Different Stages in a Learning Disabled Writer’s Life
By Karen Lynn
Back in the spring of 1970, I reflect upon the days of my young life. I remember being full of energy, being enthusiastic, and working as a sales girl at Ohrbach’s Department store. Every day I would come to work with a smile on my face and a vibrancy to help all. It gave me a meaning and purpose to get up every day, primp and fuss, look professional, and go out into the big world, and be productive in a powerful way. It also helped me not focus on myself or my disability; as I wanted to fit in, and bring as little attention to my disability as possible. Going to work everyday essentially gave me more vitality and desire to do more and accomplish more for myself.
I remember opening these heavy double glass doors to the department store, and being greeted by security managers who would playfully banter with me. “Hey Kitten, how ya do’in, today? Did you bring the sunshine in with you?” They would say. Some how, my smile brought a warmth to other people’s hearts. But this day was different. This day brought a delight all of its own. This day, I met a very handsome guy. He had black, thick, wavy hair, brown glowing eyes, and a smile that was warm, inviting, and drew me to want to know him more. He was about 5’ 9” tall and was a perfect height for my 5 foot one inch stature. He was studying to become a doctor, and this was just a part time job for him. The mere fact that he was interested in me, made me feel accepted in ways I never did before. It transformed my feelings about myself.
In the beginning we exchanged glances, then words, and eventually he became my boyfriend. He worked in the men’s department, while I worked as a sales girl for all the departments, selling merchandise in these cubicles. These partitions were on the main floor, right near the elevators and escalators. Thus, me being me, I would wave or make cheerful greetings to all those people I began to know and become friend with, young and old. “Hey how ya doing…” I would say. “You got a load on your shoulders don’t ya?” Somehow I drew people’s friendliness out. Even Paul’s! He would stop over at my cubbi any time he was passing by. When he would come off the elevator or escalator, he would ask how I was, or, if I needed any more merchandise. Slowly, there was a silent growing, connection between us. A bond kept building like a crescendo. He would start a conversation out of the blue. Then one day, as I stood folding some clothes, with my stronger un-paralyzed, hand, he walked up to my cubbie, and asked me out. I was so excited, that I was beaming from ear to ear! Paul accepted me for who I was, looking beyond my physical disability.
After all the physical therapy and dance lesson’s I went through as a child and a young person with Cerebral Palsy, (CP) my physical impairment of left side hemiplegia was not that noticeable. All I had was a limp. A foot that was ¾ inches shorted than the other. It was not as distinct as it once was nine years prior to this date and time. I was blessed because my orthopedists told me…“to hang up my full length leg brace in the closet”. So to the lame person’s eyes, it was not obvious, and did not draw attention to me as it once did, because I could wear dress shoes like other women my age and older.
However, there was one part of me that no dance lesson could ever fix. That part of me was my learning disability. Even though I had been passed from class to class, and graduated with so called honors, I really never retained any thing I learned. Despite the fact that my learning disability was not seen, it made it impossible for me to do the things that a “normal” person would take for granted.
So now, my boyfriend was going to Spain to continue his studies. Once he got there, he wrote, but I in return could not write back. I could not find the words to express myself, let alone, put them on paper. This was devastating to me. After all these years of special education classes, and being passed from one grade to another, I still could not construct a simple sentence.
All my younger years flash before my very eyes! It was like a door that had been locked, which slowly opened with all its ghost and goblins before me. It was happening all over again! I struggled, and struggled, and struggled to write to him. I tried putting words together only to erase and ripped the paper beneath me so hard, that it brought back the agonizing memories of me sitting at my desk in third grade, ready to pull my hair out because I could neither do the work in front of me, or complete it. Thus, I started to string words together which hand no meaning or rhyme to anybody. It seemed as though I was putting words and letters together that made absolutely no sense at all to what it was I was feeling or trying to say.
This was the result of an educational system focused on meaningless memorization and structural concepts at the extent of real useful material and learning. My teacher’s never understood that I needed good communication skills and the knowledge of how the world worked to gain the independent life I so much wanted. I sat in a special education class for over four years with work to do by myself, a screen to block out all distractions, and a teacher who came to see how I was forging forward every four hours. It was busy work, not the one-on-one support or skills I needed to build my knowledge, self-esteem, or self confidence. Nor, did it give me the tools to use later on in my adult life to make my needs and desires known, or to interact with the larger world.
Too often learning disabled young people are written off like I was. I was brought up in the 1950’es. If it wasn’t for my dear mother, or her deep concern about my learning discrepancies, my elementary school would have never gotten the first special education teacher in the state of California. My teachers did what they could, but they had definite gaps in teaching, as I had in learning. There focus was on maintaining calm at any cost! Too, often, students with genuine learning problems were lumped together with students with emotional problems, and, behavior difficulties.
Thus, the teachers in these environments have to waste a lot of time pacifying those students while ignoring genuine learning difficulties. There isn’t enough time in the day to teach what needs to be taught. It was an endless cycle for both. We both were frustrated and we both did not have the methods or techniques to reach each others core. Also, these experts did not realize, or think things through for my case and situation. It often looked to me as though they really didn’t want to work to find out what was truly the best for me. Moreover, they never presented a clear plan of practical possibilities. They did not even think ahead and reason that I would someday have to take care of myself, and, that my mother would not live forever. Furthermore, they never even considered that I might have a good head on my shoulders despite my C.P. and a learning disability, and really needed some experts to take a long term view on me individually. I needed these experts to step out of the box, to look past rules and procedure to help me build a long lasting future for myself instead of labeling me mentally retarded on three separate occasions.
They never concurred or conceded that perhaps I had a really good chance to change the course of my life. The Orthodox View during that time was based on a false premise which held that, daily life skills couldn’t be learned in a mainstream work environment. My goal was to succeed in a society that was neither accepting nor forgiving. These “experts”, no matter how hard I tried, were not used to someone of my level of intelligence to speak up for themselves. They didn’t think that perhaps I had a mentality for success. They did not think that if I was taught using methods I could understand and grasp I would go on to a self-sufficient life, far from the workshop mentality they assigned me to labor in as a young girl of 18 years old. I had far more life experiences to spend my time on, then the routine evaluations and folding boxes with one hand that they forced me to go through.
These misunderstandings were based on the idea of a clientele who didn’t have the ability I had. There old-fashioned minded thinking and the lack of “real” discussion, communication and teem work thought they would prevent me from progressing and moving forward in my life. Instead, what they did for me was stimulate my desires to help myself even more. By saying they could not help me time and time again; they activated juices deep within my soul to keep carry on. Inadvertently, they helped to make me a highly motivated person, who would not let society dictate my role. That is where my tenacity to help myself and others came from. I would not, from that time forth, settle for less then what was meant for me to become. But this battle was long, hard, and has spanned throughout the 57 years of my life. Still, I am not finished yet.
These professionals, and these agencies that were designed specifically for the “disabled community,” caused me only to sink deeper into a system that did not recognize; and still does not respect my fullest potential. They dehumanized me, by telling me directly to my face that I should be a sales girl, and told me I had scattered thoughts because I had interest in psychology, sociology, dance movement therapy, and therapeutic recreation therapy. These experts made fun of me in a very patronizing and subtle way. With a shrewd, delicate, and precise way, they were very capable in pulling the wool over my eyes; by labeling me mentally retarded. They indeed prevented me from going on to attain my Bachelors Degree, and Masters Degree; and they caused me to have to search out winning another Civil Rights Case, for my education; which did not succeed.
My mother was a single parent, as my father had died twenty years earlier, and could not afford to pay for tooters, or special educators for me. Nor did I expect her to. The system backfired in my face. They cause me undo strife, conflict, and discord; along with having caused all my legal papers to be sealed and forgotten forever. But this did not stop me! This made me fight even harder and more passionately than ever before. It helped me to defend myself and to return blows in a positive and constructive way. It made my desire even stronger to make my life happen, because there was “no one” who would aid or help me achieve my life’s dreams and goals. I was left all alone to conquer life’s challenges in this world. .
This counselor and all their compatriots did not acknowledge my views or value me and my wishes. They saw me rather as a problem to be handled, rather then to be a person to be developed and validated. They could not, nor were they willing to give me a chance to go out into the big world and live life like every other human being and prove myself.
The best example of this attitude came when I was struggling in second grade. I came home from school one evening with homework that I could not do by myself. So I asked my mother for help. She was so infuriated at the fact that I could not do this homework,, that she took the closest thing that could write, which was her red lipstick, and wrote on the homework itself…”GIVE KAREN HOMEWORK, THAT KAREN CAN DO BY HERSELF!” This humiliated me, and after all these years I still remember that incident, vividly.
So, as I sat there, trying to write my letter, I could not help but think of all the times before me. I really did not want my mother to have to write this letter- as I wanted it to be my letter. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could write a simple letter all on my own, without the help or coaching from my mother. I wanted to express my own feelings, in my own way, in the privacy of my own room.
The tears began to well up, and suddenly I felt licked, crushed, and overwhelmed. I could not even put together a simple letter on my own. I felt defeated. I was so desperate, that I once again turned to the only other person I knew who could help me. That was my mother. And once again my mother took it upon herself to lovingly help me write a letter that would express what I wanted to say to my boyfriend at the time.
That moment changed my life forever. It left a deep, searing, impression in my heart which left a thirst and a yearning to move mountains before me. It also left an intense feeling to be respected as a writer. This was the beginning of a life-long quest to break out of a role that was comfortable for the “experts,” but not for me!
As far as my boyfriend Paul goes, we would only have that summer together. He went his way, and I mine. But that experience was the catalyst that drove me to keep bettering myself.
On this journey, called “My Life,” I was fortunate to find those people, who I dearly call “My Angels,” who could see beyond the person I was. For the next twenty some odd years, I never stopped reaching for my goals. The memory of that experience has driven me to everything I have accomplished throughout my quest. I become a PBX operator, a recreation director, a fitness instructor for the disabled for well over 35 years; I won the first Civil Rights Case, in the state of California, under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, in 1979. I won second place in the Kaleidoscope Literary Pose Fiction Art contest of 1983; I attained my Associate of Arts Degree in 1985, I sat on the Executive Board of Protection and Advocacy Inc., in 2002, becoming an official advocate for the disabled.
But the most recent of all my latest achievements was publishing my fictionalized autobiography “The Broken Hoof.” This book took me full circle. After twenty years of compiling it, the words I wrote sang sweetly in my heart. I realized that in well over forty years of steadily, struggling on this quest of mine- that my pain was not in vain. I realized I had something to give. I realized I could help others by what I went through. I realized I could bring encouragement, strength, and hope to other people’s lives, in a way that perhaps no one else could.
This has been a journey of all journeys. A quest of all quests! This mission, has led me to developing my own website, Whispers of Hope, located at: https://www.whispersofhope.org,. Along with seeing, that each of these experiences reinforced my ultimate desire to become a motivational speaker. Nothing will ever stop me from pursuing what I desire. And no one will ever stand in the way of my usefulness, or change my honest, genuine, caring nature. Dr. Martian Luther King reminded us, we all have our journey to the mountain top to make.
I would not change one bit of my life’s course. Each experience has made me a stronger, more beautiful, humble, human being. It has helped me to look beyond all circumstance, learn from them, grow, and take what is good from each and every situation. I also learned not to take things as personally as I once did. Now I know how to let things go, laugh a whole lot more, and make light of situations that I once took way too seriously. I know now how to make a win-win situation out of something that is a so-called negative.
Every person who has come into my life and entered my circle, has been a direct descendent of the person I have chosen to become today. I believe in destiny. And I believe that not only were these experiences meant to be, but that these devoted people, who came into my life at the very moment I need them the most, helped me to reach for another attainable star. I believe that there are no mistakes in this world. Everything has a reason and a purpose for happening. I am not only grateful for them, but they taught me to be me… These people gently and sweetly guided me along my voyage with a kind encouragement and knowledge that no “expert” ever had in their hearts to give me.