Unique Learners

“I have a disability.” It isn’t really a conversation starter, but maybe it should be. What if we lived in a world where we were all upfront about our struggles as often as we are about our strengths? I still remember the day my sister excitedly ran home in 3rd grade to tell my mom she received her first compliment from a teacher. My sister, misdiagnosed epileptic and later diagnosed with ADHD and the Vestibular Dysfunction, had grand mal seizures until 4th grade. My mom, used to hearing about problems not triumphs, asked patiently, “What did Mrs. Lopez say?” To which my sister happily responded, “She said I am unique!”

I was in first grade at the time, but this response, which my sister held like a badge of honor, made me mad. We are all unique. Couldn’t she have found a better compliment?

The word disabled essentially means “not able.” I am not able to do a lot of things. I am unable to dunk a basketball, play in the NFL, win The Voice… but there is more to me than what I’m not. Just as there is far more to people with so called “disabilities.” There is more that we can do than we can’t. There may be levels to our “uniqueness,” but even those levels are only a “societal” measure.

A mother once asked me how to explain to other children her child’s “special needs.” She was constantly hearing, “Why does Michael get… it isn’t fair.” I recommended she start by not using the word “special” and instead think of a health condition like diabetes. If you had low blood sugar and were going to faint, I would give you a piece of candy. I wouldn’t give everyone a piece of candy, just like I wouldn’t expect everyone to receive a shot of insulin. Some of us have needs that are physical, tangible and obvious. Others have hidden needs. Really, one need is not more or less “special” than another.

So, let’s stop the fair, equal, abled, disabled conversation and notice one another’s abilities. Then, and only then, should we allow for the one small aspect of ourselves (however noticeable and intrusive it may be) to be accommodated. We are all occasionally lazy, heroic, stubborn, etc. Yet, our strengths and needs make us unique. Maybe my sister was right after all, maybe that is the best compliment.