the student has.
Because I was without a diagnosis until I was forty-four years old, I struggled to learn in school without the appropriate assistance from my teachers. I failed to get an education above the fourth or fifth grade level and I was functionally illiterate. After my divorce from my son's father in my late thirties, my illiteracy led to my son and I being homeless when he was nine years old.
My message to our educators is this: Please, think before you remove our labels. Especially if you have not walked in our shoes! I ask our politicians to think twice before they sign any legislation that will assist the California State Department of Education in eliminating appropriate labels and taking away the only chance some students may have to access the world of education and growing to become a new label, a successful, productive citizen.
|Originally published in The GRAM, the newsletter of LDA-CA, The Learning Disabilities Association of California|
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