Reading never came easily for me. I was in the slow reading class in elementary school, took supplemental reading classes in junior high, and did poorly on my Verbal SATs in high school. They didn’t talk about “learning disabilities” in those days, and though I don’t think I’m a full out dyslexic, there is something about my brain that keeps me from racing forward over the words on a page. My wife can read literally four or five times faster than I can read. When I read silently I stumble a lot, forcing me to back up and re-read passages through which I tried to go too fast. Fast readers tell me that you aren’t supposed to be saying the words in your head as you read. When I try to read without hearing the sounds of the language, I crash and burn like a race car trying to take a turn too fast.
Over the years this “disability” has been frustrating, and in certain ways it has held me back from greater success. But I’ve come to recognize that there are a couple of significant benefits to the way my brain works when it comes to the process of reading. For instance, I excel at reading aloud; I rarely ever stumble. Reading aloud forces me to read in the manner that my brain requires, sounding out every word. In addition, since I can’t read fast, I am forced to ponder more deeply the meaning of the words I have read — to pursue their depth, so to speak. Also, reading this way has helped me to learn the craft of writing. For me, writing is all about hearing the words in my head. Does a given sentence sound “right”? My ear won’t allow sentences that don’t sound right to me.
So my “disability” also contains abilities, which leads me to wonder in what ways other things we label as “disabilities” might also come hand in hand with certain abilities that aren’t so easily recognized. Gerald May in his book I recently finished suggested that kids with the diagnosis of ADD might actually me more naturally “contemplative” than so-called “normal” kids. I want to quote from his book:
“I think all babies, animal and human alike, are naturally contemplative. We are born open, present, unfocused, here-and-now. In civilized human society, we teach children to focus their attention, to fend off distractions, to concentrate on the particular task in front of them. This may be necessary for learning in the ways our schools are conducted, but we should know that we are training our children out of their natural contemplative presence, teaching them to devalue it, ever perhaps to fear it. Children with attention deficit disorders tend to be more naturally contemplative, but they can have tremendous difficulty in our focused civilization. We treat them with drugs.” (p. 63, “The Wisdom of Wilderness”)
In a broader, spiritual sense, recognizing and learning to live with what we call “disability” also leads us into the humility that is essential for compassion and connectedness with other human beings. I have my disabilities and you have yours; let us be gentle with one another. The most damning disabilities of all, of course, are disabilities of the heart, wherein a person lacks the ability to feel compassion for others. People with this kind of disability are often hard pressed to identify any of the more commonly recognizable disabilities in themselves — they seem to be good at everything. Except compassion.