Stern: Learning a different lesson

Last week, I found out that three of my closest friends here have learning disabilities. A couple of them have known for a long time but hadn’t felt comfortable sharing initially, and one was just diagnosed last week.

Yale students face a surprising array of learning challenges including attention deficit (hyperactivity) disorder, dyslexia. visual-spatial perceptual difficulty, writing disorders (dysphasia and aphasia), dyscalculia and nonverbal learning disabilities. The learning disabled community at Yale, however, tends to be hidden, unable and often unwilling to raise awareness about conditions that students cope with here. Though the University provides accommodations which can ease the struggle, we, as a student body, seem surprisingly unaware of the difficulties faced and the opportunities available for those in need.

It takes a highly intelligent and mentally capable individual to survive academically at Yale, making it too easy to overlook potential or existing learning disabilities. As Judy York, the director of Yale’s Resource Office on Disabilities, told me, the students she sees with academic disabilities often “appear no different” than their non-learning disabled peers. But York added that while they may be able to compete equally, and may even “be brilliant in certain fields,” many often “find themselves needing to work longer and with stronger focus.”

Still those facing these types of challenges are less conspicuous than those on crutches or with slings. And while we often look to the person limping with sympathy, recognizing how hard it is to get around campus, we seem to ignore the difficulties faced by those with less visible problems. To be sure, having a learning disability can’t be easy at Yale; most of us are overcommitted and overworked as it is.

While the University cannot fully ameliorate the effects of a learning disability — or, for that matter, a physical one — it does work to accommodate students. For instance, the Resource Office on Disabilities will provide textbooks on tape, coordinate note-takers and readers and work with professors to ensure that those who need it can have extended time on tests, use laptops or complete exams in a “distraction-free” location. And the resource network exists throughout the University — while York spearheads the effort, it is collaboration between masters, deans, professors, teaching assistants and even freshman counselors.

Perhaps, one of the most significant services provided by this office is coordination of testing. As smart, capable students, Yalies are surprisingly able to cope — so well that a learning disability may be overlooked. Moreover, given the intelligence of the average student, struggling to keep up may be dismissed as simply not studying efficiently enough or not being quite as brilliant, when in fact, something else is to blame. As a result, many students only find out during their time here that they have a learning disability.

This is where we come in. Students facing new disabilities have the added obstacle of adjustment. York explained, “It takes a long time to fully acclimate to life with a new affliction, but the Yale lifestyle and culture leaves very little room for that.” And while we know that a student who uses crutches needs to recalculate the time it takes to get to classes, we need to be sensitive to the fact that those coming to terms with a newly diagnosed learning disability will face a period of adjustment as well. In a setting where personal history is not always shared, we need to make efforts to ensure that our friends feel comfortable talking.

It took my friends three years to tell me they had a learning disability; I hope yours won’t feel they have to wait.

Rebecca Stern is a sophomore in Berkeley College.


  • CornellMan@Yale

    I was very pleased to read your article on struggling with disabilities like ADD in a high performance environment like Yale. I could have used the message 35 years ago. As an engineering student at Cornell in the 70’s, I didn’t understand why I was having so much trouble keeping up. It was like walking around with a 100lb pack on my back. It was seen as a character flaw. Or I was just lazy. I knew I was actually working longer than everyone else, and under much greater stress, but with lower results. ADD was not a known problem back then and the problem dogged me for decades. It was fully 20 years later that I learned about ADD. What a relief. I wasn’t a bad person, I just had a handicap. And that knowledge helped me make some adjustments in my life without guilt. If you have a bad leg, you don’t agonize over using a cane to get around. I have never taken the medications, but I do use caffeine in moderation as an alternative stimulant when needed.

    The availability of prescription stimulants does raise difficult questions which my son faced more directly. Questions like which is the REAL you – a higher performing guy relying on medication, or the lower per performing “organic” you? And which one do you want to be? Do you go for high pressure opportunities in life like Yale, knowing you can only make it on the meds, or aim lower for something you can handle without the meds. It’s going to be a lifelong issue for those of you ambitious can-do Yalies with ADD and similar handicaps.

  • Face Blind

    While I don’t have a learning disability per se, I’m to some extent in the same boat, since I do have another type of congenital neurological disability. My condition is known as prosopagnosia, and it is characterized by an impairment of the ability to recognize and remember faces. As a result, I can spend a semester in a highly interactive class and on the last day still not be able to recognize half of the students. Although I became very talented at covering this up, when people did realize that I didn’t know who they were, they would often take offense and assume that I didn’t remember them or didn’t care about them. Most couldn’t believe that I had simply forgotten what they look like and knew exactly who they were once I heard their voices. I knew that it wasn’t a character flaw but rather simply a matter of being bad at something that just about everyone else is good at, but no one else seemed to get it.

    After 21 years, I finally learned why I was so bad at recognizing people when I read about prosopagnosia on the Internet. Last spring, I took a trip up to Harvard to get tested. (Yes, that’s right — I’ve been colluding with the enemy.) Since prosopagnosia is not a well-known condition, the only people who are well-qualified to test for it are those who do research on it, a grand total of about ten groups in the entire country. A few weeks later, I got the test results and was diagnosed. Like #1, I found the diagnosis to be not so much a burden to adjust to but rather a vindication. I was now understood that this was a disability, not a character flaw. I could no longer be told that I’m a bad person if I fail to recognize someone.

    I commend the author on writing this article. While I have a friend who I recently learned has ADHD, I has no idea that there were so many Yalies with neurological disabilities. We really are invisible on this campus. A lot of people tend to think of giftedness and learning disabilities as being on opposite ends of the spectrum and are unaware that there are many people who both are gifted and have a learning disability. I was rather amazed when I learned over the past couple of years that David Boies, Al Gore’s attorney in the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court case, and Jay Leno, the host of the Tonight Show, both have dyslexia. My friend with ADHD is a highly talented theoretical computer scientist. Perhaps raising awareness of the presence of people with neurological disabilities at Yale will help promote awareness and acceptance within the broader society.

  • Ann Farris


    I am dyslexic/hyperlexic who went to the Yale Drama School when dyslexia a word known in the learning environment.

    Now, however, on the faculty at Yale is one of the most outstanding dyslexia research doctors, Dr. Sally Shaywitz. She is the author of “Overcoming Dyslexia”. Perhaps it’s possible for dyslexic students to liaise with her office for suggestions on handling dyslexia. At least her staff might have ideas on where help can be found at Yale.

    If you are interest in my story, go to and read my article.

    All the best

    Ann Farris