Paige Augustine: It's very easy for us to take things for granted when it's all we know. For example, most of us learned to read and write as children, and we haven't thought twice about it since. It’s basically our second nature. However, for others, things like this do not come so easily. This is the case for over 65 million Americans who have a learning disability, including my roommate, Olivia Wiley. She's one of the funniest and kindest people that I know. Whenever we're together, we're constantly laughing and sharing inside jokes. Olivia is a second year business student at USD. She's a hardworking and a very dedicated student, and you will hardly ever see her without a smile on her face, despite having faced her fair share of challenges. One of these challenges includes her learning disabilities that have made her academic life incredibly challenging for the past 10 years. It began when she was a child in elementary school. Her mom has told her stories about how she would come home from school and be getting zeros on her spelling tests. She was having trouble reading and writing.
Olivia Wiley: It was because of dyslexia that I couldn't read or spell. So I was falling behind. So I got diagnosed.
Paige Augustine: It started at her elementary school in Denver, Colorado. Her struggles began from the start when she was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, and her school had no accommodations for students with learning disabilities.
Olivia Wiley: It was not accommodating at all.
Paige Augustine: She explains how her mom basically implemented the accommodation movement at her elementary school. With the help of other parents who also had children with dyslexia, they formed a bond and they worked their way through fighting with the principal in order to give their children time to work on their reading and writing inside of school, so they wouldn't have to worry so much outside of school hours.
Paige Augustine: Olivia remembers this time in her young life, and the confusion that she felt.
Olivia Wiley: I didn't really know what was going on because I was so young. Like, I didn't really understand why I had to do like tutoring and stuff. And It was really hard not to be like, oh, I'm, I'm just dumb. Like, it was really hard to be like, oh no, like I'm not dumb, I'm actually really smart. I just need extra help. And my mom explained it to me and she was like, it's like playing lacrosse without equipment.
Paige Augustine: As she's gotten older, her struggles have changed, especially with many of the stigmas that are often present around learning disabilities today. These are a lot of things I never knew about Olivia until I sat down and talked with her. She's a double major in finance and business analytics. And is the recipient of an impressive academic scholarship. From the outside you would never really know her pain. Her bubbly personality hides the feelings that many people don't understand what it really means to live with a learning disability. But she's persistent and determined and it definitely shows.
Olivia Wiley: But it definitely is really challenging. Like even in college, it's hard to explain to my friends and stuff like why I need extra time. And like, I don't know. And then, I've had a lot of people come up to me and be like, oh, you only get good grades cause you get extra time on exams. Or like, you don't actually work hard because you get extra time and like you have all these people helping you. I'm like, well I kind of need it. It’s not because I'm not as smart, it's just because my brain works differently.
Paige Augustine: Thankfully for Olivia, USD has the DLDRC, which stands for the Disability and Learning Difference Resource Center. Through working with them, she's able to receive accommodations for her dyslexia and her ADHD. She's really grateful for the DLDRC, which she says has been able to help her succeed throughout her time at USD so far. I had the opportunity to talk with Mike Martinez, the director of the DLDRC, who explained to me how they oversee accommodations and accessibility for students on campus. After talking to Olivia, I was really curious how many students like her use the DLDRC at USD. So I asked Mike.
Mike Martinez: Yeah, it ranges and will fluctuate from semester to semester, but we're always within like a pretty similar range of anywhere from 4% to 9% of the USD student population. Right now, I think we're closer to the higher end of that. We're probably closer to like 8% or so of all USD students. And that is not just undergrad students, so that also includes all of the grad school departments.
Paige Augustine: Learning disabilities can be really challenging to understand for those who've never really experienced them. So I asked Mike if he had any way to explain that to someone who maybe didn't understand as well, and he shared this insightful analogy as to how this can be explained.
Mike Martinez: As an example, since this is not really a classroom example, but you might think of it in terms of a ramp that's outside to get into a building. You think of a ramp versus the stairs, right? So if you had just a stair set up, and I'm looking at the stairs coming into Saints Hall right now. And if there was no ramp right there and you have someone who comes up, maybe they're using a wheelchair or another mobility device. One way to describe that situation is the student can't use those stairs to get in. So I think we need to change that phrasing and that mindset. And instead of saying, the student can't do that, what we need to say is, in that setup, the building is not built accessibly for the student. So it's not about the student themself, it's about the setup of that. And so if we take that example and put it into the classroom, you know, I think everybody can see, well of course we have to have a ramp, you know, that has to be accessible. But I think we're slowly getting to that for classroom and academic assignments.
Paige Augustine: According to the US Census in 2019, approximately 20% of Americans have cognitive or learning disabilities of some type, as well as 16% of Americans with some type of physical disability. They're very common, but many people don't even realize it. I know I didn't. This often has to do with the stigma surrounding them. I mean, Olivia shared this, that she's experienced this firsthand in her own life. And Mike also sees this on a regular basis.
Mike Martinez: It's pretty common for a student to say something like, I don't want to ask for accommodations because I want to try to do it by myself. And I don't want others to think that I'm getting “benefits,” I'm using quotation marks, you know, that I'm getting benefits or advantages that other students aren't getting.
Paige Augustine: After hearing that, I was wondering how things like this get addressed.
Mike Martinez: We remind either teachers or remind the students themselves that getting an accommodation due to a disability is not an advantage that you're getting. It's not a benefit that you're getting. The reality is that you, if you have a disability, are managing something that another student in the class is not managing. So there's already an inherent difference right there. The accommodation is not meant to give you an advantage. The accommodation is meant to try to mitigate that impairment and level the playing field a little bit.
Paige Augustine: Unfortunately this is still a daily struggle for many students. Mike shared that while he does think that the stigmas are decreasing around learning disabilities, he believes that it's still far from over.
Mike Martinez: I think part of that is because you know, I told you it could be 8%, 9% of students, but that means that's still a minority, right? And so that means that there might be 90% of people who aren't registered for accommodations. And so what that tells us is there might be some people, and I don't think it's 90% because I think of those 90%, some of them likely have an undiagnosed disability or a diagnosed but just aren't coming forward. But I do think there's a good chunk of people who maybe don't have to think about it on a day to day basis. And so it might be out of sight out of mind for some people.
Paige Augustine: Olivia's advice...
Olivia Wiley: Don't make fun of people that have dyslexia because that stays with them for life, or ADHD. Cause I remember every comment that anyone has ever made about dyslexia or ADHD.
Paige Augustine: There's no simple solution to getting rid of the stigmas around disabilities, physical, mental, or otherwise. They can be really detrimental to those affected. That being said, what we can do is treat everyone with kindness and respect and celebrate our differences. They are what make us special, and what make us human.