I entered my freshman year at Michigan thinking that I was here by mistake. As a music major with a learning disability that few people have heard of, “imposter syndrome” did not even begin to describe the feelings of inadequacy and incompetence that were with me through every moment of my first semester of college. After only a short time in the competitive and fast-paced environment of a violin performance degree, having a learning disability quickly became my most shameful secret. Not only was I determined to hide my academic challenges out of fear that my professors and classmates would think less of me, but I found myself slipping into the unconscious habit of trying to “trick” myself into being neurotypical.
When (much to my annoyance) I found that my learning disability was still very much there despite my best efforts to “think” myself out of it, I began to believe that I was the one unintelligent person undercover among hundreds of smart and high-achieving students. Rather than learning to accept myself and embrace my unique talents, I worked hard to develop a carefully constructed series of lies to conceal my self-perceived “failure.”. For example, though I have never successfully learned to drive because my learning disability presented significant barriers, I participated in conversations about driving and parking in Ann Arbor as if I had any idea how to park at all, let alone how to find the best garages on campus. I would carefully avoid all of my friends before exams so they wouldn’t see that I was going to a separate room for my extended time accommodation (that is… in the instances that professors actually complied with this documented accommodation).
The learning disability that I have is called dyscalculia and it is known to severely affect math and numerical reasoning abilities. In addition to math, however, dyscalculia can also affect one’s sense of direction, spatial relationships, depth perception, balance, as well as the application of certain types of systematized logic that bear similarities to mathematical processes. Because it is a lesser-known disability, I was not diagnosed until age eighteen and had lived with many unexplained difficulties for most of my life before my diagnosis. Despite my best efforts to hide it, dyscalculia affected every aspect of my life, from studying to remembering how to get to classes. In the rare instance that someone would point out something I did as a result of having a disability, I would turn it into a joke or try to make up an excuse. Although I believed at the time that I would find happiness in denying my disability, publicly talking about dyscalculia was ultimately the most empowering choice I made.
I began writing about my disability when I believed that my life could not possibly get worse. I was a junior and had developed an eating disorder over the course of the past three years. Things had gotten to a very bad place and my physical and mental capabilities were greatly impaired, both due to my illness as well as the stress of meeting my own expectations. Academically, I was pushing myself far past my limits during a time when my physical body was very weak and my depression and anxiety were often nearly unmanageable. In a desperate attempt to find some semblance of purpose, I began anonymously blogging about my experiences with my learning disability and mental illnesses, praying that no one I knew would find my writing and figure out it was mine.
Over time, I realized that I wouldn’t find self-acceptance by forcing myself to fit into a societal mold of performative intelligence and intellectual conformity. In other words, accepting myself also meant accepting that intelligence and intellect take on many forms and cannot be measured according to a fixed standard. I began to understand that struggling to perform well on standardized tests did not mean that I was unintelligent, but rather that my mind is better adapted to demonstrate academic skills in other ways, such as through writing and speaking. Though I realize that not everyone agrees that intelligence and ability are not uniformly quantifiable, blogging and using social media to create informational videos about my thoughts and experiences helped me recognize that my ideas are worth sharing, and even taught my conflict-avoidant mind to embrace the conversations sparked by disagreement.
As a current senior, if I could give one piece of advice to college freshmen with learning disabilities, it would be this: when you learn to believe that you are worth advocating for, the institutional ableism that you will almost certainly encounter becomes easier to navigate. We are not inferior to other students because our minds work differently, and in fact, neurodivergent voices are much needed in the field of academia. When students with disabilities insist on occupying the space that we deserve to hold in university settings, we are both teaching our professors and peers that disability is not inherently “bad” and paving the way for other students with disabilities to be fully accepted into university environments. It is for this reason that I believe self-love not only brings about positive change on an individual level, but can also be a necessary first step to the broader goal of social change. It is my deep hope that one day we will live in a world in which disabled students don’t have to struggle to love ourselves.