Tearing Down the Wall -a Story of Learning Disability and Deafness

Tearing Down the Wall

By Jodi Becker Kinner

I would like to share my story with you about how “the wall” applies to my life.   When my mother explained to me about my “wall” and how it affected my academic potential, I looked back and thought about how “the wall” applies to me. After a long period of thinking, I began to see why I built “the wall” and how it helped me avoid learning.

           I am a deaf adult and I also have learning disabilities. During my childhood, my parents, who are well educated, tried to teach me many new things, but I wasn’t interested in learning. Moreover, I easily got frustrated when I had to learn. In order to avoid frustration, I constructed   “a wall.” It helped ease my frustration and I enjoyed being free from learning. Additionally, I clung to “the wall” so I could handle my frustration.

My educational background includes both oral education and mainstream settings. I began my formal education at the Omaha Hearing School (deaf school) in Omaha, Nebraska at the age of three. I spent two years there and my disinterest in school began there and I don’t remember learning anything. At the age of five, I entered Central Institute for the Deaf (C.I.D) in St. Louis, Missouri where I attended school for nine years.

While a student at C.I.D., I studied Reading, English, Mathematics, History, Science, and other subjects in addition to having intensive speech and language daily.   In fact, my academic frustration increased at C.I.D. I grew up not liking school because learning was so difficult. I erected “the wall” at C.I.D. over the years. When I was in academics, I stayed close to “the wall” to prevent myself from learning and also to avoid frustration. In school, I had difficulty understanding the concepts of language and mathematics, which made it harder for me to do well in school.

Due to my academic delay, my mother suspected that I had learning disabilities at the age of seven. She noticed that I did not progress as well in academics as other students did. In school, I could not do the math; I could not comprehend the most basic mathematical concepts. I even had a hard time learning to count. Besides math, I had problems with reading comprehension and writing skills. I did not learn to read until the age of eleven (ten, to my recollection). I did not like to read because I struggled with the language and could not get a picture of what the story was about.

When I read, my speed was extremely slow and my vocabulary was extremely limited. It was hard for me to learn new words. I often had a hard time remembering the alphabetic order. I did not like to write because my writing skills were very poor, and I had many spelling errors. Worst of all, I did not know where to put a period in each sentence!   When I had to learn the names of different kinds of food such as hotdogs, hamburgers, and many more, I had trouble knowing the difference. For instance, I did not know the difference between broccoli and peas. Reading a menu was especially difficult for me.

I was pulled out of recess to learn how to identify different kinds of food indicated in the pictures. My attitude toward school continued to be negative until the age of thirteen. A friend of mine, who later became Miss America, Heather Whitestone, encouraged me to read her favorite book called “Anne of Green Gables.” I tried but I could not understand the reading. Instead, I watched the movie and fell in love with the main character, Anne Shirley who inspired me to use my imagination and to enjoy learning. My desire to complete my education had begun. I realized that I could not utilize the wall to avoid learning. In order to enhance my learning, I had to knock down “the wall” and learn how to cope with my frustration.

Upon my graduation from Central Institute for the Deaf, I attended Goodwyn Junior High School in Alabama for one year. I began seventh grade there and was placed in remedial classes along with other deaf and hard-of-hearing students. I struggled with my academic work because “the wall” was just beginning to come down, but I managed to maintain good grades in each class.

When my father, who is in the Air Force, was stationed at the Pentagon in Virginia, I skipped eighth grade due to my age and spent my freshman and sophomore years at Annandale High School where I still struggled academically. During my freshman year, I was mainstreamed for the first time, but I took Math and English in self-contained classes. I worked hard and spent long hours studying, but did poorly in some of the classes despite my efforts.

At the end of the year, I was given an evaluation test and was informed that I had learning disabilities. I had never heard of learning disabilities and refused to believe the report. It was administered by a psychologist who had little knowledge of deafness. I refused to follow his suggestions and felt I was mislabeled because of my academic failure. I also believed that my literacy skill was delayed due to my lack of exposure to early language and that it was related to my deafness, not learning disabilities.

Even though the results of the test stated what I already knew; I had limited vocabulary, severe problems with reading comprehension, poor writing skills, problems with grammar, organization, and math, I was not ready to accept the fact that I had learning disabilities. During my sophomore year, I was placed in remedial classes for students with learning disabilities as well as a Resource class for the deaf and hard of hearing. I did not like being in these classes because I felt isolated and stupid.

In addition, I had a conflict with my Special Education teacher. When I had difficulty understanding a particular subject or made a mistake, she yelled at me. She never encouraged me to do well or told me, “Yes, you can do it.” She wounded my spirit and made me believe that I would never be successful in life because of my math and reading challenges. I had a really difficult time with my classes, so this was probably the most stressful and unhappy period of my life. Because I had not yet learned sign language, I did not have an interpreter in my classes at that time. My life at Annandale High School was miserable and I have very bitter memories. Because of my bad experience, “the wall” had thickened, which made it harder to break down.

When my father was transferred to California, I spent my junior and senior years at Vanden High School. At Vanden High School, I was initially placed in self-contained classes but later moved into some regular classes because I began to learn faster than the other learning disabled students. I finally had an interpreter in my classes. “ The wall” was starting to break down, but not completely.

It was tough, but I began to succeed because I had promised myself that I would do the best that I could. Unfortunately, during my four years of high school, I never took Biology, and the foreign language requirement was waived for me. I did not take high school math such as Algebra or Geometry. I was embarrassed and ashamed of myself. I used to wrap a brown paper bag around my math and science books so nobody would see that I was only taking basic math and science. I was ashamed of my learning difficulties and never mentioned my learning disabilities to any of my high school friends.

After I graduated from high school, I enrolled at Ohlone Community College in Fremont, California, where I took Algebra I for the first time. I spent many hours trying to complete the assignments; it was very frustrating, and I cried frequently. Despite all my efforts, I did not pass the class. I also struggled with my required English class. I had no idea how to write a formal paper. I had to work on it for hours and depended on one of my friends for assistance.

With my friend’s assistance, I soon picked it up and did well, but I still struggled with my literacy skills. At the age of twenty-one, I transferred to Gallaudet University where I faced academic hardship, and “the wall” started to build up again because of my extreme frustration. I had to battle against “the wall” in order to increase my motivation to learn and at the same time, learn how to cope with my frustration. When I took Algebra I, I barely passed it after spending 20 hours studying for the final exam.

I struggled with English and took a non-credit English course to improve my reading and writings skills before I moved up to the required English courses. My English teacher did not think I would pass the English Placement Test due to my reading and writing challenges, but he was wrong, I passed it. Besides the English Placement Test, I also passed the Freshman Writing Exam. Consequently, my English course from Ohlone College was transferred and waived.

After passing the English Placement Test, I moved into the required English courses. While taking English, I gradually improved my reading comprehension and writing skills, even though my reading progress was still slow and it took me time to process the information I read or write. I also struggled to complete the foreign language requirement and I could not pass Algebra II. I withdrew from Algebra II because I was failing.

I felt anger and despair. I decided to be evaluated again and this time I went to see a psychologist who knew sign language. When the evaluation report arrived, I was astonished to learn that the results of this second evaluation were similar to the one I had received in high school. However, this time I had no difficulty accepting the label of learning disabled because it actually explained my frustration and also helped me understand my areas of weakness.

The psychological evaluation helped me identify my areas of weakness and target a way to improve my reading, writing, and math skills. It was like a map. It helped me find a way to succeed in school. Soon, I learned more about learning disabilities and the issues surrounding this disability. I finally decided to come out of the closet and tell everyone that I have learning disabilities. While “the wall” was still standing, I had to work extremely hard to break down “the wall” by enhancing my learning without giving up. After that, I managed to do well in each course throughout my college career and I graduated Cum Laude with my Bachelor of Science Degree in Social Work from Gallaudet University in 1998.

Shortly after my graduation from Gallaudet University, I enrolled in Gallaudet’s Graduate School of Social Work to further my education. Before I entered the program, it was recommended that I enter the four-year program instead of the two-year program because I was told that I might not be able to handle the heavy load, which included many term papers.   However, financial aid would not support a part-time student and I wanted to complete my degree within two years.  

I decided to challenge myself to do the best that I could and registered for the two-year program. While I was in graduate school, I spent many hours with my nose buried in books and writing papers. Unlike undergraduate school, I had very little social life. During my first year of graduate school, I was still battling against “the wall.” At the end of the year, I passed the qualification examination, but unfortunately, failed one of my courses and had to repeat it. I was devastated and thought it was the end of the world!  

During my second year of graduate school, I took more courses so I could graduate on time. I wasn’t sure if I could make it because during my first three years of social work programs (two years of undergraduate and one year of graduate), I had taken only four courses each semester and it fit my limitation. I was afraid to continue my education because I was afraid that I might fail again, I couldn’t stand the thought of failing as I was so close to graduation.

I did not want to give up, not yet.   During my second year of graduate school, I finally comprehended the material completely. Although I still had a slow processing speed, my learning and thinking processes became clearer than ever. My reading and writing skills improved dramatically. I passed all of my courses, even the one I had to retake.   It turned out that I had finally knocked down “the wall” due to my long struggle with academics.

Now “the wall” is gone! For the first time in a long time, I enjoy learning! During eight years of university work, I had been chipping away at “the wall” and I finally knocked it down! In May 2000, I completed my master’s degree in Social Work and I am currently working as an Advisor for deaf and hard of hearing students at the Salt Lake Community College in Utah.

Accepting my learning disabilities and fighting against “the wall” was a long and difficult journey. I did not overcome my learning disabilities; I learned to compensate for my learning challenges. I even managed to get around my academic barriers in spite of “the wall.” The truth is, attending school requires motivation, drive, persistence, and perseverance. Without them, I would not have survived in school, especially college. In addition, my parents are the key people who supported me all the way through school and college. Without their encouragement and support, I would not have made it.

The more I learn about learning disabilities issues, the more I feel empowered. There is nothing wrong with being learning disabled. In fact, many famous and successful people have learning disabilities. People with learning disabilities are not mentally retarded or stupid. Some are extremely gifted and most have their own unique learning styles that are not the same as other non-learning disabled people. In order to become successful, they may have to work ten times harder than others, but believe me, it is worth it.