DyAD: Bringing Light to the Unseen Struggles of Learning Disabilities

When Mae Zhao ’18 first came to Andover, she was not truly aware of the effects of her diagnosed ADD. In an interview with The Phillipian, Zhao said she began to pile up extracurriculars and other commitments, which strained her ability to focus on her work, and consequently affected her mental health.

“In middle school and elementary school, I didn’t really work on study habits because it was middle school, so I could just push through. There also was not a lot of extracurriculars, so it was just homework and done. Once I came to Andover, I definitely overcommitted myself because I still had that belief that — even though I had ADD — whatever other people do, I can do it, too,” said Zhao.

After learning to prioritize and adjust her workload to fit her needs in her Upper year, Zhao created DyAD — a combination of the learning disabilities Dyslexia, ADD, and ADHD — a new club aimed to encourage students to learn how they can embrace their disabilities, with John Rauen ’17, Katie Hartzell ’18, Oliver Pennington ’18, and John Sandor ’18. According to the Academic Skills Center, over 80 students currently deal with learning disabilities that hinder their ability to focus or work at the same rate as their peers.

Zhao said, “These experiences that I had dealing with ADD… I could use that to help other lowerclassmen. I really wish that as a lowerclassmen, somebody came up to me and told me, ‘It is okay if you do less than somebody else.’ ”

The club aspires to help students with learning disabilities learn to reach out for any help they might need at Andover and advise them on specific studying skills they may need to work with their disabilities.

DyAD will also serve as a forum for students to congregate and discuss their experiences with learning disabilities at Andover.

“I was struggling a lot in French,” said Rauen. “It was either Thanksgiving Break or Winter Break that I got tested and ended up being dyslexic… I don’t really think of it as a disability, it is just a difference.”

Some members of the club indicate that there are not enough resources on campus to help people living with learning disabilities.

Hartzell had trouble keeping up with her work during her first term at Andover, before she was diagnosed with ADD during her second term. She acknowledges that although Andover provided tools to help her academically, she didn’t know where to turn to for emotional support, which DyAD aims to provide.

“I wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until Winter Term of my freshman year, and to be honest, Fall Term was hard,” wrote Hartzell in an email to The Phillipian. “Once I learned the reason why I had trouble finishing tests and my work quickly, it all made sense, but it didn’t make it any easier. I had to come up with studying methods to help cope with it by myself, and even though Andover does a great job providing disability services, there was never much emotional support.”

DyAD hosted its first-ever meeting this past Sunday in Paresky Commons, and members used the time to share personal experiences. Although the club’s board is still comprised entirely of upperclassmen, board members hope to bring younger students into the fold and serve as mentors.

“Just to have an idea of other students that are going through the exact same thing helps you build a little bit of confidence,” said Sandor. “It also helps that you can share methods because by Senior or Upper year, you have got to figure it out. I think it is a good idea to have an organization on campus that can pass this down.”

Hartzell said, “The rest of the board and I hope that people with learning disabilities, especially underclassmen, will come to our meetings so they don’t feel as alone in the difficulties they face. Through sharing stories, advice, and just discussing a topic that, for some reason, seems to be quite stigmatized on campus, we can help each other and ourselves.”

Zhao hopes students struggling with a potential learning disability will reach out sooner rather than later if they need help.

“It is okay to have a learning disability and be different than your classmates. You are not stupid if you learn differently and it takes you a little longer,” said Zhao.

Editor’s Note: Katie Hartzell is an Associate Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.