The serious side of learning difficulties

I walked up to Arrowsmith this afternoon on my almost daily “get out of the building and have some fresh air” walk. Whilst I waited for Simon to appear, I did what I often do, which is to pick up the copy of Barbara Arrowsmith-Young’s book “The Woman Who Changed Her Brain” which sits on the table in the entrance to the school. I happened to open it at the chapter titled “The impact of learning disabilities” and want to share that with you – it is powerful and, I found, quite distressing as I begin to understand better how these issues affect so many people, children and adults with learning difficulties alike.

It starts with this story:

“Some Arrowsmith students were playing outside and chanced upon a cicada that was spinning on its back and delivering its signature electric song – but in this case, one of distress.

The kids wanted someone to go out there and see this” said Carol Midkiff, the principal, “The cicada was flipped on its back. So I got a pencil and turned it over. It tried to fly but one wing was a little higher than the other and it couldn’t. I put it in an envelope and brought it over to the hedgerow. I felt such pity for this cicada. Nothing it did caused this”.

For MIdkiff, the cicada was a metaphor for children who cannot verbalise their pain and who will never take flight.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young goes on to write about talking with the students and how learning challenges had affected them. How they look like any other group of students but how they had suffered because of their learning difficulties, of bullying both by fellow students and teachers, how they had tried to hide the pain from their families and friends, and how some of them had thought of suicide to end that pain, of both teachers and parents saying if “you just tried harder, you could do better’ or “You just must not be motivated”. The students come to internalise this view – they say I am lazy and unmotivated – it must be so. Of how thoughtless remarks from teachers, who typically meant no harm, made a permanent impression and that a child without learning disabilities might shrug it off but that such a remark can go straight to the heart of a student with a history of failure and disappointment.

And I quote..

As a culture, we do not provide an environment where students can openly discuss their struggles with their teachers or enlist a teacher as an ally. Listening to all these students, parents and teachers I interviewed for this book, I was struck anew by the fact that there is still a stigma attached to having a learning disability. This fosters a climate of shame so that a child works hard to hide their learning problems from both parents and teachers. As long as we keep this hidden in the shadows, behaviours will be wrongly attributed to wilfulness, laziness or some other erroneous explanation rather than to a real incapacity as a result of a learning disability. I experienced the same thing fifty years ago.

Many students that day talked about feeling guilty because they felt that they were a source of disappointment to their parents or because their learning disabilities had caused their parents anguish. Virtually every student had been traumatised by failure in school, and the damage done there had carried over into home life and social life”.

There is hope, however, and I will continue with that and Barbara Arrowsmith Young’s hope and vision tomorrow as Simon has to go to sleep now – the cognitive exercises are much more demanding than anything he has ever done before!  

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