A few months ago, I lamented to a close friend about a colleague:
“I wish there was a way to get her to understand that I am not reading the tone of her voice in both emails and when we talk face-to-face. Does she hate me or think I am doing a great job?”
It had been about a month since I had started my first job as a post-graduate, and I was still trying to navigate the feel of a professional working environment with a learning disability. When I was a child, I dreamed of working at the National Park Service and when an entry-level position became available, I applied for it immediately. After my interview, I had to start thinking about the words I would use to describe my Learning Disability if given a job offer. I never wanted to call my LD a disability, but in a professional environment every word matters. Within a few weeks of starting, I decided to plan to have the conversation with my colleagues about my need for accommodations in the work place. About a month later, we scheduled a time to have that conversation.
The day started like all weekdays: I took my regularly scheduled dose of 10mg of Ritalin and gathered my words in a note memo on my iPhone during my commute. A few hours of the workday went by and by later in the afternoon, we sat down, and I took a deep breath and attempted to get the words out. I froze halfway through my first sentence. I was doomed.
This doom brought me to a place I dared not return to. As a kid, I was forced to remain silent. Having spent much of the first few years of my life with a speech delay, I forced myself to make up for lost time as a teenager. I realized in college that I could no longer let my learning differences define me. I felt at peace with my learning difference but remained uncomfortable about the way I interpreted tone of voice through text messages and email. I figured that to get past these challenges, I would now need to use my voice more than ever to get what I needed to succeed.
Leaving the room that day, I realized that the only person who really knew what worked for me, was me. Silencing myself as I did when I was younger was going to set me back. In that moment of pause, I decided to regain my words and return to the conversation – and most importantly – take control. Upon returning to the conversation, my control spelled out almost instantly when I said, “What I need right now is extra time. If I don’t get something right away, I may ask you to rephrase it and I don’t always get sarcasm. This is what works for me and it may change. Do you have any questions?”
Bringing my needs to light was what I needed to recognize my Non-Verbal Learning Difference as an adult. I can’t change the way people speak to me; I can find ways to make the language barriers make more sense. Like learning a foreign language, figuring out my place in the workplace will take time. It’s an ongoing process and I am ready to face my fears and my learning difference. I hope to use my voice to be stronger in my ability to own my learning difference, removing the silence that once held me back.
Julia Kaback is a member of NCLD’s Young Adult Leadership Council and is the community volunteer ambassador at the National Parks of New York Harbor, collaborating with Amtrak and the National Parks Service to promote the Trails & Rails program. A version of this blog was posted on the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Blog.
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