The Inner Lives of Women with Learning Disabilities
Life in the learning disability (LD) ‘club’ comes with a lot of fun, creativity, intelligence and flexibility, but it also has its share of unspoken anxiety and embarrassment. It’s often an endless loop of feeling crunched for time while having no way to solve any problem quickly — or do basic things, like take a breath. Hiding a disability at work is especially tough: it’s very Project Runway without any scissors or Nailed It! — but without your glasses to help you read the tiny type on the oven timer. On really bad days, it’s like clomping around on the boiling hot pavement with a broken flip-flop, asking the lifeguard for a piece of duct tape and having him stare at your feet and ask you: Wait, why do you need what? Oh, the joy of feeling like you speak a completely different language.
What if women with learning disabilities stopped hiding their true selves?
More people would connect with us. We’d fail less, rise faster, and not feel so damn misunderstood. Think about it: Our biggest successes come from the relationships we build. When those relationships are tested, women in particular it seems, start to feel dramatically less capable. Not seeing yourself as able is a vicious downward spiral that makes you feel utterly helpless. It’s depressing. And it has to change. A few good reasons:
•One in six women with learning disabilities has attempted suicide, according to a University of Toronto study.
•There are six million of us in the U.S. with ADHD (men and women, but women are less likely to be formally diagnosed). We spend most of our time feeling very alone. Anxiety disorders occur in nearly 50 percent of adults with ADHD.
Not only are women likely to hide their dyslexia, ADHD, anxiety or other learning difficulties at work, but they are also likely to hide it from their friends. My motivation for talking about learning disabilities is very personal: First, I had a child with learning disabilities. Then, I discovered I had them, too. When I experienced challenges and questions about my abilities in the workplace, I knew I had to stop other women like me from feeling antagonized, misunderstood, and during some of the darkest days, being bullied.
Some people call their disability a gift. I don’t. I call it an opportunity. Every time I help people to learn a new way to do something or talk about an issue faced by someone with a learning disability, the more opportunity I have to create success for everyone. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could be more crucial to the future workforce of this country. We must be lifelong learners, flexible thinkers and welcoming of diversity. Who better to teach you some of those skills than the women who have quietly created their own systems for doing things incredibly well for years? I have been hugely inspired recently by my friend Brian Schulman, an articulate entrepreneur who grew up with a neurological disability. He is now making it his business to teach people to ‘voice your vibe’. I agree — start bringing your real self to work.
Do. Not. Underestimate. Your. Ability. Because you have a learning disability (ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, or others) no doubt you have conjured up dozens of untraditional work-arounds, tweaks and simple modifications that will get you what and where you want without depending on anyone.You are brilliant. Don’t ever forget it.
In honor of back-to-school and back-to-work season, I’m making a list of all the fabulous work-arounds I know and will share it widely. It’s a work in progess, as am I. I hope you will save it on your smartphone or desktop for that time when the stapler, scissors, hole punch, tripod, email address, Youtube video on Excel spreadsheet basics, spare pair of shoes or roll of duct tape is just nowhere to be found. Stay tuned. Oh, and think about coming out of the office closet (yes, you can bring lots of supplies) and being outspoken about the power of people with disabilities as well as the help they would very much appreciate. #strengthsnotstigma