“Strengths and weaknesses are relative, not absolute.”
- Michael Simmons
This month's World Changer of the Month, Academy Award-winning actor Octavia Spencer, did not know what dyslexia was when she was a child. All she knew was that it was hard for her to read aloud because the words would get mixed up, and that she often felt paralyzed with fear whenever it was time to read in front of her class. However, she also knew that she was really good at solving puzzles and mazes, and that she loved reading about and deciphering mysteries.
Ms. Spencer’s teachers noticed that she was an exceptional auditory learner and could understand and perceive certain concepts much faster than her classmates. Ultimately, she was diagnosed with dyslexia, but she also tested into the gifted program. To some, these two designations might seem to be mutually exclusive. They are not. And Ms. Spencer’s designation as a gifted person with dyslexia confirms what many similarly-situated people have known for years: one can be twice exceptional. A person can be at once exceptionally intelligent and exceptionally different in the way that they learn, behave, perceive or generally experience the world.
Our education system, our society and indeed our world have taken care to set a very regimented list of attributes that we are to consider strengths and those that are relegated to the category of weaknesses. Much of the way our education system tests and evaluates students is geared toward students who learn in a very traditional way. Based upon what we know today about brain science and how students learn, we know that our testing and assessment mechanisms are in many ways very antiquated.
As a person who is a more traditional learner and thrives in conventional academic settings, I can attest to the privilege that I enjoyed throughout my academic career. The teaching mechanisms, curriculum and pedagogy are all generally geared toward traditional learners, especially in academically competitive settings. For students who have learning differences, this can create a challenge and lead to them being sidelined in these environments.
I have not personally had to navigate learning disabilities, but I have witnessed family members and dear friends with learning differences, which often went undiagnosed for years, struggle in school and fight to keep their self-esteem intact when teachers and peers made erroneous, ill-informed judgments about their intellect. All of the people in my life who have learning differences are among the most creative, empathetic, perceptive and innovative people that I know. They are the people at the top of my list to call upon when I need to generate creativity, innovation or unique ideas. I cannot imagine my world without these dear ones in it. Indeed, I think we can all agree that the human experience would be quite bland if we all saw and experienced it in a homogeneous way.
I am grateful that we are living in a time and space where our education system values diversity. While we are making strides when it comes to cultural and ethnic diversity, we still have a long way to go. We specifically have much more ground to cover when it comes to embracing diversity in learning orientation. Our education system is not set up for achievement of success by individuals with learning differences. We are making progress, but collectively, we still need to do better with inclusivity as it pertains to diverse learners. As a society, we must stop excluding and limiting learners based upon our narrow understanding of who they are and their abilities.
I am so glad that a young Octavia Spencer saw herself as the puzzle solver and auditory prodigy that she was, and rejected the lie of inferiority that our social constructs and societal norms would lead her to believe. Indeed, she has credited her dyslexia for her creativity and strong deductive reasoning skills. Had she internalized the prevalent messaging around intellect, she could have easily been sidelined and the world would have missed out on experiencing her genius.
We all need to be better about embracing uniqueness. The next time we encounter a friend, classmate or colleague who learns a bit differently, speaks a bit differently, dresses a bit differently or presents in a way that is otherwise unconventional, we should be mindful to include them and make every effort to support them. What we may perceive as a weakness, idiosyncrasy or oddity could actually be a strength depending on the context. It should never be an option to exclude, dismiss or sideline anyone for their innate traits or characteristics. We should remember this with respect to our interactions with others, as well as vis-à-vis our view of ourselves. You never know, you might be in the midst of a world-changing hidden figure.