Author: Isabel Shessel
Source: Reprinted with permission of the author

At 30 years of age, Rob still reads at a grade-three level. He left school after grade II. Is he another one of the unemployed, disillusioned statistics that we often hear about? Not for a moment! Rob has worked for the same company for 13 years (moving from lineman to supervisor), owns his own home and runs a thriving business of his own.

We are left wondering why some people, despite significant learning disabilities (LD), are able to cope very well, while others experience lifelong failure, disappointment and dissatisfaction.

This article examines some of the strategies people like Rob have mastered to lead productive, self-fulfilled lives.
The concept of risk suggests that individuals exposed to negative circumstances (e;g., poverty, disability, child or sexual abuse) are more likely to experience negative long-term effects than those who have not been exposed to such factors. However, research and clinical reports indicate that “even under the most adverse circumstances, many individuals develop and/or maintain healthy personalities and become successful and satisfied adults.” This ability to overcome, or protect oneself against, significant risk factors has been referred to as “resilience.”

People with LD have long been known to be at risk for a number of negative outcomes across the lifespan (greater high school drop-out rates, underemployment. workplace difficulties, overdependence on others, social/emotional problems). But research on individuals with LD suggests that many, despite significant learning difficulties, have managed to overcome the risk factors in their lives. Research in the fields of social psychology and learning disabilities has begun to examine and identify these characteristics of success.

The information provided here has its roots in my own research on adults with LD. The study examined what strategies some individuals employed to “survive,” despite their LD, and how their beliefs have also assisted their resilience.

The first strategy I would like to discuss is persistence, which can be defined as the ability not to give up in the face of failure. Individuals in my study used many words to describe this quality (determination, perseverance, tenacity, stubbornness and “stickability”). As one individual said, “If I wasn’t a little bit stubborn, I don’t think I’d be where I am today.” A group of researchers in the U.S. have suggested that persistence is “perhaps the most striking characteristic of the successful adults with LD.

Another strategy which appeared important for people with LD is well-developed self-advocacy skills. For some of the individuals I interviewed, this was crucial. One person said: “If I hadn’t been able to stand up for myself, nobody else would have… My life’s survival has depended on this.”

Another individual mentioned the distinction between “best-interest advocacy” and “self-interest advocacy.” He explained that “best-interest advocacy” involves someone other than yourself acting on your behalf for what they think is in your best interest. “Self-interest advocacy” is acting on your own behalf for what you want, and having the capacity to make decisions regarding your own future.

Clearly, the ability to act on your own behalf is the optimal situation. One does, however, need the appropriate skills and knowledge to do this effectively.

A third adaptive strategy is the use of humour. This appeared to be a unique strategy (that is, it was not mentioned elsewhere in the literature on LD). The ability to laugh at themselves was a powerful tool in the lives of some of the participants. They indicated that it was an “important catharsis” in relieving stress, anxiety, and frustration for themselves and those around them. One individual explained it this way: “It makes it liveable.” Even those individuals who did not use this strategy indicated that humour was valuable, admitting they took life “too seriously.”

What people believe about themselves and their environment can have a powerful impact on what they do in life. According to Martin Seligman, noted psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the way people respond to setbacks or obstacles – optimistically or pessimistically – is “a fairly accurate indicator of how well they will succeed in school, in sports and in certain kinds of work.” This response style has been referred to in the psychology literature as “explanatory style.”

In my own research, I found that whether individuals viewed life as a tremendous struggle or as a series of learning experiences seemed to determine their personal sense of well-being, accomplishment and success. Those who viewed life more positively were more successful in using adaptive strategies and in achieving their goals.

Cognitive refraining theory (a term from the field of psychology) suggests that an individual has the capacity to reinterpret negative experience in more positive ways, and this in turn reduces stress, anxiety and negative self-esteem. This positive thinking allows one to focus attention on more proactive tasks (like working towards personal goals).

What people believe about themselves and their environment can have a powerful impact on what they do in life.

This reinterpretation of experience was evident in a number of people interviewed. One individual offered the following advice: “You can’t internalize failures… you have to learn from them.” The ability to look at negative experiences in more positive and constructive ways is a valuable adaptive strategy for people with LD.

According to Dr. Seligman and his associates, adaptive strategies for living can be learned. It therefore becomes vital for professionals in the field of learning disabilities (teachers, counselors, psychologists) to assist children and adults with LD to develop appropriate strategies that will empower them to become self-sufficient, productive and self-fulfilled members of society.

Included with this article is advice for people with LD, which I compiled from my research. Individuals with LD willingly shared their ideas, in the hopes that the life experiences of other people with LD would then be less painful and frustrating. I have also included some references. Three of these books are biographies of people who have truly triumphed over their hidden disability.

Advice to People With Learning Disabilities

  • Learn to communicate effectively.
  • Learn to “speak for yourself” (self-advocacy skills).
  • Be creative and flexible in problem solving (look at alternatives).
  • Learn to take risks.
  • Develop a good support network (including family, friends, professionals).
  • Take responsibility.
  • Be “tenacious.”
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Do not allow your learning disability to consume you.
  • Disclose your learning disability when and if it is appropriate.
  • Set Goals for yourself
  • Learn from failures: do not dwell on them.
  • Develop personal strategies for daily living and learning.
  • Understand “who you are,” your strengths and your weaknesses.
  • Understand your rights and how to obtain them within systems.
  • Do not be afraid to ask for help when you need it.
  • “Like who you are.”
  • Do not be ashamed of your learning disability.
  • Develop good stress management strategies. Learn to work through your strengths.
  • Never apply for a job that you are not qualified for.
  • Make the right career match.
  • Strive for balance in yourself.
  • Learn to laugh at yourself.
  • Develop good organizational skills.
  • Look for the positive in all situations.
  • Develop self-discipline.
  • Never say. “I cannot.”

Faking It, by C. Lee and R. Jackson. Personal biography. Published 1992 by Boyton/Cook Publishers, Portsmouth, NH.

Brilliant Idiot, by A. Schmitt and M.L. Clemens, M.L. Personal biography. Published 1992 by Good Books, Intercourse, PA.

The Optimistic Child, by M.E.P. Seligman, K. Reivich, L. Jaycox and J. Gillham. Parent reference. Published 1995 by HarperCollins, New York, NY.

Reversals: A Personal Account of Victory Over Dyslexia, by E. Simpson. Personal biography. Published 1991 by The Noonday Press, New York, NY.

Succeeding Against the Odds, by S.L. Smith. Practical techniques and inspiring stories. Published 1991 by Jeremy P. Tamher, Inc., Los Angeles, CA.