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I'm not at all sure I should be writing this, and less sure about posting it publicly; I'm not proud of what I look like in this story, entirely, but I feel uncomfortable hiding it on those grounds.

My little sister has severe issues around reading and working with symbols of any kind. For me, for years, that has been what it means to have a learning disability; the hours on end it takes her to do an assignment that's supposed to take half an hour, the struggle to put down on paper extremely simplified versions of her thoughts, grades that I know would be much higher if there were a way to measure learning or understanding without writing involved, the huge file detailing the results of a battery of tests that point to a "gifted and talented" person whose performance is halved whenever she has to put a pen to paper.

I tutored students with learning disabilities, students with psychological blocks, one student I advised to try for accommodations because I could tell her test anxiety was hurting her performance far too much. I've studied alongside people with physical issues that make it hard for them to do what the classes required. I have experience, in short, of how disabilities function in a school environment. I've even had to deal with some of my own problems: my left foot was damaged when I was a newborn, causing me minor balance issues that hamper me in some physical activities, and I'm legally blind in my right eye and have learned always to sit on the right-hand side of the classroom so I can see the board properly. This is all to explain why I feel a bit dense right now.

Last week I had a midterm in a class that I won't identify, one in which I'd been consistently getting B's. I usually get A's, unless the grading's tough, and my grades are high relative to my fellow students; I assumed that grading was the issue in this class and accepted grudgingly that I wasn't going to be able to improve my GPA this term. The midterm was too long, to the point where nobody finished in time; I emerged dazed, convinced that I had done horribly but that I could not be alone. The grades were adjusted because of the general inability to finish, sure enough; I had a low C post-adjustment, one of the lowest grades in the class.

Going over the thing again and again in my head, I wrestled up an explanation: the class's subject matter is visual, more so than most I've dealt with in my academic career, and I've never been able to picture things in my head at all, never been a remotely visual learner. I probably take longer to process the problems than people who are more visual, and thus the time crunch hurt me more than it did them. I mentioned this to a friend who asked how the test had gone; she suggested that perhaps I should consider trying to get a diagnosis and accommodations if I take any more heavily visual classes. I was taken aback, and later told my sister about this exchange.

"Well, of course you have something diagnosable," she told me. "You're blind in one eye! You have no depth perception!"

Oh. Right.

(My teacher, when I explained to him what I thought was going on and asked him how he thought I should go about getting back to my previous level of functioning, also said that if I'd figured out what was wrong earlier he'd have recommended trying to get extra time on tests. Go figure.)

It has struck me before what an odd thing it is that my sister, who is much more capable and quick to learn and generally more competent than I, has to live in a system where the way her mind works is classified as a disability. Faced with a case where I, who normally am in the privileged class of people who find academics relatively easy and pleasant, am suddenly struggling not with the material but with my own physical and mental functioning being markedly different from the expected, I'm struck by how arbitrary it all seems. Something that never impaired my functioning enough that I couldn't perform at "normal" levels before suddenly, in this one context, rose up and clobbered me.

I guess I sort of figured I'd always be the privileged ally to PWD. I'm a bit disturbed to realize how much it shakes me to have just the possibility advanced that I might need the same thing I recommended that girl I tutored get; it's like I think it's okay for other people but not for me. But then that's how I felt about fitting under the trans* umbrella too, so maybe I shouldn't be surprised.

No, I don't really think being bad in one class makes me disabled. It's more that I'm questioning my perception and understanding of disability and how it functions, and I needed to process.

May 2013

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