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Speaking from Experience: Response to Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron

It’s been another long time away, dear Reader. I’ve spent half the semester running around, giving conference talks on disability and writing studies, and this has meant sadly neglecting my orals reading and this here blog. I hope to get some video versions of those talks up and running eventually, and if I do I’ll share them here.

However, now I’m back on the righteous path, reading and writing as much as possible. I’ve resolved to take my exams in the first week or two of September, so I have until then to get through the remainder of my reading lists.

For my list with Jason, I’m spending some time with memoirs by neuro-atypical authors writing memoirs about their educational experiences, esp in relation to higher ed. For this post, I’ll discuss Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron: Living with Learning Disabilities (2002). Since this is my first post back after a long break, it’s going to be particularly unfocused and fragmented, mostlikely. I’ll get back into the swing of things soon and producing more readable posts. Bare with me, please.

This slim memoir dictated by Sylvester, a former president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, aims to show how claiming understanding and acceptance of learning disabilities can help people claim ownership of their lives and  . . . . . . .

Similarly to how Temple Grandin’s memoir alternates between following her own autobiographical narrative and focusing on topics of interest for her disabled population, Sylvester’s memoir moves through his life in major themes, each life period generating a thesis of sorts. In his chapter School Days, Sylvester describes his natural aptitude with machines, engineering, mathematics, and design–he contrast these aptitudes, for which he got parental and school-based encouragement, with his extreme weaknesses in spelling, writing, and reading. Having been educated during the 30s and 40s, there was little understanding of LD at the time, and Sylvester underwent substantial disciplining to correct the presumed “attitude problems” that were keeping him from succeeding like the other kids. As he says, “I was being punished because the school didn’t have an effective reading program for me” (8).

His experience of humiliation and punishment around literacy performance continues into his college years. While succeeding at the top of his engineering classes, he is publically chastized by his English teachers who tell him he is not suited for college because of his handwriting and spelling primarily.

The upshot of his analysis of his educational experience is that school systems tend to be designed for typical learners who can process language in predictable ways, and when students do not succeed, they are often blamed for not fitting into the system. Linguistic ability must be “explicitly taught” to students with LDs, employing multi-sensory phonetics training from an early age, he believes.

Though Sylvester leaves school successful in his degree, he takes with him the shame of his literacy failures. He describes trying to hide his spelling and reading difficulties in his work life: “I was so ashamed of my literacy problem that I did everything I needed to do to keep it a secret. I didn’t want people to know how “dumb” I was. [. . .] As I look back at all of this, I can see that keeping that secret was more disabling than the disability” (27).

At the same time that he tried to distance himself from his shame about literacy, he also recognizes his unique capacities for visual perception and its usefulness in his career as an engineer. In one passage, he describes his ability to visualize the design of a boat before he ever starts building it, a capacity that allows him to test out different designs and revise his plans based on the mental projections he generates for himself (31). He says it’s better than Computer Aided Design because he can do it freely in his mind. Temple Grandin describes a similar capacity when she talks about how she “thinks in pictures,” and how she designs prototype components of her feedlot equipment before ever drawing up plans. Both of these memoirists claim this powerful visualization capacity and apply it to the field of engineering — though their disabilities are very different. The upshot here is, of course, that LD is entirely context based, and that LD individuals can find jobs well suited to their strengths and succeed.

Throughout the narrative to this point, Sylvester has not yet been diagnosed with LD. In the third chapter, he reads a narrative by another LD writer and is deeply affected when the story he reads forces him to relive his school trauma. As he learns more about LD, he starts to reach out to others who experienced school failure like he did, and he also feels motivated to get diagnosed so that he can more fully understand his disabilities. Once he is diagnosed, he spends the remainder of the chapter explaining the specific learning disabilities he has and how they affected his experience in school and life.

This leads to one of Sylvester’s central arguments in this memoir: LD people must understand and accept their impairments in order to take control of their lives. This acceptance takes some re-thinking of central myths that affect the lives of all of us educated in an ableist system. We must admit that linguistic proficiency is not a universal marker of intelligence. We must to admit that our brains work in ways that make literacy tasks more difficult for us than for other people, and that this doesn’t make us less intelligent. Until we understand the specific weaknesses of our brains, we cannot accept them as part of us and find ways to be successful.

From this moment of epiphany, Sylvester moves on to become a full-time LD professional, leading support groups and national organizations on LD. He draws together anecdotes from the many young people and adults he worked with in this capacity to draw out a few other important issues with LD, including the social and emotional costs. He notes that an enormous proportion of people incarserated and in drug addition programs have LDs or ADHD. He also notes how social pressures in schools to perform in uniform ways can drive students to act out, close off, or become isolated.

One key tool this book offers to educators and parents is a model for LD support groups. He explains how he developed a system of emotional/social support for LD people to identify and claim their difficulties while at the same time also claiming and taking pride in their strengths. Interestingly, he offers Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence as a useful model for helping support group members start to understand their strengths and their weaknesses in context. Here’s a useful quotation (actually from the first chapter, but it pre-empts the discussion of MI theory in useful ways):

“It takes a long time to realize that there isn’t anything wrong with being learning disabled or dyslexic. It means that we have different abilities and disabilities than the norm. Some people are not musical, and it doesn’t matter; they still succeed in school and in life. Other people are not athletic, and it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, in a society where language and math are so important, for those of us who cannot do language or math it does matter. Our differences become disabilities.” (17)

 

So, two key insights here: First, like Gardner, he argues that some capacities are more privileged in society than others. Indeed, the kinds of capacities we even pay attention to and value as intelligences are historically and culturally specific. Second, through the process of support group work, Sylvester aims to help others understand that being linguistically weak is not something to feel shame or self-pity about. It’s something to accept and keep in proportion to the strengths of each individual.

In the end, Sylvester offers this model of acceptance and empowerment to anyone with an LD. To educators and parents, he argues for reform and understanding. Here’s a final quotation from his conclusion:

“We as a nation have tried to educate all of our children in language and math implicitly. It simply hasn’t worked. Those who haven’t been able to learn in this way have sat in classrooms and failed. Lack of a successful education leads to failure in all aspects of our lives, such as social interaction, emotional stability, health, success in our jobs and success in relationships. All these failures lead to low self-esteem, depression, and bahavioral problems. Even people like me, who can have a career and support a family, still pay a heavy price.” (154)

Here, as he concludes, he draws together the various parts of LD identity and locates the central problem in the educational system. I am intrigued by the relationship between the identity of LD and the specific impairments presumed to cause them. For instance, one of Sylvester’s imairments (and my own) is a weakness in processing speed for visual linguistic recognition. This in and of itself is simply a way our brains work (psychology tells us), not a disability. In restrictive school environments that expect uniform performance, people like us are unable to succeed, we fail, we are set apart from other children, and we internalize messages about our lack of worth which we carry with us through life. For some who experience extreme failures, the effects can be devastating. The impairment itself is actually responsible for only the slight difference in processing ability among a range of people: the emotional, social toll is where the disability really exists.

So, implications for my own work: I am interested in what perspectives like this do to justify making/design based pedagogies in composition. I was recently at a talk about digital humanities approaches to composition and rhetoric, where one of the speakers described using CAD or circuit boards or the like in composition classrooms. He spoke of it as another kind of rhetoric, a means of communication that didn’t rely on words. I think paying attention to the unique capacities of ND learners leads us to a new understanding of the importance of non-verbal composition, including making, building, visual design, coding, etc.

I should say a few things about the writing in this book: Sylvester and his editor both explain in their preface chapters that the book is dictated because Sylvester is a “non-writer.” Much of the work describes the strategies Sylvester uses to successfully give speeches or teach classes, ways that work well with his spoken abilities. I should think more about this model as I think about the composing implications of all of these memoirs.

 

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