I have ADHD and learning disabilities. While I’ve struggled with academics, I’ve struggled just as much (or even more) with the stigma and shame of learning differently.
From a young age, I felt singled out because of my difficulties. I remember my third-grade teacher spending the entire year telling me to “focus!” Of course, her scolding never stopped me from tuning out her lessons.
Maybe if she’d understood that my trouble with focus couldn’t be solved with a single word, I would have had a more successful year. Experiences like this made me feel like my learning and thinking differences were always going to prevent me from doing well in school.
I did get help from reading specialists and from my parents at home. But I still struggled to keep up with my schoolwork.
I was so ashamed of my differences. I remember getting classroom accommodations, like extra time to take exams, but I refused to use them. In fact, I tried to finish exams faster than other students, thinking that this would prove that I was just like everyone else.
In middle school, I transferred to a smaller school, which was a better fit for me. The school gave me the attention and support I needed. Not only did the school help me with academics, the teachers there ignited in me a passion for learning.
But that didn’t take away the shame I felt. As I got older, I became even more aware of the negative views others around me had about learning disabilities. I also began noticing more of the academic differences between me and other students.
In high school, classmates and friends would sometimes tell me I was “acting very ADD today.” A few teachers would even tell my parents that I was “slow.” I don’t know if they were being purposely mean, but every comment stuck with me, increasing the shame I felt.
At the same time, I was becoming a very driven student. I think I finally felt that I had the potential to succeed in school, and this made me want to work hard to get good grades in my classes. My efforts paid off and I made the dean’s list. Senior year, I applied and was accepted to Emory University.
During my first year of college, I decided to hide my challenges from my college classmates. I wanted the chance to succeed without the burden of the “learning disability” label. I still registered with the college’s office of disability services and got college accommodations, like a separate room to take tests, but I kept this secret from others.
Constantly scared that someone would find out and my cover would be blown, I became more and more guarded. I was terrified about having friends take classes with me, or that they’d find out where I was taking exams.
I assumed that being open about learning and thinking differently would make people think less of me. I was worried it might stop me from being chosen for group projects, or even from getting jobs.
Hiding my challenges was harder than I imagined and started to take a toll on me. I was constantly anxious that people would find out. I’d work out bogus explanations in my head for questions people might ask me about why I had to go across campus for a test.
Then, the truth came out. A friend caught me lying about my extra time accommodations. But instead of laughing or thinking badly of me, she told me there wasn’t anything to be ashamed of.
She was right. I realized that I’d let myself be convinced that having ADHD and learning disabilities is a bad thing. I’d carried people’s negative comments with me for years — to the point that I almost believed them.
Now I’m starting to change that. I used to blame my learning differences for the challenges I’ve faced, but now I credit them with my achievements. Having these differences has made me a hard worker and a motivated student. Without them, I doubt I would be where I am today.
Being proud has led me to be more open, which I hope will help change how others view what it means to learn and think differently.
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About the author
Chloe Gaynor is a college student at Emory University. She has ADHD and learning disabilities.