In 2023, It’s Your Voice That Matters

To best represent our community’s diverse experiences, NCLD is asking for your input. We want to hear from young adults with learning disabilities, educators in K–12 schools, and caregivers of individuals with learning disabilities and/or attention issues. 

Annual Survey 

The survey asks participants about their experiences around learning disabilities, any hardships faced, as well as any triumphs. Your answers will help shape the State of Learning Disabilities report and influence NCLD’s future goals.

  • Young Adults (18 -30)

  • Educators 

  • Parents & Caregivers of those with learning disabilities and/or attention issues

Focus Group 

We want you to participate in a focus group discussion about finding and engaging with resources related to learning disabilities and/or attention issues.

  • Parents & Caregivers of those with learning disabilities and/or attention issues

YALC Advocacy in the Digital World

Our Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC) is a talented group of passionate young professionals adults striving to make a difference for people living with learning disabilities. For many of these young people, their advocacy extends far beyond their involvement with NCLD and into their workplaces, classrooms, or communities.

Two of such YALC Alumni are Athena Hallberg and Rudy Karthick Bhuvaneswari. These two took their advocacy to the digital world.

Athena Hallberg created a video titled, ‘My Journey with Learning and Attention Issues,’ sharing insightful inner dialogues explaining how she navigates through the world with learning and attention issues.

Rudy Karthick Bhuvaneswari shares ‘Creating Environments for All Students to Succeed,’ where he uses his own experience in school to help diminish misconceptions about neurodiversity, helping advocate for a less stigmatized environment in which all students can thrive.

NCLD NAMES JACQUELINE RODRIGUEZ, Ph.D.CEO

WASHINGTON — November 30, 2022 — The National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) announced the appointment of Dr. Jacqueline Rodriguez, Ph.D. as the organization’s incoming chief executive officer. She will begin the role effective January 2, 2023, with transition support from its chief operating officer, Dr. Kena Mayberry, Ph.D. 

 Dr. Rodriguez brings a wealth of experience with a background in special education, non-profit management, and education law and policy. She joins NCLD from the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE), where she serves as vice president for research, policy, & advocacy overseeing the strategy and content development for the association’s research, programs and professional learning, state and federal policy, and advocacy initiatives. Prior to her tenure with AACTE, Dr. Rodriguez served as a special education teacher and university faculty member, preparing future special and general education teachers for K12 classrooms. 

 “We are excited to welcome Dr. Rodriguez to NCLD,” says Margi Booth, co-chair of the board of directors. “Her impeccable background and strong leadership abilities will ensure the organization continues to grow to even greater heights.”

 Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, NCLD continues to lead the field in innovation, research, programming, and advocacy nationally. Given its deep commitment to the one in five people with learning disabilities and attention issues, the organization’s work is aimed at investing in brighter futures, championing research and knowledge, crafting policy that works, and shining a light on inequality. 

 “Every individual with learning disabilities deserves to reach their full potential academically and in their employment,” says Dr. Jacqueline Rodriguez. “NCLD ensures that mission is fulfilled. I am thrilled to join such a talented and passionate team of professionals. I have been a consumer of NCLD’s work for many years, and I look forward to building upon the incredible research, programming, and advocacy initiatives the organization has endeavored to create more equitable futures for people with learning disabilities and their families.”

 Dr. Rodriguez has a Ph.D. in education with a focus on exceptional education from the University of Central Florida, where she was a McKnight Doctoral Fellow and an Order of Pegasus Awardee. Jackie earned an M.A. in special education with a learning disabilities specialization from American University and her B.A. in international affairs and Latin American studies with a concentration in international development, culture, and society from The George Washington University.

 

About NCLD

For 45 years, the National Center for Learning Disabilities has worked to create a society in which every individual possesses the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed in school, work, and life. Our programs — which primarily target the underserved — include dozens of resources designed to support families, educators, and policymakers as they work to serve students with learning and attention issues.


NCLD to Recognize McGraw Hill as Corporate Champion at Its 45th Anniversary Benefit

NEW YORK — October 31, 2022 — For 45 years, the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) has represented the 1 in 5 Americans with learning and attention issues. In recognition of its commitment to accessible learning and inclusivity, NCLD will honor McGraw Hill with the Corporate Champion Award at its annual benefit on Wednesday, November 9, 2022, in New York City.

The evening is slated to give prominence to the organization’s impact within the learning disabilities and attention issues community. By providing scholarships, research, resources, and policy recommendations, NCLD aims to transform mindsets and outdated systems that negatively impact those with learning and attention issues.


“We are elated to meet in person after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19 and bring together members of the community and corporate partners to recognize the work they’re doing to make learning accessible for all,” said Kena Mayberry, Ph.D., chief operating officer. “This year’s Corporate Champion Award honoree, McGraw Hill, has gone above and beyond to celebrate inclusivity and ensure that its learning resources are available to students of all abilities.”


Learning accessibility is critical to improving the lives of the 1 in 5 with learning and attention issues. By building an inclusive culture that considers the needs of every learner from the outset, McGraw Hill has created accessible digital resources to meet the needs of students with a variety of abilities. Its comprehensive strategy was developed with thoughtful consideration and research to ensure that employees and partners have the interests of all learners in mind when bringing new educational content and technologies to market.

“Our vision is to help all learners unlock their potential, no matter where their starting point might be,” said Simon Allen, chief executive officer of McGraw Hill. “We understand that everyone learns differently and are committed to making our content and technology accessible for all. I am proud of the impact McGraw Hill is making toward learning accessibility, and I am grateful that the National Center for Learning Disabilities is recognizing our work.”

Other awardees at the benefit will include Everyday Champion Award recipients whose peers have submitted nominations from across the country. NCLD will also bestow two scholarships to young adults to further their education at a trade school, community college, college, or university.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, New York Times Opinion podcast host, will emcee NCLD’s benefit at Flatiron Eataly on Wednesday, November 9, 2022, in New York City. Purchase tickets, donate, or bid on silent auction items here.

For sponsorship opportunities, please contact Adolfo Ferrario, development associate, at aferrario@ncld.org. For media inquiries, please contact Cierra Mangal, director of communications, at cmangal@ncld.org.


About NCLD
For 45 years, the National Center for Learning Disabilities has worked to create a society in which every individual possesses the academic, social, and emotional skills needed to succeed in school, work, and life. Our programs — which primarily target the underserved — include dozens of resources designed to support families, educators, and policymakers as they work to serve students with learning and attention issues.

To learn more about NCLD, visit www.ncld.org.

McGraw Hill
McGraw Hill is a leading global education company that partners with millions of educators, learners and professionals around the world. Recognizing their diverse needs, we build trusted content, flexible tools and powerful digital platforms to help them achieve success on their own terms. Through our commitment to equity, accessibility and inclusion, we foster a culture of belonging that respects and reflects the diversity of the communities, learners and educators we serve. McGraw Hill has over 40 offices across North America, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and South America, and makes its learning solutions for PreK-12, higher education, professionals and others available in more than 80 languages. Visit us at mheducation.com or find us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn or Twitter.

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2022 COVID-19 Impact Scholarship Winners

We are proud to recognize the 2022 recipients of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) COVID-19 Impact Scholarship.

NCLD recognizes the pandemic continues to create significant disruptions to higher education and life plans of young adults with learning and attention issues across the country. Students are changing their plans, reducing credit loads, and losing out on internships and job opportunities, adjusting to the consequences of the global pandemic. 

In recognition of the hardships our young adults face, NCLD created the COVID-19 Impact Scholarship, intended to support students whose college and life plans have been significantly impacted by the pandemic. 

This year, NCLD awarded 12 $1,500 scholarships to deserving students experiencing significant disruptions to their undergraduate or graduate journeys. 

Please join us in congratulating our 2022 scholarship recipients, Donteris Thompson, Madison Wiseman, Kendrick Johnson, Oliver Fentum, Sarah Devine, David Elkayam, Heather Hayes, Camden Moors, Kelly De’Angelo, and Zina Antolin. 

Not pictured: Kelly De’Angelo and Zina Antolin

White text: Celebrating 45 Years

NCLD to Host its 45th Anniversary Benefit

In honor of its 45th year anniversary, the National Center for Learning Disabilities will host its annual benefit on Wednesday, November 9, 2022, in New York City. The evening is slated to give prominence to the organization’s impact within the learning disabilities and attention issues community. By providing scholarships, research, resources, and policy recommendations, NCLD aims to transform mindsets and outdated systems that negatively impact those with learning and attention issues.

NCLD will recognize recipients of its 2022 Corporate Champion Award and Everyday Champion Awards and bestow two scholarships to young adults to further their education.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro, NYTimes Opinion Podcast Host, will emcee NCLD’s benefit at Flatiron Eataly on Wednesday, November 9th, 2022, in New York City. Purchase tickets, donate, or bid on silent auction items here.

For sponsorship opportunities or media inquiries, contact NCLD at info@ncld.org.

Changing Systems to Improve Mental Health for Students with LD

By Stevie Mays

My depression is inherently entangled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Poor executive functioning makes completing tasks, especially self-care tasks, feel impossible. My life since college and post-grad, or as many millennials say, “adulting,” is arduous. My career is the classic COVID gig life—I work four different jobs ranging in hours of commitment and commute. I presumed this would have freed up my schedule to take more time committed to becoming organized, and man was that a misread on my part. I feel as though my body’s executive functioning can handle work, and I keep up my social life decently, but self-care is where I run out of spoons, a common analogy within the disability community.

My first depressive episode was in 8th grade. I attended private Catholic schools K-8th grade, and I loved the smaller class size experience and found the teachers had a personal investment in my success as a learning-disabled student and mutually entered the classroom with curiosity. In Michigan, there is a Catholic school entrance exam to attend. I received my typical accommodations and passed with flying colors. I toured my high school of choice with my cousin, who also attended the school. She felt cool, and I hoped to be as well. When I brought my test scores to a meeting with a school counselor, I recall tension on the car ride over with my parents.

I entered the meeting and discussed my extracurriculars and excitement about my acceptance to a travel softball team and my love of choir and science. I saw her pull out a yellow folder and open it. She looked at me and said, “so you have dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia.” I was speechless. My heart started pounding, even still 13 years later. My face turned beet red and hot. I looked at her and mumbled, “yes,” and she gave a painful smile.

My brain had a flood of thoughts. “What is all that?” “What is wrong with me?” I recall trying to recite exactly what she said in my head, so I could try to google it later. I later learned that dyslexia makes it very challenging to spell words I haven’t heard before. As my parent entered the room, the counselor said to my parents, “I am sorry, but we do not accept students with disabilities. Did you read our website?” My parents were stunned. My memory cuts off after this moment, and I forget exactly what words were exchanged.

Afterward, I attended public high school, where accommodations were later taken away in 10th grade. I can and will never forget how I felt leaving that meeting at the private school—a heaviness filled my body along with rejection, shame, helplessness, and loss of community. My family and community were Catholic at the time, and everyone I knew was attending a catholic high school, and I was an outsider. I felt stupid knowing my disability caused this. Students were being pushed out of private catholic schools, so students were likely not open about their learning disabilities. I felt isolated and alone. Later I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) from this meeting. I had daily intrusive thoughts about being dyslexic. Those thoughts scrolled through my brain nearly constantly for three years.

During my first two years in high school, I had barely above a 2.0 GPA, and I wouldn’t say I liked school. I hated being there, I hated having to complete my work, and I wanted to disengage completely. My mom recognized this as depression. I felt so low for so long that I assumed it was my new state of being.

Awareness of educational trauma and mental health is critical to prevent other students from suffering from deep depression. My brain will always have memories from that traumatic day, and I want educators and parents to understand ways to mitigate this experience from happening to other students.

I believe that success, enjoying learning, and fulfilling life are attainable for all LD people. It starts with acceptance and pride, which is critical from my perspective to thrive with an LD. We must celebrate our strengths, encourage our interests, and be gentle with ourselves —don’t add pressure on the more difficult tasks.

If you’re a student with LD or connect to someone with one, help us practice and work at things, and don’t add unnecessary stress or pressure. Do your best, and don’t worry about making all A’s— a few B’s, C’s, or even lower is acceptable occasionally. Sometimes it isn’t easy to meet the standard that year, and that’s okay; maybe in a few years, it will all click. Your grades and career do not determine one’s worth or value, and you are way more than your performance on an exam or job title.

Welcome Cohort 5

The number five holds significance and importance for many people. We celebrate fifth anniversaries and five-year reunions, and in some cultures, the number five represents curiosity, luck, and adventure. This fall, the National Center for Learning Disabilities celebrates its fifth cohort of the Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC).

Launched in 2018, the YALC, as we affectionately call it, is the first of its kind. The leadership development and training program for young adults with learning disabilities and attention issues fosters community and builds advocacy and leadership skills. In celebration of LD Awareness month, we are excited to welcome 13 incredible new members of our fifth cohort.

Join us in welcoming Alondra, Amy, Cade, Camden, Hilary, Jennifer, Jordan, Katie, Melissa, Michele, Nia, Stephen, and Zoe to the YALC community!

From Brittany Greer, NCLD’s Senior Manager overseeing Young Adult programs: “I am so excited to welcome this new cohort. Our new cohort members are so diverse, yet they share a common passion for fighting for equal access for all students. They are ready to work, and I am ready to assist them!”

Understanding and Navigating Through Life with a Disability

By Eliza Young

Disability is a broad term that may seem hard to define. Obviously, there are medical definitions and legal definitions, but what matters to me is how my disabled community defines disability. Who can be included in the disabled community? What unites all disabled people? The answer, like most communities, is a set of shared experiences. Disabled people, for all our differences, all have experiences navigating a world constructed for people that are not like us. Disability is just a difference. It is the way someone’s brain or body works, a difference, that leads them to have a unique experience much differently than someone who doesn’t have that disability.

Not everyone with a disability identifies as disabled, which is ok. But I wanted to share here what led me to realize I am disabled and why it is okay – and even empowering – to identify as disabled.
One of the things I remember most vividly about elementary school is struggling to learn to read. While most people don’t remember learning to read, it was a daily struggle I faced for years. I recall the moment I realized I was different. I was in first grade; the class was working on a worksheet about words and letters that I couldn’t pay attention to. Every couple of minutes, I would get up to ask my teacher, “how long until lunch.” She became increasingly annoyed with my interruptions and finally snapped at me to “learn to read the clock.” I slunk back to my seat and noticed that I was the only kid not working diligently on my worksheet. I wondered how they were all able to pay attention and felt confused and alienated by this thing that everyone else seemed to be able to do effortlessly, that I couldn’t seem to do, no matter how hard I tried.

That memory sticks with me because it is the first instance of a feeling that I would come to know well, the frustration of trying as hard as you possibly can and still failing. It was only later that I learned that my eyes couldn’t focus on a close object for more than 9 seconds at a time. In other words, every 9 seconds, the page would split into two images, and my eyes struggled to bring them back into focus. This condition, called convergence insufficiency, is why I had so much trouble concentrating and reading. A couple of months after I first realized that there was something different about me compared to my classmates, I was formally diagnosed by a doctor. My parents and the doctor explained that the way I was experiencing the world was not the way everyone else experiences it, a pretty profound concept for a 6-year-old to wrap their head around. I had to learn early on that I couldn’t trust what I saw and understand that other people’s visions didn’t split into two images. I hadn’t realized I was seeing the world differently than everyone else.
My experience is not universal, but it shows that even though kids are young, they can figure out that they are different and feel alienated and strange because of it. Being diagnosed gave a name for my experience, demystified it, and provided steps to improve my situation. The diagnosis and label of “different” are not what made me feel different; I already felt that way. It is important to help kids understand what is happening and why they have different experiences from their classmates.

I was pulled out of the classroom throughout elementary school because I was reading a grade level behind. By the time I was in 5th grade, I had understood that I had a learning disability and that I had difficulties with reading that other people didn’t. I understood why I was pulled out of the classroom for tests and began to look forward to being placed in a distraction-free environment. Having that name of “learning disability” for my experience also helped when one of my best friends told me I “wasn’t smart enough to get into the gifted and talented program.” Although that hurt, knowing about my LD helped me fight the fear that I wasn’t smart by knowing that there was a reason I had trouble in school.
Despite recognizing my learning disability, I still had trouble seeing myself as disabled. One reservation I had was that identifying as disabled would somehow take away from people with “real” disabilities. I didn’t want to take any resources from people with more intense disabilities and didn’t want to claim an identity that wasn’t meant for me.

While grappling with this in high school, I faced discrimination from my school’s guidance counselor. I had registered for a regular history course but wanted to change to an AP history course because it seemed more engaging and intellectually stimulating. I talked to my guidance counselor about changing classes in June, and it wasn’t until November, a quarter of the way through the course, that I was finally permitted to switch into the class. For six months, she blocked my request to change classes because she thought I could not handle the upper-level class. She decided for me that I was not capable rather than letting me decide for myself and, in the process, set me up to fail. Because she chose to stonewall my efforts to switch classes, I was two months behind everyone else in AP history when I joined and had to work twice as hard to get a decent final grade.

Experiencing discrimination from a woman who was supposed to be part of my support system crystalized for me that not only are bureaucratic systems not set up for students like me but also individuals within the education system routinely underestimate students with disabilities. This effectively takes away our agency and ability to achieve our goals. Obviously, some realities that students with disabilities live with cannot be changed, even with all the motivation and agency in the world. For instance, I am never going to read at an average reading speed; my eyes just physically cannot move that fast. But that doesn’t mean I can’t read textbooks and succeed in school. I can do just as well as my classmates when given the proper support and accommodations. It is a matter of getting me the resources to be able to succeed and giving me the support I need rather than forcing me to lower my expectations of what I can achieve. Level the playing field, don’t lower the bar.

Experiencing discrimination for the first (unfortunately not the last) time was one of the factors that really made me understand that my disability was not just an inconvenience but a truth that impacted every aspect of my life. It is not an internal psychological and emotional issue; it is a physiological issue that affects how I interact with the world and changes how people treat me.

After that incident, I realized that I don’t have to be “disabled enough” to claim my identity as a disabled person. What I slowly came to realize is that comparing disabilities is not helpful or necessary. No two disabled people have the same experience with being disabled, and thus no two disabled people are equally disabled; comparing disabilities doesn’t get anyone anywhere. One thing I wish I could tell my younger self is that the disability community overall is very accepting of people who identify as disabled. As a community, we don’t question if someone identifies as disabled since many disabilities are invisible, and people can have different experiences and still be disabled.

The process of realizing I had a disability empowered me and gave me a way to understand and frame the experiences I was having. And the absolute best part of claiming my disabled identity was being connected to a community of other disabled people. The disability community is big and welcoming, and extremely supportive. It made me feel less alone in what I was going through and able to connect with others who had similar perspectives.

Disability is not a dirty or degrading word. It is not something to be shied away from or euphemized with “special needs,” “challenged,” or “differently abled.” It is an identity that has meaning both in connecting to a community and in legal protections. Children know they are different, so pretending otherwise and teaching them that disability is a bad or shameful word will only hurt them in the long term. Instead, teaching them acceptance and strategies that work for them will give them the tools they need to succeed. So, to people with disabilities out there, you are allowed to identify as disabled, and to parents and teachers, teach your kids that disability is just a normal part of life, not something to be ashamed of. Disability is part of who I am, and rather than limiting my potential, it expands my world.

Anxiety and Learning Disabilities: The Worst Kept Secret

By Athena Hallberg

My learning disabilities and anxiety have always gone hand in hand; however, while I was diagnosed at a very young age with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and an auditory processing delay, my anxiety disorder went undiagnosed for years. My anxiety disorder was my biggest secret – the worst kept secret, but a secret all the same.
From a young age, I felt like a failure because I thought others perceived me as having learning disabilities, which contributed to my anxiety disorder. I had my first panic attack in kindergarten after filling out a worksheet backwards. I didn’t know why I wasn’t learning to read or write like my classmates. Why couldn’t I tell the difference between a “b” and a “d” or my right from my left? I knew something was wrong with me. I became very withdrawn, barely spoke, and sat by myself on a bench at recess because it was all too much.

That year, I was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and an auditory processing delay. My parents moved me to a school for first grade that specialized in learning disabilities. Over the years, I learned to read and write. I eventually excelled at school, but the fear that everyone would see me as a failure never went away. I feared it was only a matter of time before people realized I was worthless. The more I succeeded, the worse the anxiety became because, the more I felt like I was going to let everyone down.
When I have a panic attack, I feel like a monster is chasing me into a deep dark hole. The monster screams, “Failure, Failure!” while I try to run away but can’t because I can’t run away from myself. I knew this level of fear wasn’t normal, but I remained undiagnosed despite the obvious signs of my disorder.

I could hide the panic attacks mostly as they usually happened at home when I had time to think about school and all the ways I could fail. I also didn’t want the stigma of an anxiety disorder, and I was ashamed. I told myself my anxiety was just weakness, and I was selfish for not being able to handle everything on my own. Even if I wanted to, I didn’t know how to ask for help. In high school, I feared that if I revealed how much I struggled with anxiety, I would be pulled from the Advanced Placement and honors classes that I worked so hard to stay in despite my learning disabilities. Still, the fear was growing worse.

When I went to the University of Chicago, my anxiety didn’t go away. I feared that a former teacher was right about me when she said that not every child can succeed or go to college, even as I succeeded at a top-tier university. I was more terrified than ever to admit that I was struggling. I heard horror stories of peers’ colleges forcing them out or asking them to leave school when they admitted they were struggling with their mental health. Having been counseled out of a school before due to my disability, I was fearful that if I admitted I was struggling with anxiety, I would be pushed out, even though I had not heard of UChicago doing this to its students.

I finally accepted that I needed help when the fear grew so bad at the start of my junior year of college that my grades started to slip, and I couldn’t focus due to exhaustion from multiple panic attacks a week. It was only then, crying and shaking, I dragged myself into a therapist’s office.

Through cognitive behavioral therapy and a very light dose of medication, I no longer believe the lies. While my anxiety disorder is much better—I haven’t had a single panic attack in about a year—it shouldn’t have been such a struggle to seek help and find a diagnosis. It’s absurd that I spent so many years suffering due to fear and stigma.

My story isn’t unique. Studies suggest that LD individuals are twice as likely to struggle with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, as the general public . Much of this correlation, I suppose, likely stems from the lasting impacts of educational trauma in a system that all too often fails LD children and repeatedly tells them that they are worthless from a young age.

I could have benefited from teachers better trained to help LD children. We need to recognize LD individuals as not just having reading issues or a processing delay. We need to see the whole person, including our other conditions often associated with learning disabilities. We need to provide support for those conditions as well. Together, we can eradicate stigma and help students get the support and resources they need.

Open Letter: Mental Health is ON OUR MINDS

To the learning disabled community, and our allies,

Our students are in a mental health crisis, one that disproportionately impacts students with learning disabilities. A 2019 CDC report indicated 33% of high school students experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. This number jumped to 44% during the pandemic. For those of us in the learning disability community, mental health issues permeate our everyday lives. The limited research we have supports a strong correlation between learning disabilities and mental health disorders. For example, one study found that individuals with learning disabilities report mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation at twice the rate of their non-disabled peers, even controlling for possible confounding factors. Another meta-analytic study shows varying rates of comorbidity, from 8% to 46.3%, for ADHD and anxiety among students with LD. 

Yet, the causal relationship between mental health and learning disabilities is still poorly understood. The topic of mental health rates in the LD community came up time and time again in conversations among our Young Adult Leadership Council members, where for many of us mental health struggles are woven throughout our LD stories. We write this letter first as a note of acknowledgement to the LD community, second to bring awareness of this issue to a broader global community, and third to call in parents, teachers, policy makers, and researchers to help us address this issue.

Generally, poor mental health is associated with challenges with decision making, difficulty in school, difficulty forming positive relationships, and other risky or potentially harmful behaviors. Dual-disability diagnoses present even greater challenges, as many experience persistent stress, anxiety,, trauma, bullying, internalizing problems, and feelings of social isolation as they navigate a world with learning disabilities and mental health disorders. These negative experiences are especially concerning when you consider that almost one-third of incarcerated individuals report having a learning disability, and mental health issues affect approximately half of the incarcerated populations.

“Not being diagnosed until recently as an adult, I never understood why I struggled like I did. However, after my diagnosis, I realized that my anxiety and depressive episodes contributed to my perfectionism and impulsive choices. Undiagnosed individuals with ADHD face the harsh reality of being prone to depression and anxiety. It could lead someone to a pathway of substance abuse and impulsive decision making that can have serious consequences. When you live in a world where people don’t understand individuals with attention issues, it can make you feel like something is inherently wrong with you, which can also contribute to depression.”
—Misha Nicholas

We know that students with LD report more issues with mental health. However, that is the extent of the research. We do not know the cause of these lower mental health rates in students with learning disabilities. Anecdotal reports by students with LD suggest that many experience educational trauma. We need research in order to know the extent and impact of this educational trauma. Is educational trauma a risk factor for poor mental health?

As members and activists on the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC), we feel it is imperative to kick-start a solution-driven mental health initiative focused on the intersectionality of learning disabilities and mental health disorders. Many of us navigate life as learning disabled people struggling with mental health. Research suggests that promoting a sense of belonging and peer social support within schools can protect learning disabled individuals from many documented negative outcomes. Yet, many of us experienced various forms of educational trauma throughout education in the form of persistent academic failure, feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, bullying, social isolation, and ridicule. Educational trauma refers to the perpetual pattern of harmful cycles within educational systems that detrimentally affect academic and emotional outcomes. 

“The humiliation, bullying, and systematic exclusion was shattering beyond words. Eventually the educational trauma I experienced became a bigger barrier to learning than my actual learning disability.”
—Erin

Many young adults with learning disabilities describe their K–12 educational experiences as traumatic. They describe feelings of being misunderstood. Often, they report that those around them failed to understand their learning and mental health struggles, as they lacked the words to describe the shame they felt to the adults and peers in their lives. These struggles span well beyond weaknesses in reading, writing, and math. Mental health and learning disabilities are interwoven, and these challenges follow learning disabled individuals as they transition out of high school and into postsecondary education and the workplace. 

“It was not until undergrad that I learned that it isn’t normal to feel like you can’t breathe every time before attempting homework.”
—Stevie Mays

Many learning disabled people report feeling unsafe and like they do not belong in the classroom. In talking with almost any learning disabled person, they will tell you that their learning disability has impacted them far beyond just their struggle with learning skills like math and reading. They will tell you that existing as a learning disabled person impacts one’s whole experience with the world, how the world interacts with them, and how they interact with the world. Yes, it’s important for us to help LD students in academic areas like reading and writing. But if we fail to look beyond academics, at the whole person, we miss an entire aspect of the learning disabled experience. We miss what it actually means to exist as a learning disabled person.

“At age 16, as everyone around me wrote in fine penmanship, I felt like a child still writing with red crayon. It didn’t matter what or how well I wrote – I wasn’t allowed to belong.”
—Brody

What are you doing personally to better understand and address the experiences of the learning disabled community and why our peers are pushed out of schools, into the prison system, into low-wage careers, and, in the best case, into college settings that don’t support us?

We need to talk about mental illness for what it is: a disability. A disability that deserves the same support and focus as dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities.

Our dyslexia, anxiety, ADHD, depression, dysgraphia, PTSD, and more are disabilities that need support, understanding, and recognition. Many of us on the YALC say that finding the LD community was the key to us feeling like we finally understood ourselves and were able to come out of our shame. We found strength in our shared experiences and were able to name many of our experiences for what they were: educational trauma. In doing so we found our voice, not only to share our stories but to advocate for our community as a whole. 

To the LD person reading this, we see and empathize with your struggles. We encourage you to seek out your LD community and embrace your disability identity. The disability label (including mental health and learning disabilities) give you access to support and treatment. It also comes with a community that wants to welcome you in. 

Finally, this letter is a call to action — a call to our researchers, policy makers, educators, and parents and caregivers to better understand, address, and find solutions for the mental health needs of individuals with learning disabilities. 


WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP!


For researchers

  • Include mental health as measures in your data collection, and mental health disabilities as covariates. 

  • Research educational trauma, including its prevalence and impact on students with learning disabilities.

  • Conduct holistic research on the experiences of LD students beyond our academic success, and understand the impact on our non-academic lives.

  • Research the intersection of mental health and learning disabilities, and specifically the experiences of BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and historically marginalized groups. 

  • Include LD people in your research process beyond them being research subjects. Ensure that learning disabled people are a part of the research design process. Get feedback from the LD community and ensure that the research questions you ask are aligned with the values of the community you’re studying. Hire LD people in your labs and centers so a good percentage of the next generation of people studying LD are LD themselves.

For policy makers

  • Increase funding for early identification, treatment, and psychological support within schools. We need well-funded school-based mental health programs, school psychologists, counselors, and social workers. 

  • Keep your promise and fully fund IDEA, after over 40 years of never doing so.

  • Ban the practices of seclusion and restraint that have harmed and oppressed disabled students for decades.

For educators: 

  • Many of your students are walking into your classroom with years of educational trauma. You can end it. Focus on students’ strengths while also acknowledging and building solutions to address our weaknesses, and listen to students when they are brave in sharing their experiences.

  • Be aware of the interconnectedness of mental health and learning disabilities, and work with us to create strategies that address what we need and prevent negative outcomes.

  • Avoid terms such as “lazy” when you talk about your disabled students. We aren’t lazy. We’re trying our best.

For parents and caregivers: 

  • Talk about mental health with us, and help us own our identities as members of the disability community.

  • Look for early warning signs of mental health issues and teach us to be self-advocates, so that when we’re on our own, we’ve got the skills to stand up for ourselves and the things we need to be successful learners.

For the learning disabled community:

  • Embrace your learning disability identity. Don’t be afraid to use the language of disability. Taboo and stigma lead people to use euphemisms. But ultimately, our legal rights and our connection to community depend on identifying as disabled. We can end the stigma and taboo of being disabled by embracing this community.

  • Be willing to talk about how mental health impacts you in school. We are functioning in school systems that are not designed for us and that “others” us constantly. Allowing yourself to get support is the greatest gift you can give to yourself. We know it’s hard to stick out as the one using accommodations, but you’ll be glad you did.

  • Understand that you’ll need to self-advocate for both your LD and your mental health. This may look like telling your parents and educators what you need in a classroom setting to succeed. This means attending your IEP meeting and making sure your accommodations reflect your needs.

This call to action only scratches the surface of a larger conversation. Our voice matters. Join us in amplifying this initiative by signing below.

Sincerely, 

The Young Adult Leadership Council 


The Power of Perspective: My Experience Advocating for the LD Community

By: Lizzy Arnold, Young Adult Leadership Council Member

Being a part of LD Day of Action, a time when young advocates like myself travel to D.C. to advocate for issues that impact students with LD, was an incredible experience, to say the least. Every other minute, I pinched myself, thinking, “is this actually happening? How did I get so lucky? I can’t wait to meet the people I’ve been talking with on Zoom for so long!” But as the amount of distance between me and D.C. became less and less, my thoughts became increasingly rooted in anxiety. “Am I even qualified for this? What if I’m not taken seriously? Congressional staff members won’t listen to me. I have no idea what I’m talking about.” I repeated these mantras of fear and inadequacy to myself until I believed them as facts.

When I met my fellow Young Adult Leadership Council (YALC) members in person, the people I’ve worked with for over two years, a sense of happiness and gratefulness rushed over me. We bonded over our excitement and trepidation about speaking to the staff of our Senators and Members of Congress. The support and mutual honesty that was shared between us gave me all the more purpose to share my story.

A group of us were exploring D.C. to take in all the amazing things the city had to offer, as well as document every second of our trip. During our exciting adventure, we decided to take pictures in front of the Washington Monument when I saw a disposable camera on the ground, which had appeared to be abandoned. I picked it up and saw that there were pictures left to be taken. Being in a silly mood, I took a couple of selfies with my friends in front of the monument, thinking nothing of it. As the eventful day continued, I held the camera in my hand, curious of what the pictures that were taken before me looked like. I figured there would be fun poses in front of famous sites, giant smiles, more poses, and maybe pictures of plaques with interesting historical facts. Similar to the pictures we took, after hours of advocating on behalf of the Learning-Disabled community.

Earlier that day, we had the opportunity to meet with Miguel Cardona, the US Secretary of Education, via Zoom. He responded to many concerns raised by other YALC and Eye to Eye members with an interest and goal of hearing our troubling experiences and suggestions of how the education system needs to improve. He even shared the challenges he faced, being Latino in the classroom. The stereotypes that were thrown at him growing up and feeling a need to prove those stereotypes wrong by getting an education. His words gave me hope for the future of education as well as gave me more of a perspective on what it is like for minority students in school.

The next step was meeting with the staff members for our senators and representatives. One meeting, in particular, was with a staff member representing the district I lived in. Once we sat down, she told me that she was interested in hearing more about my experience with the education system and even took notes while I was speaking.

I wanted her, as well as every other person I met with, to see me as a confident, intelligent, and strong woman who wasn’t afraid of anything. That’s one of the reasons I wore a badass cheetah print, shoulder-padded top along with pants and a fitted blazer to match. So, no one could ignore what I had to say, even if they tried. It worked, and this woman took me seriously. I explained to her how the public school system has disregarded the needs of learning-disabled students and ignored their IEPs and 504 plans. How fewer than 34% of disabled students graduate from 4-year institutions within eight years, even though 90% of them are considered college ready, and how many LD research centers are severely underfunded. Afterward, she told me, “Well, it can’t be that bad. You turned out to be fine.”

I was taken aback by this comment. She had no idea what disabled students go through daily and disregarded the collective need to improve the system. She had no idea what it had taken for me to get to this point. She didn’t see the unsure, scared girl that had her educational needs overlooked for years and struggled to speak up for herself.

I hadn’t realized it but growing up, I’ve always tried my best to drown out that little girl’s voice in an effort to move on and escape the pain of feeling like I wasn’t enough. I explained to her how lost I had been growing up and how this community was what saved me. That I am the lucky exception, who was provided opportunities that most people are not. When I joined the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ YALC and was supported by people who shared similar experiences as me, I realized that the difficult experiences we endured became our collective motivation to change the education system for the better to support learning-disabled students.

I could see the expression on her face change as she began to understand my perspective. She had told me that she wanted to be a mother one day and wanted the school system to be the best it could be for her child. I replied, “My parents wanted the same for me.”

I knew in my heart that my story was important to tell. Individuals with LDs need to have their voices heard because changing people’s perceptions has a ripple effect.

After I came home from D.C. and LD Day of Action was over, I had a chance to look through the pictures on the unclaimed camera that I found on the field in front of the Washington Monument (p.s. I’m trying to find the owners of this camera so they can get their pictures) this camera let me into the lives of people I’ve never met, and millions more in D.C. alone. Each of these people have experiences that are unique and personal to them. And 1 of every 20 of those people has a learning disability.

I want those people to know: There is room for me, and there is room for you in this narrative. Share your story because vulnerability is a superpower.