The Gifts of Disability

Oct. 6, 2020
Disability Awareness graphic

My entire life I struggled with reading and writing. Every time a section in the textbook was assigned for reading, it would take me about a good hour to get through two pages of text. It was so laborious that I eventually stopped reading as there was no point. To compensate, I developed a skill to try to remember everything I heard. Quite frankly, I loved lectures and taking notes. Hearing a lecture one time was usually all that was needed to pass the test. While in college, I simply stopped buying textbooks as it was a complete waste of money.

It wasn’t until I took a Multi-Sensory Reading Class as a part of in-serve training at the age of 28 that I really began to understand phonological awareness and alphabetic principle, and the necessary role it plays in reading. It was a bit of an “aha” moment. I later went on to be diagnosed with dyslexia with a significant phonological processing disorder and receive treatment by way of structured literacy. Finally I enjoy reading. My first text I devoured was this growing list of Stephen King books I had collected. 

The assumptions that I heard from others were that I was lazy and didn’t try hard enough. I began to believe that myself. I excelled in public speaking, organizing, leadership and sciences (hence by love for animals and my work volunteering at the Denver Zoo), but because I struggled with reading, I must be dumb. It took 28 years to realize that I wasn’t dumb, it was just that my Occipital Lobe and Brocca Area in my brain were not wired very well — something I could not help.

Dyslexia is one of the largest disabling conditions worldwide. One in five individuals struggles with learning to read and write. Nevertheless, I don’t see this as a problem but as a gift. Science has shown over the past 40 years that the brains of individuals with dyslexia work differently and predispose them to great gifts in other areas. Individuals with dyslexia are known for other possible skills to excel in their given field such as entrepreneurship (Richard Branson), visual-spatial processing (Norman Foster, the architect of the Apple headquarters), leadership (Winston Churchill) and arts (Whoopi Goldberg).

Robert Frantum Allen

Technically there is no disability awareness month — more like a disability awareness year. Many associate the month of October when the Department of Labor’s focus is to make employers aware of the needs of the disabled in the workforce. Many organizations take advantage of this month to raise awareness of a myriad of disabilities and to celebrate the gifts that individuals with a disability bring to society. 

DPS chose October as Disability Awareness month as a way to continue to celebrate our diversity. The disability community is very pluralistic with some strong opinions on many topics such as “people first” or “disability first language.” Another example is the term disability. While some in the community embrace this term as critical to their identity, others prefer terms such as differently-abled. Much like current dialogue on the terms Hispanic and Latinx, these issues are also pervasive in the disability community as well. Engaging in these conversations will only help us to grow in our understanding. 

Disability is not biased towards gender, race, political affiliation, creed, etc. The largest minority worldwide is disability, with some of the most atrocious discrimination and poorest employment outcomes. Everybody at some time in their life will have a disability that typically comes with age. The good news is that we can innovate the world when we better understand disability. 

The curb cut on sidewalks intended for wheelchairs are widely used by bikers, strollers and making deliveries on a cart. Closed captioning intended for the Deaf is widely used in noisy environments, by second language learners learning English and couples who like to go to sleep at different times.  The typewriter that eventually became computers was invented as a way for the Blind royalty in Europe to write. Speech-to-text software commonly used by individuals with dyslexia is enjoyed by drivers who need hands-free texting. 

I am proud to work for DPS and its never-ending journey towards equity. I am amazed each day as people grow in their understanding of inclusive practices, and the board commitment though the Inclusion Resolution and our partnership with the Equity and Engagement office to make the necessary changes to benefit all students. 

Robert Frantum-Allen
Former DPS Director of Special Education