Disabled, but Not Broken: 5 Ways to Thrive with a Learning Disability

Published on May 22, 2023

Learning Disabilities are Common and a Big Deal

According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA), across the United States, 1 in 5 or 20% of adults have a learning disability (LD). As of the 2019 population, 20% is representative of 65.6 million individuals have serious learning and attention difficulties. Meanwhile, there are 56.6 million students in elementary and secondary schools across the county; of them, 1 in 5 or 11.2 million students have such difficulties, too. This is a tragic statistic due to its effects. Consider the following…

  • Only about 8.25% of US students are diagnosed with a learning disability and in turn receive accommodations or specialized instruction such as a 504 or IEP.
  • Students with LDs are nearly three times more likely to drop out of high school versus their peers.
    • Of those asked why they dropped out, 57% reported they suffered poor relationships with peers, teachers, and administration.
  • Undiagnosed, untreated learning and attention problems can lead to criminal issues. Half of young students with such concerns have been involved with the justice system – and that only includes those with a diagnosis. It is unknown how many students with such impairments are also involved in the school-to-prison pipeline.
  • Enrollment in college, retention, and completion rates are lower than all other students in the same age bracket. Only 41% of such students complete a 4-year college program versus 51% of the overall population. Again, consider the 11-12% of young adults who are undiagnosed.
  • A third of students with a learning disability are held back a year/have to repeat a grade. This increases the risk of dropping out.
  • Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled from school versus those without disabilities. This results in a loss of instructional time while increasing the possibility of failing a course and/or having an academic aversion.
  • Only 46 percent of working-age adults with LDs are employed. People with such disabilities are twice more likely to be unemployed (Barto, LDA, 2019).

My Life with Dyscalculia

I graduated summa cum laude twice, having earned my Bachelor and Master of Social Work degrees from Adelphi University and the highly renowned Fordham University. Yet what if I were to tell you that my teachers and school guidance counselor were convinced that I would become a statistic, part of the 57% of students who drop out of high school? I struggled with making and maintaining friendships, was bullied by my peers, and literally cried while receiving private instruction for remedial mathematics because no matter how much I studied, despite all the endless hours of repetition and practice, it just did not make sense to me at all.

At thirty-five years old, I cannot multiply or divide, and still count on my fingers for addition or subtraction. I suffer from visuospatial difficulties, making it so I am unable to orient myself in reference to the directions. I also do not have a driver’s license because I am unable to properly judge distance and time. I have time blindness and even cannot read an analog clock – if it were not for that I use a timer, I would be unable to tell my clients how much time remains in their session. I have to “eyeball” ingredients in cooking recipes because fractions are foreign to me. I struggle with coordination. My bills are all on autopay, not for practicality reasons but to prevent the awkwardness of not knowing if I have enough money (thank goodness my financial institution has overdraft protections!).

I am that awkward person who has come up too short on money when at the check-out, forcing the cashier to have to unload some items.

I am that person who has been the cashier and has given back $23 when the amount owed was only $19 – and fired for being accused of stealing from the till.
I am that person who has heard people mutter “f-ing idiot” under their breath when I make a mistake with arithmetic.

If you’re like me, someone with dyscalculia or another learning disability, you know all about the daily pressure to effectively cope with the chronic stress and limitations of your abilities – things which may be unfathomable to others.

5 Ways to Thrive with a Learning Disability

1. Allow yourself permission to accept your disability.

A learning disability is a neurodevelopmental disorder, meaning you were born with it. Even with sufficient treatment and the appropriate accommodations, you will never truly recover from it. Thus, it is better to make peace with your disability by coming to terms with your limitations, while embracing your strengths such as creative solutions, resiliency, and empathy.

Also, a learning disability is not a mental disorder. No amount of psychotherapy will help you overcome it. However, psychotherapy can be a valuable tool for learning how to work toward acceptance of it and to develop helpful coping skills. It can also help you tackle the negative core beliefs that can develop from having such a condition by replacing them with a positive belief (i.e., changing “I’m stupid” to “I’m smart and it is okay for some things to be harder for me”). Don’t know where to start? Consider EMDR which specializes in targeting beliefs – an approach we offer at Long Island EMDR!

2. Redefine your expectations to work toward a purposeful life.

As a person with dyscalculia, one of my greatest obstacles was having to accept my true passion could not become my career. No, that is not as self-defeating as it sounds. If anything, I appreciate that I came to radically accept my circumstances.

At first, I attended a small environmental college in Maine where I was studying wildlife conservation with the intention to become a wildlife biologist and canid specialist. While the lecture portion of the biology courses came easy to me, the labs and intensive mathematics had me spending many hours in the tutoring center – and just like a repeat of my earlier days, not understanding any of the information no matter the approach. It seemed impossible for me to get ahead.

After much introspection and honesty with myself, I decided to redefine my goals for myself. I changed my major to social work which replaced my math-heavy academic requirements with courses mainly focused on the humanities and the social sciences. Through that one profound change, I no longer needed the tutoring center, got to embrace my strength of writing rather than bury it, and realized I can have other career interests outside of wildlife biology.

Furthermore, becoming a social worker allowed me to feel attached to something greater than myself – through connecting with my clients to help them find their own sense of purpose in their lives, I feel benefitted in knowing I have made a difference. It is a reciprocal relationship.

3. Find a support group for your learning disability.

Peer support is an important – and often overlooked – component to learning to manage having a lifelong condition. It offers mutual understanding between equals, in which people truly get it. It is a safe, nonjudgmental platform for people to reveal the struggles of having a misunderstood condition while knowing that they feel supported.

4. Learn more about your condition.

Learn about and understand your learning disability. By doing so, you will have the information and knowledge needed to make the wisest decisions to help you feel more in control, which is essential to coping with your LD.

However, a word of advice -- I strongly urge that you seek credible sources during your research, some of which are included at the bottom of this article. While platforms like TikTok can be helpful for peer support or the basics, they can also be littered with misinformation because there is no way to verify the person’s level of expertise. Exercise social media with caution.

5. Advocate for yourself!

Learning disabilities are recognized, protected conditions under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). If you are an adult, you may be eligible for workplace accommodations if they are appropriate in line with the type of job. You may read more about that here.

If it is your child that has a LD, he or she qualifies for an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) to help him or her reach her academic goals. An IEP is a documented plan to provide your child with free, appropriate education in their least restrictive environment. You can read more about the IEP here on the NYC Public Schools website.

If you are a college student, you also may receive academic accommodations but you must advocate for yourself. More than likely, you will need to provide your college with a neuropsychological exam dated from within the past 4 years. This document will determine what kinds of services will benefit you. Contact the disability department at your college for further information on how to navigate the process.

Credible Sources:

LD Resources Foundation (LDRFA)

Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA)

National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD)

National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Sources Cited:
Barto, A. (n.d.). The State of Learning Disabilities Today. Learning Disabilities Association of America. Retrieved April 20, 2023, from https://ldaamerica.org/lda_today/the-state-of-learning-disabilities-today

- Valerie Smith, LMSW

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