Ashamed. Feeling stupid. Never really getting it. Studying for hours. Slow. Embarrassed others will find out the truth. Always compensating. Trying to cover it up.
An unscripted, 22-minute, award-winning documentary, A Celebration of Differences, offers a window into the world of people who live with learning disabilities. Children and adults talk about their academic and ongoing struggles and how they found strength and empowerment in disability. The video makers created the documentary to encourage people who have learning disabilities, but it offers educators an insight into the emotional and difficult challenges people who have disabilities face every day.
The video was shot from the perspective of people who live with learning differences. It tells their stories: A graduate student still worries that the next book will be the one he won't be able to read. A young college student remembers sitting at the kitchen table for hours to the sounds of a screaming parent because she couldn't understand her math homework. She remembers being told, "If only you tried harder."
Celebrity Tommy Smothers gives a rare interview about his dyslexia -- only the second such interview he has granted. He recalls finding his unique comedy style in the classroom. Getting his classmates to laugh was his way of gaining acceptance and a way to compensate for his learning disability. Although Smothers struggled with his disability, the film illustrates that his disability became a gift because he used it to find success.
These honest commentaries have caught the attention of countless film and professional organizations and, most recently, the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show Online With Oprah. Some of the people who appeared in the video will share their stories with Oprah today, June 15.
Ceil Rothbart, co-producer of the documentary and a mother of children who have learning disabilities, suggested the film as a way of mentoring people who have learning disabilities. "I wanted to create a film that spoke to the emotional issues," Rothbart told Education World. The owner of a small editing and video business, she volunteered her time to film and edit the documentary.
Rothbart's lifelong dream was to create a venue for the expression of her children's experience with learning disabilities. "Those who believe that having a learning disability impacts only your educational experience are missing a critical piece of the experience and understanding of the disorder," she said. "Having a learning disability means having a life disability. It impacts all aspects of daily life, your sense of self, your relationship with others, and your academic and educational experience.
"I always knew that my children would be able to learn, and I always knew that I could find tutors or teachers who would provide them with remediation," Rothbart explained. "What I had no control over were the insensitive teachers who created roadblocks to their achievements, who assaulted their developing senses of self, who refused to take the time or expend the energy to teach to an individual rather than from a standardized student model."
Rothbart's own motivation stemmed from years of frustration with individuals and systems that hurt rather than helped her children, with teachers who did not understand learning disabilities or believe her children had learning disabilities. "There seemed to be a lack of awareness that a child with learning differences came into the classroom at a disadvantage to begin with," she said.
"The film highlights the strategies those with learning disabilities develop and the inner strengths they possess," said Bobbi Zabel, also a co-producer of the documentary. "We aim to educate those who deny this reality and to inspire those who live it every day," she emphasized.
"As they relate their experiences, common threads emerge: feelings of anger, frustration, and isolation in a world designed for standardized minds; the empowerment that arises from self-knowledge; the value of
cultivating one's strengths and the gifts that are embodied in 'thinking differently,'" Zabel said.
"It's a big battle for those with learning disabilities because so much of their life is spent in school," said Sally L. Smith, professor of education at the American University School and head of the school's graduate program in learning disabilities. Smith started the The Lab School of Washington in 1967, when she discovered a complete lack of services in the Washington area for the intelligent child who is learning disabled.
"We have a night school, and we see the devastation that feeling stupid causes," Smith told Education World. "They have felt really stupid since kindergarten, and it stays with them. They carry those lingering feelings -- of not trying hard enough, of being dumb -- even when they've made it." Smith notes that the experience in school has a profound effect on a person's self-concept, referring to one of the commentaries a college student makes in A Celebration of Differences. The student always felt stupid during the school year and smart only during the summer.
"I think it is important for adults who have learning disabilities to share their stories because those who thought they were dumb no longer think that way," Smith said. "I like the documentary very much," she continued. "They tell it like it is, not a third party interpreting what it is like to have a learning disability."
Providing students with individualized instruction early in their school careers and allowing students to shine in areas in which they do well are among the solutions that can help people who have learning disabilities not think of themselves as stupid, Smith said.
The Lab School boasts that 90 percent of its students go on to college, a significantly higher percentage than the national average. A recently released NCES report Postsecondary Students with Disabilities: Enrollment, Services and Persistence shows that students with disabilities who enrolled in post-secondary education for the first time in 1989-1990 had a similar rate of overall persistence in continuing their studies or earning degrees as students without disabilities. About 53 percent of students with disabilities persisted in their programs compared with 64 percent without disabilities. That same report found, however, that students with disabilities were less likely to have earned a bachelor's degree from a public, four-year institution within the five years of the study.
Rothbart is in the process of developing another documentary. It will focus on non-verbal learning disabilities. Volunteers plan to make a broad-based introductory film on the issue. Specialists in the area of non-verbal learning disabilities will provide commentary, as will children and adults diagnosed with non-verbal learning disabilities. A new, 14-member volunteer committee has formed. RNBC director, Dr. Meryl Lipton, will lead a professional advisory board.
Diane Weaver Dunne
ADDITIONAL ONLINE LEARNING DISABILITIES RESOURCES
Copyright © 2000 Education World
Diane Weaver Dunne