Commentary

Unspoken Disabilities

M. Latham/The Phillipian

During the Fall Term of my Junior year, the questions I feared most from my peers were, “So, what is your ‘thing’?” and “How did you get in?” As my thoughts raced through 20 levels of anxiety, I would nervously quip, “I-I don’t know, maybe they made a mistake.” To my relief, my timid reply was often met with a lighthearted laugh and an enthusiastic “Same!”

For most of my classmates, this seedling of insecurity and shock somehow faded away as they settled into our new world of Andover – where there are always bigger fish in the sea. But for me and my learning disability, Attention Deficit Disorder, this feeling continued growing uncontrollably.

I have lived with Attention Deficit Disorder, more commonly known as ADD, for all of my life, and I always believed that I could beat it with the power of brute determination and resilience. After all, I thought, hard work is what brought me to Andover; surely I can take on everything else. Though it takes me twice the time to finish my tasks and twice the effort to focus, I thought that I would be all right.

It was not long before I realized that even with medication and accommodations, willpower can only bring me so far. ADD shapes my life beyond my inability to focus on formal assessments. Medication and extra time are only useful when one knows how to use them. Learning how to study and how to time-manage while finding what study habit worked best for me felt like searching for a needle in a haystack, while blindfolded.

It was then that I realized that there is always more to what meets the eye. While I passed with honors in my Junior and Lower years, I found the loneliness from the lack of support and solidarity from my classmates unbearable. There were times where I felt like the only person on campus who was struggling and being left behind.

The pressure bubbled out and spilled over at random moments. During my Junior year, I hyperventilated in my math class and during Lower year, there were times where I could not help but burst into tears between and during classes.

Naturally, I sought out places and organizations on campus that would allow me to discuss my struggles and ask for help and advice dealing with my disability safely. But beyond the Learning Center in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library – one which offers little support beyond the classroom – I found no group that was specifically geared towards students with learning disabilities like mine.

While I cannot advocate for all students with learning disabilities, I know for a fact that my struggles as an ADD student are not uncommon. In a recent meeting with the Learning Center, I learned that about 85 students here currently have learning disabilities, 75 percent of which are students with diagnosed ADD and ADHD:  a number that only includes reported cases. Even with such a substantial amount of learning-impaired students, there is, however, little support targeting ADD, ADHD, and dyslexic students.

I am not saying that Andover does not make any efforts at all to help ADD, ADHD, and dyslexic students. The Learning Center provides us with important accommodations such as extra time on tests and in-class assignments, and facilitates conferences to spread the awareness of learning disabilities among the faculty. But ADHD, ADD, and dyslexia exist far beyond the classroom. Our disabilities not only slow us down, but also force us to learn and pace ourselves differently. I learned this the hard way. Even with medication and extra time, I could not erase my ADD completely. In fact, I count myself lucky, for it took me two years to find strategies that worked for me. For many of my classmates, it may take much longer.

This year, I was fortunate enough to find a group of other students like me at Andover through the new student group DyAD, the Andover Student Society for ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia. The affinity group is open to students with disabilities who would like to seek help, mentorship, and support from their peers. Through providing a safe community for students to discuss their disabilities freely, DyAD aims to encourage students to learn how they can embrace their disabilities rather than reject them.

It is a group that should be sourced out more from struggling students. Every year a new class arrives full of spirit and ambition yet, inevitably, there will always be a few “outliers” like me, who will find themselves lacking social support and solidarity from the Andover community.

ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia have little to no correlation to levels of intelligence and academic achievement – only to mental functionality. But it becomes hard to differentiate this, because in an environment as rigorous as Andover, students with ADD, ADHD, and dyslexia are forced to struggle with their mental obstacles alone. It is something that many students in DyAD have overcome, and an experience that I believe no one should have to fight alone.

Dec 9, 2016