Let’s Chat: Learning Disorders

Elizabeth Bishop is currently earning her B.A. in General Psychology at the University of Maine at Presque Isle. She has Dyslexia, ADD, and Auditory Processing Disorder. She is my sister. She’s kinda cool.

I recently interviewed my sister on her personal educational experience as a person with multiple learning disorders. It is our hope that this interview may offer some insight to individuals preparing to work with children as social service providers, teachers, etc., as well as a laugh or two for readers who have sisters.

 How old were you when the term “learning disorder” became part of your vocab? Did you realize the purpose of testing at the time it occurred or after the fact?

I was first diagnosed, I believe, in the 4th grade… Testing began in 3rd grade and I received my final diagnosis in 4th grade. That’s when I first heard the term “learning disorder”. When I was getting tested I didn’t know what it was about. I knew I had learning difficulties, but I didn’t know that testing would tell me I did or didn’t have something… I remember being tested unofficially first - the teachers were collecting proof that I needed to be tested by professionals. I remember that during one session of unofficial testing the teacher told me not to erase anything, but I understood mistakes to be a bad thing, so I wanted to erase them… I did erase some.

I went through anywhere from 6-10 different testings because the educational leaders involved didn’t believe the diagnosis. At least that’s my understanding, having been young at the time I’m not fully aware of why they had me tested multiple times, but I remember many people spending a lot of time discussing my results.


It sounds like 3rd grade they started pulling you out of the classroom for testing. Did you miss a lot of class for the tests?

There were probably 3 or 4 times that test administers came to school and pulled me from class for an hour or so at a time. It (going to the testing center in Bangor, Maine) would last longer than the in-school evaluations and I had to miss school each time - there were probably 3 or 4 full days for that.


Summarize your personal experience. When did you first start to struggle in school, what was primary school like, and how has college been?

At the time, I didn’t notice it much. But looking back on it I can see it starting right around the third grade. Before that I didn’t notice it because there is not as much reading and writing early on. One story that sticks out in my head is when in third grade we did reading assessments - each student was put in a reading group based on their reading level. We were sitting in a circle and the teacher would call out what group you were in, noting the reading level aloud to the group. Me and two other girls - I was mortified - we were at a second grade reading level and the teacher announced it in front of everyone. She handed us this little second grade book... I just remember being really mortified because we were in third grade and we were placed at a second grade reading level. It was embarrassing. That was the pivotal point where I knew my reading grade was below everyone else’s.

In primary school I was always kind of behind everyone. Reading scores, standardized testing scores in general. In elementary and middle school my grades weren’t awful, but it took me longer to understand things, it took me much longer to read, and it took me way longer to get homework done. Normal people - I hate saying normal - an average person may only take 40 minutes on a piece of homework, but for me it could take two hours. That was how it had always been from elementary up through high school.

College, I guess it’s a little better, because people don’t know if you have learning disabilities. It’s kept between you and your professor and no one in the class knows unless you say something about it. But, it’s also hard because there is a lot of writing assignments and it takes me double the time to get something done, so it can be overwhelming. There is a lot of one on one access with my professors so I can easily email or talk to them after class to let them know I’m having trouble. They will take time to sit down with me and break things down and give me extra time if I need it. That’s a great thing about college. Or, at least, at my small college.


How has your learning disorder influenced your life?

It kind of influenced me to major in general psychology. What I want to do is evaluations like the people who tested me for my learning disabilities. So, it influenced my career choice as did the fact that - more so in Northern Maine, maybe - Special Education and resource amenities are not great in public schools. With me, they didn’t necessarily give me tools for long term problems. They helped me learn to read, but they didn’t prepare me for college. They didn’t prepare me for how difficult things would be long term with a learning disorder. They gave me tools I needed to get through high school, but not building blocks to get through life. That system in education, I feel, is broken. A lot of times they push students through and out of school because they don’t have the money or capabilities to help these students. That system in small (rural, low-income) schools seems broken or not established and that makes me sad.


Has there been anyone, or multiple people, who have helped you manage your learning disorders? What did they do that was different and helpful?

Mrs. Bates (4th grade teacher) is one of the biggest I can think of. She was the first teacher that pushed the school to have me tested. Mrs. Montgomery, also. She was my elementary resource room point person - she helped me the most. She did a lot of work with me, one on one, which was helpful. I actually wrote a paper on this topic for a class in college! There were others, but these two stick out. Obviously my mom, too. She had to fight the school system a lot for me to receive the resources I needed.


What advice would you give people moving into education, youth-focused social services, or other fields where they may encounter children with unique learning disorders, techniques, needs, etc?

For people working in schools, it seems that sometimes they forget that there are going to be kids that need one on one time, that there are going to be kids who won’t understand the lessons and they may not get it the first time. I know a lot of teachers get frustrated and they want to send them out of the classroom and to the resource room and it’s frustrating, but having that one on one time is really helpful. At least in my experience, it’s been very useful for me and I appreciate all the teachers who did that for me… and also be patient.

For everyone, it’s research. If you have a client or student with a specific learning disorder you can do research to learn more about what you can do to help them. You don’t have to do months of research, but a 10 minute google search is more helpful than being blind to what you’re working with.


The question that never stops crippling young people everywhere: what will you do after college?

*sigh* I hate that question so much. *sigh*

(Please note: I got the double sigh)

I feel like older adults expect you to have your life together and expect you to know what your next move is uhhh but the truth is you don’t all the time. I know I want to go to grad school eventually, but right now I don’t know what I want to specialize in so I don’t want to waste a ton of money for something I may not want. I plan to either job shadow, intern, or get a job with places associated with the things I am currently interested in. I’ve looked at AMHC, Life by Design, Houlton Regional Hospital, other mental health facilities, even local schools’ resource programs focusing on behavioral problems. TBD.

*This interview has been edited for brevity.

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