The Slower, the Smarter


There seems to be a degree of misunderstanding and ambiguity about the challenges of learning with a -- wait no.

Many people tend to misunderstand the realities of struggling with – Actually, I think I have the perfect sentence.

Over the course of my high school and CEGEP years, I often had the sense that people didn’t understand the meaning of -- Never mind, that doesn’t sound right. Come on, you know exactly what you’re trying to say. Just write it. 1, 2, 3, hands remained frozen. I shut my eyes, clenched my jaw and tightened my lips. I slowly inhaled a long deep breath before releasing it through my nostrils in one sharp exhale.

 This scenario was just one among countless instances of having any mental clarity overruled by my learning disability. It derailed my attempt to formulate a simple introductory essay sentence into an internal battle that left me defeated. This is a small glimpse into my prolonged thinking process that makes it impossible to complete an exam within a standard timeframe, turns the composition of an essay into a week-long ordeal, and underlies my chronic inability to make a quick decision.

By the time I was 15 years old, my consistent disregard for the concept of time was soon recognized by my parents who believed it was due to a psychological condition that demanded intervention. Despite my initial objections to what I viewed as an overreaction on their part, I underwent a series of in-depth assessments which ultimately confirmed their suspicions. The results revealed that my issues were a manifestation of Executive Function Disorder and Cognitive Processing Delay. This implies that the rate at which I process information, organize my ideas and understand written and oral communication is at a significantly below-average speed. In other words, my brain works really slowly. However, merely knowing the glitches of my mental functioning wouldn’t qualify an outsider to have a true understanding of what a learning disability is.

Going back to the basic definition, a learning disability is “a disorder which may affect the acquisition, organization, retention, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information”. This implies that its impacts are not limited to merely learning, but can remain a lifelong challenge that extends into everyday struggles such as making friends, self-expression, staying focused, being coordinated, or for someone like me, writing a complete sentence in under five minutes. If that list wasn’t long enough, a learning disability can be accompanied by another form of a disability considering that “96.3% of respondents who reported having a learning disability also reported at least one other type of disability”.

Despite the constant challenges with basic daily tasks, there is a saving grace to help manage them. This consists of the support systems and special education services that are available for students struggling with a learning disability, such as Dawson College’s Accessibility Centre for which I am eternally grateful. However, it hasn’t received the same level of appreciation by outsiders who haven’t struggled with a disorder of this kind. Obviously, those without disabilities are not to blame for their standard brain functioning, but a misunderstanding of a disability results in a misunderstanding of its required support.

At exactly 12:00 PM, I sat in front of the blank word document at the same time as my peers opened a booklet of lined paper with a pencil in their hands. The white screen waited to be filled with 500 words that must form consecutive and coherent sentences created by organized and clear thoughts. Challenge accepted. Finally pressing my fingers on the buttons, I felt at ease to hear the rhythmic clicking of the keyboard as my ideas smoothly flowed from my mind to the black letters on the screen. One hundred and fifty words later, all fell silent. I hit inertia. My fingers froze in place for what felt like an hour. After shutting my eyelids, I watched the words in my head simultaneously scatter and intertwine as I was incapable of arranging them in an appropriate order. Gradually, the chaos began to simmer as the tangled words were finally aligning themselves into a clear and complete sentence. With 500 words composed by 2:00 PM, exactly 30 minutes after the rest of my peers finished the essay, I took a moment to acknowledge and appreciate each additional minute I had to unravel my ideas and produce a product that reflected my academic competence.

After walking out of the Accessibility Centre, I bumped into one of my peers from the class whose eyes widened and jaw dropped upon realizing that I had only just finished the essay and said, “You’re so lucky you get the privilege of extra time, my marks would be so much better if I could have that”. Lucky? For being diagnosed with a lifelong learning disability? Privilege? Did they mean necessary assistance to help manage my issues? I’d be glad to pass them my luck and privilege for the day and check back with them later to see how they enjoyed the experience. Clearly, they weren’t aware of the reality that accommodations are structured to ensure they would not in fact benefit non-disabled students who, according to the Maximum Potential Theory, are capable of working at their maximum potential under the original amount of allocated time.

It may seem self-evident to recognize the benefit of additional time for someone who works exceptionally slowly, however it equally helps a range of learning disorders, one of them being dyslexia, the most common of them all. That’s where people read letters backwards…right? To clarify this overly simplistic definition, the student who “reads letters backwards” actually has a “neurologically-based condition that affects word-level decoding, reading fluency and spelling”. This means they may be disappointed when they read their exam mark as a 69% rather than as 96%. These types of minor mistakes for such simple tasks can create a link between a “disability” and “stupidity”. On the contrary, a learning impairment does not affect intelligence, therefore the student can have an average or even above average IQ, hence their 96%. This makes for the case that despite someone’s current performance in school, their academic potential could be met given the right conditions.

We are all familiar with the common scenario when the punchline of a joke gets announced and leads to a nearly immediate eruption of laughter. Five minutes later, once the climax of the joke has been long passed and casual conversation has resumed, a lone and proud voice exclaims, “HAHA! I GET IT NOW!” Well, that voice is often mine. Predictably, it had me ridiculed for how “slow” and “dumb” I was. This was only half true since I am slow, but with a little a bit of extra time, I’ve shown them just how smart I really am.