Disability or ‘Superpower’? The Push to Change Mindsets About Students With Learning Differences

Disability or ‘Superpower’? The Push to Change Mindsets About Students With Learning Differences

When Gil Gershoni was in 3rd grade and his teacher assigned the 30 or so students in his class turns at reading aloud, he quickly developed an avoidance strategy. He figured out the approximate number of seconds that each student read. Two students before his turn, he would raise his hand and ask to go to the restroom, where he’d sit in a stall and count in his head until he knew that his turn had been bypassed by at least two students. Then he would return to his seat in the classroom and hope the teacher didn’t circle back to him. Decades later, Gershoni now jokingly calls it his “power play.”

Jokes aside, it turns out that the complex strategy the then-8-year-old devised to hide his undiagnosed dyslexia did more than allow him to avoid the humiliation of stumbling through a reading passage in front of his classmates. It helped him sharpen the creative problem solving that would serve him well years later, as the founder of a creative agency whose high-profile clients include Google, Apple, Nike, and others. So, too, did the eventual change in how he perceived letters on the pages of a book. He stopped fighting them and instead began to embrace the creative potential they represented for him.

“I look at letters as negotiable symbols. It’s cliché to say people with dyslexia ‘flip’ letters,” Gershoni said. “I do a lot more than flipping the letters. I can see the letters in 3-D. I can see them in the blink of an eye. I can see through and above them. But for me to read a sentence, it’s so hard.”

Gershoni is among a growing number of individuals, from health professionals to educators to entrepreneurs, working to change the narrative of how children with dyslexia and other learning differences are perceived—both by themselves and by the adults in their lives. Some advocates are using the term “superpower” to describe what having a learning difference or disability means.

Creating a new narrative for kids with learning differences

Tracy Packiam Alloway is a clinical psychologist and researcher whose work has focused largely on studying working memory in various populations, including children with learning differences. She is the author of the SEN Superpowers series: a collection of books for and about children with common special education needs including ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and anxiety that highlights positive traits associated with each.

Packiam Alloway said she wrote the books mainly for two audiences: children with special needs who may be able to identify with the characters’ experiences and abilities, such as the power of kids with ADHD to “hyperfocus” on a particular area of interest, and children without these learning differences so that they can better understand their peers who have them.

“I wanted them to see what their superpower was,” Packiam Alloway said of her primary audience of children with learning differences. She said she also wants to facilitate a mindset shift among the general population and among educators, in particular.

“These children are not being intentionally disruptive,” she said, referring to individuals who have ADHD and may, for instance, blurt out an answer out of turn during class.

“With ADHD, we know the motor cortex is overactive, which is linked to impulsive actions. If you know this is how the brain works, you also know that a student isn’t just being bad, or stupid,” said Packiam Alloway. “I want to get educators to think about: How can we guide these students, to scaffold their learning?”

‘Superpower’: a supercharged term

Some advocates frown on the term superpower to describe ADHD and other learning disabilities.

“According to many disability advocates, we cross a line from optimism to toxic positivity when we refer to ADHD as a superpower. By romanticizing real, life-altering symptoms as superpowers, we invalidate and diminish the struggles of so many children and adults already fighting hard against ADHD myths and stigma,” the editors wrote in an opinion essay for Additude Magazine, a resource for people with ADHD and other learning disabilities.

“I’m not going to disagree with that,” said Ben Shifrin, head of Jemicy School in Owings Mills, Md., which serves students with dyslexia and other related language-based learning differences. Superpower “is a charged word,” he said.

Shifrin said he prefers to think of the strengths that many kids with dyslexia exhibit, such as strong visual acuity, as unique gifts. “FMRI studies have proven that these kids process information differently; thus, they see the world differently.” But he added: “We don’t deny that reading is hard for these kids. We don’t gloss over it.”

Gershoni relates to this sentiment. “Some people don’t like that term [superpower]. They feel like: I’m a whole person. I still have struggles,” he said. “Especially when you’re young, as a dyslexic it is very challenging to read and write. It’s also challenging to be with your peers and to feel less than competent. This is a pretty tough place to start.”

Gershoni prefers to refer to the abilities unique to people with dyslexia as hyper-abilities. “When you focus on what the dyslexic mind can do, it’s a hyper-ability,” he said.

A "Dear Dyslexia" postcard by actress Alyssa Milano.

He had this in mind as his creative agency last year launched the Dear Dyslexia Postcard Project, an initiative inviting individuals from around the world to share their challenges and triumphs with dyslexia by creating postcards in response to this prompt: What is dyslexia to you? More than 1,000 people responded, including celebrated professionals such as Olympic diver Greg Louganis, Nobel Prize winner Jacques Dubochet, actress Alyssa Jayne Milano, and others. Several respondents chose the word “superpower” to describe their dyslexia.

What a strengths-based approach looks like

While advocates may not agree on the terminology used to describe what it means to have a learning difference, there does seem to be strong consensus on how to approach teaching these students.

“For me, it’s rooted in the idea: Can we educate children to focus first on their strengths, to make education a strength-based model?” said Gershoni, who has shared the Dear Dyslexia Postcard Project with students and staff from more than 20 schools in the United States.

Shifrin agreed. Too often, he said, schools create environments that discourage students from taking risks, thereby making avoidance the only seemingly viable response. (Think of Gershoni’s experiences as a 3rd grader.)

Shifrin believes that it’s critical for teachers to help students identify, from a young age, how they learn best and what their strengths are—regardless of whether or not they have an identified learning difference.

Tied to this recommendation, Shifrin advised that students have alternative ways of gaining information or concepts. “In today’s world, there are many different ways to impart content,” said Shifrin. Audiobooks, for example, can replace or enhance reading assignments.

He also advised educators to let students arrive at their own conclusion whenever possible. “Don’t give them a single solution,” he said.

Lastly, he offered this simple message for teachers: “Never ask a child who is dyslexic to read out loud. That’s a waste of time.”

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