"There have always been highly capable women wanting to be scientists." Rita Colwell, PhD
The Power of a Learning Disability
August 03, 2021
When I was in second grade, my parents learned that I had a learning challenge, dyslexia. Although I have not always had accommodations, being labeled with dyslexia has haunted me. I was constantly afraid that people would treat me differently because of what was then considered a disability. It wasn’t until I went to college that I finally started to understand that having dyslexia was not something I should fear but embrace.
Both my older sister and my identical twin easily excelled in school. While I wasn’t raised any differently than my sisters, I of course compared myself to them and consistently felt I was falling short. My parents were extremely supportive of all of us, and my mother even made sure I was given every tool to be successful with dyslexia. But while I was lucky to receive so much help from both home and school, I still pushed myself down.
In college, terrified this “disability” label would hold me back, I researched people in history who also had dyslexia and pursued careers in science. To my surprise, there were many: Dr. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, a dyslexia researcher; Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a space scientist and science communicator; Dr. Helen Taussig, a discoverer of the cure for Blue Baby Syndrome; Dr. Fred Epstein, a pediatric neurosurgeon; and Steven Jobs, who needs no introduction. I realized I didn’t have to look far into the past for examples. There are incredible people with dyslexia everywhere!
The concept that differences can be strengths is nothing new. In biology, we call this survival of the fittest. In society, however, this is a condemnation. We live in a world obsessed with categorizing everything, where we are placed in boxes based on arbitrary standards. We don’t even get to choose our own labels. Those of us with dyslexia are singled out because we do not learn like “normal” students. Because our method of learning is different. And consequently, this label has developed a negative connotation.
I refuse to believe this narrative. By having different brain connectivity, those with dyslexia—and other learning challenges—are able to explore in unique ways. Neuro-divergent minds create what others never envisioned possible. It should be no surprise that so many people with dyslexia discovered, created, and executed novel ideas!
Today, I am confident enough in my own abilities to stand beside my sisters. One has two Masters degrees and writes for Monopoly (yes, the board game). The other has a JD and is a defense attorney. And I am getting my doctorate degree. We each have flourished with our unique strengths and differences. Looking back, I know there was never a reason for me to compare myself to them.
We were always on the same playing field.
Check out these videos of scientists discussing their power with dyslexia: Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock “We’re not teaching kids to think, we’re teaching kids to pass exams.” : https://bit.ly/2URiitp Dr. Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann: https://u.org/2UW8azr