In my first year as a doctoral student at Harvard, I went out to dinner with a friend and her family. I was asked how I became interested in studying education. In response, I said that I was diagnosed with when I was 7.
My friend’s father was taken aback and asked, “But you’re at Harvard. How is that possible? You must not really be dyslexic.”
When you’re diagnosed with dyslexia, there can be many benefits. For me, my parents finally understood why I was struggling so much to read. They got me help in school. I also benefited from , like extra time on tests and text-to-speech software.
With the label, I was able to understand more about my own learning. And I learned how to become a successful learner.
At the same time, though, with this label comes stigma. This stigma is rooted in a widespread assumption—that disability is bad, and that if you have learning and thinking differences you can’t succeed.
My parents experienced this stigma almost immediately. When they got my diagnosis, they were told they shouldn’t expect much from me. They were told I wouldn’t do as well as my sisters.
Fortunately, they didn’t accept this as fact. They had high expectations for me and provided support to help me reach those expectations.
Throughout my life, I’ve experienced this stigma too. Sometimes, I put it on myself.
In middle school, feeling ashamed of my reading issues, I preferred people thought of me as a “dumb blonde.” Some teachers lowered their expectations of me simply because I told them I had dyslexia.
Once, I told a professor about my dyslexia. The first thing he said was “Well, we need to make sure your work is your own”—as if everything I had done before had not been my own work.
I’ve since received a doctoral degree from Harvard. I’ve also co-written a book in which I talk about my dyslexia. But even as recently as a few months ago, I became nervous about admitting to my dyslexia.
My husband and I recently applied to a Montessori program for our 2-year-old daughter, Ellie. In the interview, we were asked a question: “Why Montessori?”
I knew the question was coming. And I had already prepared my answer. I wanted Ellie to go to a Montessori school because I felt Montessori had helped me succeed as a dyslexic.
But all of a sudden, when I was actually asked the question, I froze. Worries raced through my mind.
If I say I’m dyslexic, will the interviewer assume dyslexia is bad?
Will they think Ellie could have dyslexia too?
Will they think she’s going to be harder to teach?
What if they reject her because of this?
In the end, I gave the answer I had planned. But I still worry about the consequences of the assumption that kids with learning and thinking differences can’t succeed. To help more kids achieve success, we need to change this belief about what kids can and can’t do.
Recently, I co-wrote a book with Harvard Professor Thomas Hehir called How Did You Get Here? Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard. In this book, we tell the stories of students with disabilities, including dyslexia.
All of these students attended Harvard. Their stories provide a glimpse into how parents, educators and schools can help students succeed.
Overwhelmingly, when we asked these students how they got to Harvard, they answered, “my mother.” The parents of these students didn’t let negative assumptions influence what they thought about their children’s potential. Luckily for me, neither did mine.
Changing this negative assumption about the potential of students won’t be easy. Society will need to acknowledge that disability isn’t bad and that people with learning and thinking differences can succeed.
It will require hard work on the part of parents and teachers. It will require addressing the barriers in schools that prevent kids from learning. But it will be worth it—to give everyone a chance to excel, succeed and embrace a part of themselves that may be different.
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About the author
Laura A. Schifter, EdD is an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.