A Private Experience

A Private Experience

Emily Gordon—not her real name—describes the multiple layers of advocacy required to get accommodations in her Master of Social Work program.

When I was younger, my father told me that “education is a private experience,” so I was prepared for what would become my experience of self-advocacy. I just didn’t expect it to be so lonely.

The obstacles I have faced over the years made it so.  This was never more evident than when I navigated the internship process while pursuing my Master’s in Social Work. The ableism and lack of understanding of learning differences I faced during this time was profoundly disappointing. Coming from an institution that prided itself on principles of inclusion and social justice made it all the more shocking.

At first, my internship assignment excited me. The placement instructor knew about my learning disability. That  and my hearing loss meant I needed structure and guidance—especially when outside of  a traditional classroom environment.  I could tell that my instructor’s own responsibilities would make it impossible to accommodate my learning needs, and so I left my internship after several days.

On my last day, I had a meeting with the instructor and my advisor, whom I had only recently  met. She knew nothing about me. She told me that my issues—needing more structure and guidance, having anxiety and my trouble acclimating—were typically not issues she encountered with second-year students. I explained to her that I needed certain accommodations because of my learning disability. 

“The school should have sent in disability documentation,” she replied dismissively.

A week and a half later, I met with the internship directors to explain my situation. They said that the disability office was not allowed to disclose information about students, contrary to what my advisor told me in our meeting. This showed disorganization and lack of communication on the school’s behalf.

A week later, I received an email informing me the directors had requested an educational review meeting. According to the student handbook,educational review meetings were for students having “serious problems” at their internships. My frustration mounted: I didn’t even have an internship. I was still anxious about finding one and having to make up my hours.

The day of the meeting came and I felt like I was on trial for a crime that I did not commit. The director identified me as the problem, saying that  I “cannot understand how my behavior affects others, from their point of view,” which hurt to hear. It also infuriated me: words like “cannot” or “unable” should never be used to describe students. By this point, the school’s shame-by-committee approach actually had me craving the private experience my father spoke of.

It had been difficult for me, on my own, to operationalize exactly what I needed, which is common for individuals with learning disabilities. And the internship department was very quick to stigmatize me, both for struggling to describe what my needs would be and for needing accommodations. Ultimately, though, the meeting’s result was to connect me with the school’s disability center and create a list of accommodations for my internship.  Ironically, my “accommodations” were things that an instructor should be doing with any student in any circumstance: setting clear guidelines, giving step-by-step instructions, repeating these if needed, and meeting with me regularly

The experience of grappling with the school impacted more than just my education. It exacerbated my anxiety, depression, and self-worth issues, all common traits for those with a learning disability. The existing damage made worse, I had to remind myself that their actions—or failure to  act, in some cases—were in no way a reflection of me. The memories of this experience still impact me today. I remind myself I am an individual with a story and a path of my own. I am not an anomaly.  I am not an inadequately performing student because of my learning needs. My learning disabilities are what drove me to the social work field in the first place, so I could work with students like me, both in a school setting and through advocacy work.

I was—and still am—extremely grateful to the disability center for advocating on my behalf. They supported me through the rest of my schooling. In my moments of self-doubt, I have relied on those who have unconditionally supported me. They remind me of how far I’ve come and what I’m continuing to do in life. I know that my struggles have shaped who I am and I’m lucky to have the opportunity to tell my story, with the hope that it’ll help someone else. Being an individual with a learning disability is something that I will carry for the rest of my life. It will drive me to fight for my students to receive the support and understanding that they deserve.

And I will tell anyone who listens: your education is a private experience, but that doesn’t mean you need to go it alone.

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Communities and Clubhouses: My Path to Divergents Magazine

Communities and Clubhouses: My Path to Divergents Magazine

I always felt like having a learning disability was enough to deal with but to have a mental health issue on top of it was something I thought I could never get over. I blamed myself for what happened: maybe I should have known. I had recently started my Bachelor’s degree at Colby Sawyer College in New Hampshire. Things were a struggle there. I attended classes and had good grades, but wasn't fully myself. I was isolated, depressed, I just chalked it up to the stress of studies, exams, maybe I was pushing myself too hard. Unbeknownst to me, and all the stress beneath me, I was in the throes of psychosis. It was April of 2009 and I would end up in the hospital for a month.

by Anna Harris

I was diagnosed with an “Asperger’s-like” Nonverbal Learning Disorder early on, when I attended public school in North Andover, Massachusetts. I had an Independent Education Plan (IEP) all through grade school, which helped my academics some, but I still had a hard time socializing. I was pretty much the outcast, bullied by my peers, and didn't have the skills to cope with any of it. As I moved to High school, things got better. Of course, I was still different, socially, but had the support of my wonderful special education teacher to help me through. 
My parents were also a great support system. As I got closer to graduating High School, they recommended I apply to Landmark College in Putney, Vermont. I didn’t know much about the school, except that it was for neuro-divergent students. I was doing well in High School, and my parents encouraged me to check out Landmark. I took a shot and applied and many weeks later got a life-changing manila envelope in the mailbox. I thought at first I was rejected. I had felt that sense of being rejected my entire life, by classmates and by teachers who didn't do anything to put a stop to the bullying. Expecting more of the same from this envelope was an instinct. But when I opened the envelope and saw I was accepted for the fall I was ecstatic. I had the feeling that good things were ahead of me. 
And for a while I was right: I graduated High School in June of 2006, getting the school’s highest honor, the first ever Principal’s Award. I was shocked. So shocked that I hadn't even realized my classmates gave me a standing ovation. I was ready to take on the world and begin a new journey in college. 
I started in the fall of 2006, full of hope. The small campus made Landmark seem like a cozy community. I got my list of classes, prepared to spend the next couple years going for my Associate’s degree. I was meeting and making new friends, and soon had a circle of friends I trusted. I loved my classes, never skipping them. All my professors were amazing in different ways. The school’s support system meant that students got to work with coaches. I loved working with mine, they are both incredible people who helped me find my way through college. 
Graduation snuck up on me. I was shocked at how fast it came. The day of graduation came on the heels of a terrible ice storm. I was convinced my parents wouldn't be able to make it to the ceremony. But there they were, cheering me on as I received my diploma. I was thrilled. 
Underneath the surface, though, something was brewing in me. I wasn't socializing to the best of my ability, and still found it hard to feel like anything other than an outcast. I was accepted to Colby Sawyer College so I could go on to attain my Bachelor’s degree. When I got there this feeling only worsened. It was as if my brain was telling me not to trust the situation. I looked back at how I was bullied in high school and couldn’t help but think it was bound to happen again in college. Spring break was approaching and I made plans to go visit my friends at Landmark. I was missing my community, but—I now know—was in no shape for social calls.
I made it to Putney. Things took a downturn. The downturn became a spiral. The spiral landed me in the hospital, where I spent that month in the spring of 2009. I didn’t need an ice storm to skid out of control.
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At the time I just didn't know enough about mental illness. There was—and still is—such a stigma attached around mental illness that I wouldn’t have sought help even if I’d known I was suffering from it. Being in that hospital forced me to confront it, and to find ways to cope.
Did you know there are clubs for people dealing with mental illness? I didn’t. But after getting out of the hospital, I was introduced to the idea. I took a tour of a place called the Point After Club in Lawrence Massachusetts, and was welcomed with open arms. What Landmark was for my learning disability, Point After became for my mental illness. 
I was once again part of a community. I made friends with the members and staff. I'd share stories about my time at Landmark, telling them about my trip back to Putney that ended with me in the hospital. They helped me to understand I would've gotten sick even if I hadn't gone to Landmark that weekend. It was going to happen no matter where I was. The brain works in mysterious ways, I guess.
Since then, I’ve been volunteering for Point After, and also for my local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), and have raised money for both over the last 6 years. This year, I raised over $1,000 for NAMI, a fundraising goal that qualified Point After to receive $2,000 back from them. It feels so good to be able to help these organizations that helped me so much, organizations that I care a lot about. 
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Learning differences and mental illness go hand in hand. I’m not a unique case. The brain is at the center of both issues. My work at Divergents feels like a continuation of a path I’ve been on since that fateful weekend in 2009. It’s been a dream to help others in the learning disabled and mental health communities. I appreciate that there is a place where I can share my story, whether in person at the clubhouse or here, in print. Maybe this will help others, like so many have for me.

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