The Elephant in the Room

by Elisa Blasi, Learning Disabilities Association of York Region Ambassador

Have you ever heard the term “the elephant in the room”? It is often used when there is an obvious issue or problem that everyone can see, yet, in order to avoid an uncomfortable situation, is sidestepped.

For most of my life I have felt like the elephant in the classroom. I was that kid in school who left class after our national anthem and only saw other students during lunch, art, gym, and recess. The reasons for why I would go to a “special room” were rarely discussed in my mainstream classrooms. Essentially, there was a gap between the implementation of my individual education plan and an explanation as to why I was doing things differently from the average student. This gap left space for me to create my own view as to why I was frequently taken out of the classroom. Looking back at that time, now as an adult, it is alarming to think that as a child I actually believed I was not as smart as my friends. Further, when my peers were left with this lack of information, it gave them the opportunity to create their own reasons as to why I was taken out of the classroom. As you can imagine, I quickly became the “stupid kid”. Yet, most adults in my life kept using the same go-to phrase whenever they saw I was frustrated with my school environment:

“You Are No Different Than Anyone Else”

There I was, sitting in a classroom, trying my hardest to believe I was no different than any other student, doing everything I could to blend in, and yet, extremely frustrated that I was not reading and writing the same way as my peers. My learning disability became the elephant in the room. It was obvious to other students that I had a difficult time with reading, writing, and math. Nevertheless, the actual learning disability was not talked about, but rather, covered up with an explanation that I was no different from my peers. At the very least, this period in my life was confusing. My learning disability was something many people noticed, but very few knew how to approach. Hesitant and passive explanations left me wondering, should I be embarrassed that I could not learn like my peers? By the time I was in grade nine, I had made two conclusions regarding my difficulties in school:

  1. My learning disability is something I should be embarrassed about.
  2. My learning disability is something that I should hide.

Before going on, let me introduce myself. My name is Elisa Blasi and I am currently attending York University as a Psychology major. My journey in understanding my learning disability has truly been a rollercoaster. What I once saw as a roadblock and as an excuse has slowly turned into something that has shaped me into the person I am today. My learning disability is what pushes me to relentlessly work at something, even in the face of failure. In fact, my learning disability has taught me to look at failure from a completely different viewpoint. It has given me an opportunity to develop a unique perspective on how I view challenges in my life. Meaning, I strive to approach a challenge as a learning experience, rather than an opportunity to play the victim. In turn, I have learned that I can be proud of myself; something I would never have believed possible when I was in grade nine. Currently, I work as an ambassador for the Learning Disability Association of York Region. Our goal is to empower students and eliminate stigmas attached to the diagnosis. As someone who has personally dealt with the weight a school environment can place on a student with a learning disability, it is important that I share my experiences in order to build an environment that will help support the needs of students to come.

I believe the source of our problem is rooted in the phrase “you are no different than anyone else”. When directed to a person who has a learning disability, this phrase can deeply damage their self-concept in both a school and a social setting. What you are saying is that their overall learning style and pace are the same as an average student. When hearing this from an adult, many students, including myself, will initially believe that statement. However, even at a young age, it does not take long for a student with a learning disability to see that they have different learning needs from their peers. This push and pull between being told you are the same as your peers, and yet seeing that you are not, is what causes “the elephant in the room”. Ultimately, this situation informs the student that homogeny in learning styles should be both desired and strived for. Yet, when students who have a learning disability attempt to learn the same way as their peers, they often experience failure. This type of failure confirms to students that our education system was not designed for a different type of learner.

I believe this cycle will stop the day we start openly talking about learning disabilities within mainstream classrooms. Every student, learning disability (LD) or not, should understand that an LD does not mean a student is unable to learn, but rather, that they learn in a different way. In other words, the classroom environment should be designed to not only celebrate different types of learners, but also complement each student’s learning style. In order to create a classroom setting like this, changes must be made:

  1. The special education classroom should no longer be seen as a mystical room where some students disappear to. Rather, teachers should explain what the special education room is and why it is important to students who have different learning needs.
  2. Each student, learning disability or not, should have a clear understanding of what an LD means.
  3. Students who have a learning disability should be made aware of their diagnosis and take part in their IEP process or any other parent/board personnel meetings. Further, students with a learning disability and their prospective teachers should be actively reviewing and exploring successful ways of accessing and processing the curriculum.
  4. The mainstream classroom should be set up in a way that allows students to have access to their accommodations seamlessly in the same manner other students have access to a pen and paper, thus, creating a welcoming school environment for the needs of a different type of learner.

This type of classroom setting rejects any misconceptions about learning disabilities to mainstream students, students who have a learning disability, and teachers who do not fully understand the meaning of an LD. By setting up your classroom in these aforementioned ways, you are saying to students that it is acceptable to learn in a different way. This type of atmosphere will allow each student to mature in his or her understanding of their own learning disability. Thus, when that student is faced with a situation that does not welcome their learning style, they will have the confidence to advocate for themselves because of the nurturing school environment they grew up in.

If you are an elementary-school teacher and reading this, I encourage you to start openly talking about learning disabilities in your classroom. These “talks” should be both informative and allow students to ask questions in order to debunk any stereotypes. I do not believe that there is an age when a student is too young to understand, rather, it is dependent on the teacher to create a lesson on learning disabilities that is appropriate for that age group.

If you are a high school teacher and reading this, then you have your work cut out for you. The problem is that by the time students get to you, they have been the elephant in the room for far too long. Many will be resistant and most will not even understand what a learning disability is. I suggest that high school teachers work together with their students with an LD to create a plan toward self-advocacy and understanding of their learning disability. Some will take longer to come around to the idea, but what is important is that you make yourself available for when they do.

Empowering students who have a learning disability today will have a considerable effect in the years to come. In fact, informing all students about learning disabilities will eventually cause a ripple effect in our society. What we have to remember is that the students in our classrooms today will one day be active participants in society and possibly parents themselves. If we start opening our children’s minds to the concept that there are different types of learners and thinkers in this world and also empower students of all learning backgrounds, then the future for people who are different will be brighter.

My name is Elisa Blasi and I have a learning disability. I am the type of student who is aware of my difficulties and thus I strive to ensure that I am always in control of my learning environment. With this in mind, I am currently enrolled as a third year Psychology major at York University. Facing the demanding curriculum of my program and the ever-changing world around me, I continue to adapt to situations that are challenging. My goal, in working with the Learning Disabilities Association of York Region and the Learning Disabilities Association of Ontario, is to empower students who have a learning disability by removing stigmas and promoting self-advocacy.