My Life in the Shadows: Growing Up With a Learning Disability

After all of these years, I still remember the room as clear as day. The brown shades, the olive carpet, a green tea that drifted to my nose and back. These sensations always filled me when I walked into that room every Monday and stared across that long, dreadful table. At the other end, was Miss Bernice. She was always cheery and happy which made my hatred for her even harder to justify. I knew nothing about her, other than I had to see her on Mondays, and every second felt like torture. She asked me questions I could not answer, gave me exercises I could not bear, and locked me in a room I could not stand.

One day she had pictures lying on the table, and she held up those pictures and asked me to name the object and describe them. I started off miserably. I knew none of the objects and when I did I could barely describe them. Finally, she lifted a picture of something silver, sharp, with a cap on it. I had seen it before–my dad had used it to fix an old TV stand. He asked me to hold it, and soon my grubby fingers moved toward the sharper end before it was snatched from my thumbs. The memory so visceral, the name so faint. The name would not come, and the dam behind my eyes broke as hot streams poured down my nose and dripped onto my khaki shorts. I tried to get them to retreat but nothing worked. The walls began to close, the brown paint seeming to get closer to my sweaty body as my isolation became painfully real.  

“Noah it’s okay,” Miss Bernice said calmly, “you can do it just breathe.” I will never know what exactly got me to start crying that day, but something about her calm voice made the waters dry up. I looked up and then suddenly, it rushed me faster than a bull running toward my red shirt.  “A nail!” I screamed with elation.

“Correct!” Miss Bernice yelled with excitement. “I knew you could do it.”


When I was just three years old, I was diagnosed with a language-based learning disorder, something that changed my life. Language-based learning disorders cover a wide variety of difficulties in learning, from social communication to reading and writing. For me, it affected my ability to communicate and learn language at a normal level and severely impaired my fine motor skills. I was required to go to speech and occupational theory from my initial diagnosis all the way until I was nearly 10 years old, multiple times a week. I absolutely despised therapy; no one was able to explain to me why I was there in the first place, and it seemed like I was going through pointless exercise after pointless exercise.

When I finally learned about the circumstances surrounding my condition, my relief of finally knowing who I was quickly turned to anger. High school was extremely tough for me socially, and I felt myself slip into relative obscurity when it came to social circles and friendships. My teachers began to have less patience with my handwriting, and very few believed that my learning disability was affecting my ability to write clearly. I felt as if I was slipping into an abyss full of my own sorrows, with no one to talk to or learn from.

However, as time passed I began to learn from others, and slowly I began to reestablish myself and who I was. I learned and slowly I gained confidence, and I found outlets here at Michigan that helped me express and articulate myself. While it has been an incredibly long journey, I have never felt better and I am beyond grateful to everyone who helped me along the way.

I thankfully had a great support system, mainly filled with my parents and a few of my very closest friends who helped me get through many of my challenges. In addition, I was fortunate enough to have been diagnosed at an early age before things quickly became worse. Many students across America are not fortunate enough to have similar opportunities and are left not only without the skills to function normally, but without an explanation for why they are so different from their classmates.

Language-Based Learning Disorders are shockingly common, nearly 1 in 5 students grow up with some type of learning disability. Learning disabilities are usually treatable, but only with the right diagnosis and therapy. Too many people remain with these difficulties without a diagnosis, and have a significantly higher dropout rate amongst students without these difficulties.

Even with a diagnosis and therapy, everything was still extremely difficult to deal with. I cannot even begin to imagine what it would be like having no explanation or therapy for any of my difficulties. Even with a conscious effort made to mitigate my problems, social stigmas and a lack of resources for others to learn about these disorders still got in my way. This continues to be a pervasive problem, and prevent many from achieving their full potential regardless of whether or not the student received the proper diagnosis.

So how do we go about solving this? One great place to start is with expenses for therapy and other benefits that can help those with Learning Disabilities. Currently, many options for therapy and treatment are extremely expensive, ranging from $100 to $250 an hour. While many schools offer these services, many public schools are eager to take away many of these benefits as they are of great cost to the school itself. This is simply unaffordable for many and restricts access to those who need it the most. This prevents swaths of young children from ever receiving the help they need to reach their full potential. As a society, we need to decide that we not only care about these kids and their ability to succeed, but that we are willing to either donate or lobby for a change. Current funds fall short of the resources necessary, and an increase not only in money for therapists and treatment, but education as well, can help reduce stigma and get children with learning disabilities on the right track.

Many will argue that simply raising awareness is enough, and that asking for more money for these services will only add to wasteful government spending. I understand, and believe me wasteful spending is a huge problem that we need to fix. That being said, how can we tell generations of young people to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” if they will always be a peg behind? If we want to give every child the opportunity to make their own living, then we should give children the boost they need in order to succeed. We cannot simply rely on just free enterprise to provide the opportunities necessary; the government must get involved in some form or fashion. Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, described the purpose of free enterprise as, “The right to define and seek our happiness as we see fit.” Under today’s current limitations, it is impossible for many children to fully achieve their potential and earn their own living, and I see it as a moral imperative to work harder toward giving these kids the same opportunities to earn their own living as anyone else.

Miss Bernice and so many others gave me the opportunity and the tools needed to succeed in the real world, and I know that without therapy I would never have gotten into a school like Michigan and write for a paper like the Michigan Review. I still have difficulties, but because I was given the chance and opportunity to succeed, I now find myself doing things no one ever thought I could. I was able to “pull myself up,” because of the support system around me, and it pains me to think of those who will never get that opportunity to live out their full potential. Kids with learning disabilities are not “dumb” or “stupid,” but just need an extra bit of help. For every person like me who was able to work through their challenges, there are dozens more who do not get that chance. We owe it to all of those who have never lived up to their potential to give back, as you never know which kid struggling to learn can become the next student at the University of Michigan.

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About Noah Garfinkel

Noah Garfinkel was editor in chief of the Michigan Review.