Middle school is often a time of exploring and expressing one’s individuality and autonomy. However, peers, teachers, and families begin playing a pivotal role in identity development. For students who learn differently, social pressures are often compounded by a sense of isolation resulting from stigma. The stigma surrounding learning disabilities and attention disorders can keep many students from seeking the tools they need to be successful.
Ryan, a current high schooler at AIM Academy, recounted his middle school struggles with ADHD. He found it impossible to keep up.
“It was in fourth-grade that I realized that something wasn’t right,” Ryan shared. “I would get assignments, and I would just leave them for weeks because I didn’t understand and I didn’t want to go ask my teachers for help.”
Even though his grades were slipping dramatically, Ryan was still too embarrassed to ask for help. Ryan’s uneasiness about reaching out came from misconceptions that students who learn differently are often confronted with.
Research measuring public perceptions of learning differences revealed that half of the general population, including a third of educators, believe that learning disabilities are actually laziness (Roper Public Affairs & Corporate Communications, 2010). Several more studies took those perceptions a step further and demonstrated that the stigma associated with learning disabilities and attention disorders adversely affects educational expectations, academic outcomes, and emotional wellbeing (Crosnoe, Riegle-Crumb, & Muller, 2007; Shifrer, 2013; Al-Yagon, 2015; Feurer & Andrews, 2009; Lackaye, Margalit, Ziv, & Ziman, 2006; Maag & Behrens, 1989; Margalit, 1991; Margalit & Raviv, 1984; Wiener & Daniels, 2016).
When Ryan entered AIM Academy, he discovered Eye to Eye – a mentoring program working to eliminate the stigma of learning disabilities and attention disorders by reframing and celebrating them instead as learning differences. The program pairs students who learn differently in middle school with their high school and college-aged counterparts. Ryan was hesitant to join.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do that,’ because for some reason I couldn’t see myself impacting kids’ lives.” Despite his doubts, Ryan gave mentoring a shot.
“A lot of the kids that I would mentor suffered bullying because of their [learning disabilities] and ADHD. They were bullied a lot for the fact that they didn’t learn like everybody else, that they couldn’t interact the same way, and that they couldn’t impact the classroom and the atmosphere that’s in that classroom.”
He decided to share his own story with the mentees and become a shoulder for them to lean on.
“I wasn’t able to see it at first, but every time they’d see me the next week they’d say two words: ‘thank you.’ I would think, ‘Thank you? I didn’t do anything,'” he said, recalling his surprise at their gratitude.
However, his school chapter advisor assured him the difference he made was immeasurable. For children and adults who learn differently, the path towards self-acceptance starts with breaking stigma at the individual level. Once someone knows they are in the company of another person who learns differently, they can begin to break down their self-stigma and share their own experiences with others. And when someone shares their story, they become empowered. Empowered individuals inspire positive feedback, and that feedback fosters a supportive community.
Ryan admitted, “When that kid just kept saying thank you, I found myself going home and crying because there is a greater community even outside of the one that we have at Eye to Eye.”
This month, Eye to Eye is celebrating “Strike Out Stigmonth.” The month-long friendly competition between Eye to Eye chapters nationwide is designed to spread awareness, strengthen bonds between mentors and mentees, and connect participants to the local and national Eye to Eye community of supporters and allies. Follow Eye to Eye on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter to view the stigma-busting competition. To learn more about Eye to Eye, please visit www.eyetoeyenational.org.
David Flink is a social movement leader on the front lines of the learning rights movement. He imagines a world where one day all learners will be seen, heard and valued. Being diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at a young age, he later committed his life to students with learning differences. He serves as Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye.