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Striking Out Stigma – Seeing Learning Disabilities as Simple Learning Differences

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 Blackwell wearing Eye To Eye shirt

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.

Three students wearing Eye To Eye shirts

“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

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.

Authentic Gets You Allies

young woman standing in a group and speaking“I learned how to fake it.”

That’s how one young man with LD/ADHD described his struggle in school. Instead of admitting he needed help because he learned differently, he stayed up until 3 AM doing homework. Then, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to fake it his whole life.

People who learn differently are often reluctant to ask for the accommodations that would help them learn better. Learning disabilities are “hidden” disabilities; they’re not seen. So, one of the most important things we do at Eye to Eye is teach kids to share their story. When you step out and say, “I’m dyslexic,” or “I have ADHD,” it’s that first, essential step in advocating for yourself and getting the accommodations you need. And sometimes, the best accommodation you can have is an ally.

But it can be hard to ask. Living with an LD can mean living with doubt. Self-doubt. Even though I went to Brown and got my master’s at Columbia, there is still a small part of me that feels like that kid who couldn’t read in the fifth grade.

When I was at Brown, I wanted to build an organization that would bring kids struggling with LD/ADHD together with people who had faced the same challenges—and made it through. To do that, I needed help.

So I approached the Johnson Scholarship Foundation. I told them about the mentor work I did at Brown and the grit and resilience that got me through Columbia. But I also told them how in fifth grade, I could only read at a second grade level because I was dyslexic. I told them how I failed tests. Lost assignments. I talked about frustration, loss of self-esteem, and self-doubt.

I said, “Right now, one in five students are in the exact same boat. And we’re going to lose them unless we act.”

Now, I took a risk in being authentic. And Johnson took a big risk in supporting me and the organization I had just founded. But an alliance was formed.

That alliance helped Eye to Eye grow from a seed to the powerful, organic organization it is today. It allowed me to hire Marcus Soutra, an Eye to Eye Alumnus who is now president of the organization. It allowed us to help thousands of young people in our mentor and alumni programs. Today, those kids are graduating from college. They’re going out in the workplace and changing office culture to be more supportive of those who work differently.

Foundations have doubts, too. The people at Johnson had hard questions for me, and they asked them. Their willingness to challenge me gave me a chance to answer that challenge. Too often, potential funders smile, don’t admit their concerns—then they turn you down without ever giving you the chance to change their minds. When you’re talking about changing lives, neither side should ever fake it.

Perfect doesn’t get you partners. Authentic gets you allies. People who think differently are coming forward in all walks of life, achieving amazing things, from founding new schools to writing songs for Justin Bieber to making strides toward a cure for cancer. They’re making us rethink what people with learning differences can achieve—and they’re doing it by being real about who they are

And the young man who stayed up till 3 AM because he felt he had to hide the fact that he had an LD from the world? He became an Eye to Eye mentor and then a teacher, helping other kids keep it real and achieve.