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.