Learning to be Disabled by Ken Syme

In Now You See It, Cathy Davidson redefines and challenges the perception of individuals who have learning disabilities. Davidson suggests that it is not the students who need to change or be changed, rather it is the teaching techniques that must be altered to accommodate the students. She explains that the current educational system is outdated and must evolve. Her point is clarified by showcasing programs using different teaching methods where those diagnosed with ‘learning disabilities’ have flourished, simply by using changed teaching methods. One example of this is the Quest 2 Learn school which employs the teaching practice of “serious games, serious fun, serious learning” (88).  In this revolutionary educational institution, Davidson says, “I have to believe Q2L has found an infinitely better way for kids to learn…Yet many of their students have learning disabilities and have failed in other public schools.  They seem to be thriving here.  And, better, they are learning” (90).

Davidson begins her examination of learning disabilities and the ways in which individuals learn in the new age saying, “ADD almost never applies to all activities, only those in which the child is not interested. This isn’t a disability (a fixed biological or cognitive condition) but a disposition (susceptible to change depending on the environment). Keep the kids interested and the ADD goes away” (Davidson, 80). I believe that Davidson makes a good point, as a student who is easily distracted, gets bored with tasks after a very short time, and frequently struggles to focus, I was “diagnosed” with ADD very early on in my education. For years after I received my “official” diagnosis[,] I protested the very notion of an attention based learning disability – I deemed ADD a simple combination of letters that was utterly meaningless. As far as I was concerned ADD was in the same league as restless leg syndrome, it was a disease or disorder that only affected people once a diagnosis was given. Furthermore, I stood strongly behind the notion Davidson posits that when a student is interested or engaged in an activity, the ADD “goes away,” meaning that for certain activities the ADD does not act as an obstacle.  Personally, I never felt the effects of ADD when I was working on something that appealed to me. Alternately, subjects not of interest like math and science left me unable to focus.

Jack London had trouble studying too

According to Davidson, this inability to focus should be solved by engaging the students – ideally by using the new technology that the digital age has made available. Davidson advocates the use of gaming and game/challenge oriented teaching strategies to keep students engaged and involved with learning. This is where Davidson and I differ. As a student who not only struggled with ADD but also had a nonverbal writing disability (sometimes referred to as a secretarial learning disability), I struggled not only with paying attention, but also with writing things by hand. One of the biggest struggles I had with the nonverbal writing disability was that I thought far faster than I could write. When permitted to vocalize my ideas, I could demonstrate a mastery of nearly any subject at great length, but if you gave me a piece of paper and a pencil I could only scrawl out a few poor sentences before getting frustrated and turning in a shoddy piece of work. Despite the difficulties involved in having this learning disability at a young age, I was in the bowels of an indifferent public school system that dismissed my disability and insisted I complete the same work in the same way as other students. Looking back, this was probably the best thing for me – it taught me how to work hard – it showed me that sometimes I would need to work harder than anyone else for a lesser result. My disability made me a stronger and more determined student.

Davidson shares her own personal experience struggling with a learning disability, dyslexia, and she writes about how she was almost unable to graduate the eighth grade due to her inability to memorize the preamble to the constitution and the Gettysburg Address.  After failing many times, Davidson said that her teacher offered her the option to write an essay instead of having to memorize the writings, Davidson had to write one essay about each brief text Davidson was failing to memorize.  Davidson said, “I stayed up all night working on this and returned the next day with my project. My scrawl filled every page in a small spiral binder – two hundred pages” (80). The teacher recognized that Davidson’s talents lay elsewhere and her inability to memorize a few passages shouldn’t keep her from graduating the eighth grade.

Even Abraham Lincoln didn’t memorize the Gettysburg address

In this instance, it makes perfect sense for the teacher to have passed Davidson – she’d done far more than the necessary amount of work to complete the assignment. Moreover, as I’m sure most individuals would agree, the ability to memorize a few historical documents isn’t a very important skill set later in life. However, in other instances, it’s far more complicated for teachers to recognize that a student’s talents lie elsewhere and to tailor their teaching towards the individual student’s needs. Davidson tells of one student she saw who remained entirely disengaged from the class until the students were asked to complete an art assignment, at which point the student sprung to life and energetically completed the assignment. Although this girl possesses tremendous skill in art, Davidson explains that “the problem is that her fate is to a large extent controlled by her performance on the EOG tests, and unless the adults in her life – teachers and parents – are resolute in shepherding her along a path where her talents are valued, they may ultimately wind up underdeveloped” (80). Although Davidson makes a good point, the converse idea is also important – if this student works hard to develop only her artistic talents, other fundamental skills, like writing and mathematics, may go underdeveloped. This presents a critical problem in the restructuring of the educational system for students with learning disabilities – we don’t yet know which skills are going to be most useful for the current students.

Given the rate of change brought about by technology, students of this generation are, for the most part, going to have jobs that don’t yet exist. It is impossible for teachers to determine how valuable a specific skill set is. Using Davidson’s example, there is no way to determine if the development of the girl’s artistic skills will be beneficial or if her artistic skills won’t be all that useful in the future. If the latter is true, the underdevelopment of her other skills will have very serious negative repercussions on her life.

As a student who dealt with a learning disability, I believe that it’s more important for struggling students to be challenged than to be catered to, especially when we aren’t sure what they’re being prepared for.


  1. “Gettysburg Address” by M.T. Sheahan, Creative Commons 3.0. Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gettysburg_Address_(poster).jpg
  2. “Jack London Studying” by Heinold’s First and Last Chance, Creative Commons 3.0. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jack_London_Studying.jpg
  3. “Individuality” by Flickr user pheαnix, Creative Commons 3.0. flickr.com: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pheanixphotos/4278823097/

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