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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Can You Be a Good Student and Have Learning Disabilities?

From the Child Mind Institute

By Margaret Grieve
April 10, 2015

Yes, and they can take a toll even on the highest achievers. 

I was astounded to learn recently of the maelstrom of controversy swirling around Albert Einstein and learning disabilities. It seems that Albert earned good grades once he did start elementary school, at age 6½ (his parents held back due to perceived learning delays). Earning good grades, it is claimed, is definitive evidence of the absence of learning disabilities.

While Einstein is long gone and cannot settle the matter, I am happy to offer myself up to science as living evidence to disprove what I view as a dangerous and erroneous premise: good grades cannot co-exist with learning disabilities.

From kindergarten on, I was in the top 10% of my class. I went to a top university, a top law school and got my first job at a top law firm. But there were so many times I felt totally lost in elementary and high school. I sensed that everyone else knew how to do something—tie a shoe, handwrite, spell or solve a physics problem—that was beyond my comprehension.

Shoes and handwriting were major early stumbling blocks. In the days before Velcro, shoe tying was a prized kindergarten skill. "She is so good at everything else," Ms. Andersen said to my mom, "I don't understand why she can't tie her shoes." Later in life, it became handwriting. "Is she not interested? Perhaps have her practice more at home."

I couldn't find the Rosetta stone to unlock my own brain.

Then there was spelling. "She has to double check her writing. Her content is always good; she would have As, but for the spelling." (I triple-checked, but could not see my own handwritten spelling errors).

As math became more complicated, I was urged to take more time, be less careless. "She understands how to line up the problem, but she doesn't get the numbers straight." (If only carelessness were my issue!)

The denouement was accelerated physics. Physics was Egyptian hieroglyphics. I couldn't find the Rosetta stone to unlock my own brain.

I quickly realized when I started work at a Wall Street law firm that I inverted numbers when citing cases—241 Fed. Supp. 1001 might become 214 Fed. Supp. 1010. When I started playing with balance sheets, I might misspeak certain numbers. For example, 10 million might come out as 1 million or a hundred thousand. Because these deficiencies were a sure ticket out of my chosen career, I came up with a strategy to compensate. I also got tested.

To everyone's amazement, I had an odd combination of learning disabilities. For me it was liberating. It wasn't that I couldn't learn. At times I might just need a different route to unlock my pathway to comprehension. For some other things, I needed compensating strategies (which I had pretty much figured out on my own).

Did Albert Einsten have learning disabilities? I don't know. But this I do believe. Good grades can and do co-exist with learning disabilities, and undiagnosed learning disabilities take a toll even on the highest achievers.


Margaret Grieve has had a successful career as a financial services industry lawyer in which she has served as General Counsel for Barclays Bank, PLC in the Americas, and as a Managing Director of Bank of America. She is now President of PMG Management, a family investment business, serves as on several boards, including the Child Mind Institute and US-Central Asia Education Foundation, and provides pro bono legal services to several organizations.

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