Understanding Learning Differences

I didn’t feel that I needed to know anything about dyslexia until I was diagnosed. When I was told, I suddenly wanted to learn all about learning differences. I finally learned that all of the things that I thought I knew about dyslexia were wrong.

A learning difference is a neurological condition that interferes with a person’s ability to store, process or produce information. The term dyslexia is an umbrella term for people who have a reading impairment. Dysgraphia refers to someone who has trouble representing information visually and dyscalculia refers to someone who has trouble solving math problems and understanding math concepts. These are broad terms. Not every learning difference fits perfectly into one of these categories.

Learning differences are far from simple. Sometimes people are diagnosed with a learning difference that can’t be pinned down. People’s experiences with learning differences can vary widely. Some people have more severe cases, while others can live entire lives without being diagnosed.

Students at LWHS work in the Learning Strategies Center photo by Lawrie Mankoff

Students at LWHS work in the Learning Strategies Center
photo by Lawrie Mankoff

Averie Kellenberger ’16 has a diagnosed learning difference. She points out that students who are not diagnosed with dyslexia often use the term inappropriately.

Averie states, “The biggest misconception I can think of is when someone says, ‘I am so dyslexic about math,’ or ‘I just had a dyslexic moment.’”

Averie points out that someone can’t be “sort of dyslexic.” Dyslexia affects all aspects of your learning; it is not just when you are bad at something. You can’t be dyslexic in some parts of your life and not in others. People with dyslexia or other learning differences have areas of strength but they still have a learning difference.

Averie also believes that “having a learning difference doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It just means you have challenges that other people may not have.”

It is important to disconnect the words “stupid” and “lazy” from the reality of dyslexia. Averie recalls many experiences when teachers have told her that she just needs to try harder to understand the material and get a higher grade. The problem wasn’t that Averie wasn’t trying; she just couldn’t read as quickly or as well as most of her peers.

The biggest and most hurtful misconception about dyslexia is that dyslexics are stupid. Dyslexia has nothing to do with your intelligence. In most cases, it is a term for people who learn in a way that is different than classic school teaching. This different way of thinking and learning doesn’t mean someone is stupid.

Some of the world’s most successful businesspeople and entrepreneurs are dyslexic. The founder of Virgin Records, Richard Branson, is dyslexic, along with Gavin Newsom, Lieutenant Governor of California, and  mystery writer Agatha Christie. These brilliant people are dyslexic and have never let their diagnosis hold them back. Richard Branson, according to Forbes, is currently worth 4.6 billion dollars.

Branson told the Washington Post, “From a young age, I had to learn to focus on the things I was good at and delegate to others what I was not good at.”

Learning your strengths and weaknesses is a big part of being dyslexic. Every person has weaknesses, but having a learning difference makes them seem more prominent. You are faced with your weaknesses everyday. They may be reading aloud in class or even just writing down a math problem correctly. Even if you are as successful as Richard Branson, you will have weaknesses. When someone who also has a learning difference finds out that someone like Richard Branson is dyslexic, it makes dyslexia more personal for students.

Winifred Montgomery has been working at LWHS for three years as Director of the Learning Strategies Center and has worked with students with learning differences for 25 years. When she first arrived at LWHS, the attitude toward learning differences was negative.

Ms. Montgomery says, “No one wanted to admit they were dyslexic or they would be embarrassed about their learning difference.”

Her goal is to change the attitude about learning differences at LWHS to a more positive,  accepting one. She wants LWHS to have “Neuro Differences [learning differences in Montgomery’s words]to be a difference that LWHS honors in the same way we honor gender, race and socioeconomic differences.”

Ms. Montgomery claims that while LWHS has come a long way, the community is still not as informed about learning differences as it should be.

LWHS currently has roughly 50 kids that are diagnosed with learning differences. Ms. Montgomery suspects there are other students who are undiagnosed who have mild cases that aren’t very noticeable. It is very common for people to go undiagnosed. This is mainly due to the fact that not all cases of dyslexia are alike. No person’s style of learning is the same as another person’s. Dyslexic or not, we are all unique thinkers and learners. There are people who learn very well in a classic school setting and others whose learning styles make it hard to learn in a classic school setting. All styles of learning are valid and important to know about because, as you realize that people learn differently, you become more accepting of others who are different than you.

It is important to understand accommodations for kids with learning differences at LWHS. Many kids at LWHS have a large array of accommodations, from extended time to listening to some tunes while taking finals. Accommodations are offered to people with learning differences so that they have an equal opportunity to perform well on tests.

Ms. Montgomery says that students come up to her and complain that “it isn’t fair that some people get to spend more time on a test than others.”

Extended time is what some dyslexic people need to do just as well as their peers. With this time, they can take their test to the best of their ability. Accommodations don’t give people an upper hand; they just even the playing field.

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