Navigating a Learning Disability In the Spring of 2020

Editor’s note:

Welcome to another month of DisCo! I am so excited to introduce our first of many guest posts. Sophie Kellam, who is currently an intern at the Disability Rights Center-NH, wrote an amazing story about graduating in the middle of a pandemic, dealing with an upheaval of routine, and working through the stresses of the world during this wild time – something I think we can all relate to right now. She offers wonderful advice and shares a beautifully personal experience. Read on for Sophie’s story, and let us know what you thought about it in the comments!

–Jules Good

Navigating a Learning Disability In the Spring of 2020

By Sophie Kellam, DRC-NH Intern

Last spring was a difficult time for the entire world. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I was finishing my senior year of college and at any moment I knew I would have to move out of my dorm early and switch to remote classes. I have a non-verbal learning disability which means that sometimes I have trouble reading social cues and finishing in-class activities that are time sensitive. I experience social anxiety because my brain works a bit differently from my peers. I am pretty good at understanding how my brain works and learned to navigate the expectations of college. However, when things started to get uncertain in the word, I needed to adapt quickly to work within the parameters presented by the pandemic.

What I found worked for me in regard to online learning was relying on the strong support system that I had cultivated during the nearly four years I had already spent at the University of NH. I understand that I was extremely lucky to have the support of my friends and family. Within the school system, I created a foundation through working to translate my 504 plan into a college setting using the Student Accessibility Services at my school. I also utilized the programs in place to support the writing process, such as the Connors Writing Center. The greatest support that I found during this difficult time came from the teachers. They sparked the passion in me to finish my degree and encouraged me every little step of the way. My teachers were also a great source of motivation when I felt scared and uncertain. Out of respect for the time they put into the class and learning a new format, I wanted to participate to the best of my ability. They were working with a lot of uncertainty, but still showed up for us and brought us a sense of normalcy. 

I was extremely fortunate to live close to my college. I was able to go home when I felt overwhelmed or needed to talk through something. My parents were a huge help whenever I felt as though it would be better to just start over after the pandemic. It also helped to know that other people my age were going through it – like my cousin who is the same age as me. When I finally finished my on-line classes, my grandparents held an online graduation party for me and my cousin. Seeing how proud my grandmother was of me made it all worth it. She also struggles with mental illness and recognized how much work I had put into staying on track in college with extra hurdles that other students did not have to deal with. I know I was able to adapt to the struggles because I had people in my life who understood me and celebrated my accomplishments. Although not attending a graduation in person was disappointing, I will never forget the feeling of love and support when my family celebrated how much I had accomplished.  

Photo via Unsplash: Several people throw graduation caps into the air in front of a large white building.

Strategies That Helped Me Cope

  • Checking in frequently with my support system both at school and at home.
  • Changing my environment by going outside or being in a different room.
  • Being up front about my struggles and open to working in a different way.
  • Checking in with my teachers when I was confused or needed the assignment explained a different way. 
  • Focusing on short-term goals instead of things that I could not control, like the pandemic.
  • Focusing on my strengths and capabilities rather than any perceived limitations. 

Despite my successes, there were struggles of online learning that I was not able to fully cope with. Since I was a senior, most of my classes were focused on applying the basics that I had already learned and much of that work, but for the pandemic, would have been hands-on activities. Since the pandemic essentially shut everything down, I missed the experience that would have provided me with an opportunity to practice what I had learned before I went into the workplace. Time management is a challenge for me under normal circumstances and it became even more difficult as I neared graduation. I found myself losing motivation because there was this looming threat of school closing before I finished classes. I honestly debated whether it would be better to drop the semester and pick back up when the world was safe again and I could get a ‘normal’ college experience. On the other hand, I feared losing the momentum of going to class every day and not being able to get my degree for a while. 

I also felt as though the quality of my work suffered because I was not able to interact in a classroom environment. I mainly struggled with in-class assignments that I now had to complete on Zoom. I was not able to think as quickly on my feet as some of the other students and I felt as if I was holding up the group. At one point, my anxiety got so bad that I had to contact my teacher through email, shut off my camera, and mute my microphone because I had to relieve the anxiety I was feeling about the situation. I was able to come back to the class about ten minutes later. It did feel embarrassing and it was difficult to catch up to the conversation, but I’m glad that I took the time that I needed. I was still able to show up and engage in the class discussion when I felt capable. I needed to give myself permission to step away and change the plan in order to succeed in the new Zoom-based learning environment. 

Thoughts That Got in My Way and the Logic I Used to Battle Them

  • I do not know if I am talking too much. – The teacher is the mediator and will let you know. You are good at taking feedback. 
  • Am I straying from the topic or adding to the conversation? – Being mindful and engaging with the class adds to the conversation. The teacher can guide the conversation back through mediation. 
  • Should I cut my losses and try again in the fall? – I want this degree, I have a great support system, and I am a smart person who is capable of doing this.
  • I seem much slower than my classmates. – I do not know what my classmates are going through. What is best for the class is that I am present and contribute to the discussion. If that doesn’t fit into the time constraint, I can find a way to work around it. 
  • What am I missing out on for my graduation? – I am keeping people safe by not having an in-person graduation. My teachers are proud of me and my support system is celebrating me. 

Although I had to take a class over the summer, I graduated from the University of New Hampshire Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelors in Communication. My advice for students with learning or other disabilities who are in college during this time, or during other stressful events in the world, is to follow your own path and do your work in your own time. You do not have to do it on your own. There is nothing that you have to prove. I had supportive chats with friends, check-ins with my parents, and sometimes I still had to talk myself into doing the work. Using the supports available to you can cause you to feel like you are getting special treatment or that you are being guided through it. But, at the end of the day, it is your work, your education, and your experience. The way you learn may be different but the experience is still yours. Also, please give yourself some slack during hard times. I recorded messages to myself every day to organize my thoughts and talk through assumptions that were getting in the way of my work. I know it can be difficult during the Zoom calls. I would recommend taking the time you need and communicating with your teacher when you feel as though stepping away is the best option. Your own path is fine. Take the time to learn how your brain works and work with it. 

My Advice for Learning During an Uncertain Time

  • Have confidence in your education.
  • Enjoy the successes – even the small ones. 
  • It is okay to be overwhelmed and to take a minute when you need it.
  • You do not have to do it on your own. There is nothing that you have to prove and you can feel better by letting people support you.
  • Do not feel bad for taking accommodations or clarifying information and expectations.
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