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Learning Disabilities and the Struggle to Be Known

Uploaded: Oct 15, 2018
This piece is the seventh in a multi-part series, telling stories about employees of Ada's Cafe -- a 501c3 nonprofit cafe in the Mitchell Park community center, which works to empower and employ individuals with diverse disabilities. To learn more about Ada's, read the November 2017 PA Online article, or visit www.adascafe.org

“When I was in middle school,” Erin Fishman remembers, “I broke and dislocated my leg at the same time. Apparently, I’ve got talent like that.”

At 31 years old, Erin Fishman is singular human being. She is special for her wit, her humor, and her self-effacing stories. She is perfectly mischievous, with a sporadic personality that borders on the unpredictable. And like a bucket of neon paint thrown against a beige wall, Erin Fishman is remarkable for her own sake, but also for what she means to everyone around her.

Erin took her first breaths inside Stanford Hospital, the daughter of two strong and industrious parents. Her father earned a living in construction (though he would later transition to home inspection), while her mother worked first in the food industry, and then as a teacher in special education. Erin herself was born several weeks prematurely, skirting norms from Day One.

When Erin began attending school, she was diagnosed with ADD, or Attention Deficit Disorder. “I was in special-ed since elementary school,” Erin says, gazing at the wall with her large, hazel eyes. “My mechanical skills are off, too—I can’t draw in a straight line.” (Today, ADD is included within the broader category of ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The manifestation and prevalence of ADHD has been discussed in previous profiles of Ada’s employees.) This is no surprise to those familiar with premature birth, as up to one-third of “preemies” grow up with such “less-severe” neurodevelopmental disorders.

ADHD is not, in and of itself, the defining aspect of Erin’s uniqueness. When examining the young woman’s identity, one instead finds her warm personality, her dry humor, her knife’s-edge wit. But even so, Erin holds a tremendous wisdom, at least partially sourced from her experience with learning disabilities. If we are to discern that wisdom, however, we must first explore those experiences.

Growing up was tough for Erin, especially when it came to school. “It was always a fight for me to get up,” she recalls, picturing her father rising early, entering her bedroom, flipping on the lights, and leaving for work. “I would just get up, turn the lights off, and go back to sleep.” Living with ADHD—a well-publicized and easily-stereotyped condition—Erin spent most of her childhood wrapped in a sea of misconceptions. She was underestimated, condescended, and treated in ways which stymied her learning. She briefly attended a private school for students with behavioral issues, but was “kicked out by the principal for being too good.” She later enrolled in Mountain View High, eventually graduating from the school; but even then, the world seemed intent on misjudging her.

Erin existed then, as now, in an interesting duality. She was often ignored for her strengths, but equally often, she was denied her imperfections. Her witty humor, her keen observation, her intelligent eyes, all gave the impression of a truly remarkable mind. But those traits, when taken alone, painted a one-dimensional picture of Erin: an Erin who needed no extra time on her exams, an Erin whose mind ran exactly like everyone else’s. Those external features did not reveal a mind drawn from focus, or a student struggling with her math and motor skills.

“My dad says I’m one of the ‘higher-functioning’ people with intellectual disabilities,” Erin notes, with unaffected honesty, “[but sometimes I’m a lot slower than people at processing things.”

Amidst these conflicting messages, Erin’s life became an effort to balance her internal experience with the perceptions of a world outside. She recalls, for instance, working at a large grocery store, where her coworkers “were trying to have me in three places at once—which, with my ADD, didn’t help.” Unaware of her learning disability (despite the fact that this was known to her employer), the coworkers treated Erin like any other employee. They gave her a heavy workload, and sparse guidance. She was often left alone to learn new tasks, or to do many tasks at once. One day, as she was working the deli, Erin was charged with a novel duty: “My coworker was like, ‘Hey, can you go use the meat slicer?’”

At first glance, this request might seem innocuous. But Erin had never used the meat slicer before, and, with her learning disability, doing so was a sizeable challenge. The coworker walked away, unaware of Erin’s inner turmoil. Erin stared at the machine—with its sleek lines and shiny surface—and gave a noble effort. It did not take long, however, before she accepted her fate and began waiting for the coworker. When the coworker returned, irritated that the task was unfinished, Erin told the woman of her learning disability. She was surprised, but not humbled. “She straight up said to me, ‘Oh, I thought you were one of the normal ones.’” Erin raised both eyebrows to the sky, “and I was like, ‘Okay…?’”

How would it feel, to be constantly misjudged? I turned this thought over in my mind, imagining myself in Erin’s shoes. How would you establish a sense of self, when your very community cannot understand you? It had taken me an hour of conversation to truly appreciate the complexity of Erin’s mind, and even then, I hadn’t begun to scratch the surface. How could I expect my modern culture, with its “time is money” metaphors, to go even further?

It would be a far-fetched hope, no doubt—but if only it were fulfilled. For Erin embodies a deep wisdom, which challenges and reshapes the preconceptions surrounding intellectual disability. She has an insatiably active mind, spinning the simplest questions, the most mundane stories, into expansive, intricate, narrative tangents told with a philosopher’s lucidity. She is tremendously vivid. Most of all, she has a deep love for people, and a knack for storytelling which puts my own to shame. How must she feel, then, to be considered “normal” at best, and faced with condescension at worst?

Before working at that grocery store, Erin attended community college. There, she would grapple with math homework for hours, yet make little headway. She would prepare diligently for exams, only to lose her attention during the test when someone left to use the restroom. One semester, after a particularly grueling course, Erin felt she had not mastered the material. Her performance was sub-par, and she wondered if she would have to re-take the class. But instead of counseling her, Erin’s professor told her to “write down whatever grade I wanted, and said he’d sign off on it and advance me to the next class.”

“But what if I don’t understand the material?” she asked the professor, uncomfortable with dishonesty.

“It’s alright,” he responded, “just go.”

I must first acknowledge how adored this grading policy would have been while I was in school. That being said, Erin’s experience was telling. It felt like a microcosm of something deeper—a societal indifference towards those with disabilities, masquerading as a sort of charity. No doubt, this professor had the best of intentions. For all us “normal ones”—people who were never mocked for being “special-ed,” never ostracized for our learning difficulties—we might assume that people with disabilities would want the free pass. But in truth, that professor’s mercy was emblematic of Erin’s central struggle.

The central struggle of Erin’s learning disability is, in fact, that few people understand her learning disability. More than this, no one seems to want to understand her disability. No one seems patient enough to wrestle with the strengths, weaknesses, and humanness of Erin’s mind. And why should they? That would require a tremendous amount of time—which is, of course, money. (There is an interesting parallel to the second-ever essay on this blog, titled Are We Really Up To This?, which explores one East Palo Alto homeless woman’s thoughts on the indifference of an affluent society.) Whether complete strangers or college professors, few have the time to explore the heights and depths of yet another complex human being. When, instead, a four-letter word will suffice—and here I mean ADHD—the efficient choice seems all too clear.

Erin is misjudged, misevaluated, and misunderstood, because people rarely take the time judge, evaluate, or understand her. Her grocery store coworkers assumed that she knew how to use the meat slicer, because they assumed that she had been instructed, and assumed she would absorb such instruction like everyone else. They were wrong on all three counts. Erin’s math professor, on the other hand, took the opposite route, hoping to address her unique learning needs with charitable dishonesty.

None of these people acted maliciously. None were simply “ignorant people.” But their actions shared a common theme: a cultural tendency to simplify the experiences of those living with disabilities; to propagate narratives in which those persons are either lazy freeloaders, or pitiable charity cases. Both narratives represent a great tragedy—for they are, almost unfailingly, detached from reality.

“People prejudge us without even knowing us,” Erin says, summarizing my long exposition in one concise statement. “It makes me frustrated, angry, ticked off.”

Despite her frustration, Erin truly believes that most people mean well. When people misjudge or offend her, they are not, in her eyes, “bad people.” But they are misinformed. She hopes, therefore, that such people would take the time to know her. She hopes that they would recognize her strengths, her weaknesses, her idiosyncrasies, all within the rich, complex context of her personhood.

Sitting in the Mitchell Park Community Center, with an hour-old coffee and scone in front of her, Erin raises her eyebrows once more. Not quite to the sky this time, but enough to make her vulnerable. “When I was younger,” she remembers, “my parents used to compare me to my cousins, which was insane. They went to science fairs, and won a bunch of medals, and people used to ask, ‘Why can’t you be like them?’”

Our conversation had, to this point, run the gamut from frustration to joy, from isolation to belonging. But now, as the coffee cooled, I noticed a shift in the air. It rushed by on the heels of acceptance, of self-love, of a deep understanding which—if only!—the world would do well to adopt. “Well,” Erin says, looking at a mental image of her cousins, or what they represent, “I’m not them.”

So who is Erin Fishman? Erin is a sarcastic, funny, quiet woman who cares little for the philosophical. Her life is one of struggle—two jobs, a precarious housing situation—but it is also one of joy. And though the outside world seems indifferent to her differences, Erin has found a home at Ada’s Café. There, she says, “I can connect with people,” finding deep friendships and dedicated mentors. There is perhaps no better example than the Ada’s founder, Kathleen Foley-Hughes.

“I’ve told Kathleen I’ve adopted her as a second mom,” Erin says, with a smile. “When she tells you to do something at the café, she does in in a motherly fashion… she does it like she cares.”

These sentiments are far from unique. They are virtually universal, not only among Ada’s employees, but to all those who know Kathleen and the Café. Running the Café is equal parts demanding, rewarding, and exhausting. But for the community and employees alike, Ada’s is perhaps the purest, most genuine act of love imaginable. And that love, that devotion, is powerfully reflected in people like Erin.

Empowered by Kathleen and the Café, Erin has made her own mark on the community. Though the young woman is busy like everyone else, she recently began knitting scarves for the homeless. Though living paycheck to paycheck, she regularly volunteers at the polls during election season. Though a skilled veteran of the Café, she takes the time and energy to mentor new employees. And all the while, her witty humor has a certain self-giving quality, enlivening and refreshing all who will listen.

Yet Erin is, like all humans, still prone to doubt. “Sometimes I think about what it’d be like if I wasn’t born prematurely,” she ponders aloud, “what would happen if I didn’t have ADD, or a learning disability.” These sentiments come from little over one quarter-century of life; they may only grow more complex, and more poignant, with time and experience. Their answers (if such answers exist) will be gleaned from the same tangled, circular wonderings which produced the questions.

In the meantime, however, Erin grasps the moment with force. She is more than occupied by her two jobs; and whatever time is left goes straight to her friendships, her boyfriend, her groceries and chores. She is constantly striking a balance—constantly in a duality. Is Erin the focused and dedicated worker? Or is she the laid-back, dry-humored friend? Is she a “high-functioning” person who has learning disabilities (whatever that means)? Or is she a woman with learning disabilities who functions at high levels (whatever that means)?

Always unpredictable, Erin claims no answers to these questions. But that is expected, for those answers do not exist. Erin is neither the diligent employee, nor the laid-back woman. She is neither “high-functioning” nor “disabled.” She is all of these things, and none of them. She is a human being, with all the baggage and complexity that brings. She is a trapeze artist, walking thin lines and balancing a set of strengths, weaknesses, joys, and struggles. Amalgamate this into the messy structure we call life, and Erin Fishman will, without a doubt, defy your expectations.

Apparently, she has talent like that.
What is it worth to you?


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