No Apologies, No Excuses

By Dria Fearn, Esq.

One and a half weeks into my kindergarten year, I informed my mother that, according to my teacher, “I had failed seven times, once every day” for misbehaving in her class. Two years later, at the age of seven, I was diagnosed with ADHD (link to ADHD Overview). Being told I had ADHD was a relief, because having the diagnosis was way better than being “stupid,” the label I had given myself to explain my inability to read, write, and behave in class.

I began taking stimulant medication at 10 years old. With it I was finally able to redirect the energy I was using to try (unsuccessfully) to sit still and “be good” toward paying attention and learning. I never felt that I was a different person on medication, but rather that the medication enabled me to perform to my potential. I still take medication and am certain that I would not be where I am today without it.

At age 17, I was formally diagnosed with Dyslexia and Dysgraphia, a fine motor dysfunction of which I first became painfully aware when I was learning to write cursive in elementary school, and the task was unnecessarily difficult. Thankfully, I had a teacher with the inclination to put me on a computer, so that I could type rather than handwrite lengthy written assignments.

Taking Charge

That is not to say that having ADHD and learning disabilities was an easy road; it wasn’t. But my kindergarten teacher was the last person ever to tell me that I had failed. Once diagnosed, my parents proactively obtained tutoring services (which I hated) to bring my reading and writing up to grade level. Ultimately they sent me to a private school with small classes and supportive teachers, where I excelled both socially and academically.

My attitude is that disability is not good or bad, it just is. My disabilities are part of who I am, just like my gender, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation, and I am not ashamed.

Today, when I speak to youth with disabilities, many of them worry about being judged or stigmatized because of their disabilities. And while that may happen, I tell them that they can control others’ reactions and lessen that stigma to an extent. People react to your perception of your disabilities. If you try to hide or deny them because you’re not comfortable with yourself, others will also view your disabilities as negative and will not believe that you can succeed.

Simple Strategies to Manage ADHD

Having disabilities does not mean that you are powerless. To the contrary, taking ownership of yourself by taking steps to minimize deficits and maximize potential is the key to success. For me, being well rested is essential to my productivity, because staying on task and retaining information is virtually impossible if I am overtired.

Nutrition and eating regularly are also important, because I take medication that upsets my stomach if I have not had something to eat. I, therefore, always carry healthy snacks in my purse and briefcase.

Like many people with learning disabilities, I am naturally disorganized, which is an unforgivable trait in the real world. To compensate, I have disciplined myself to be hyper-organized, such that all appointments and tasks are put on my calendar, so that I forget nothing. Organization became a lot easier with the advent of the smartphone, allowing me to sync my digital calendar with my iPhone so my calendar is always handy.

Another strategy I employed in college and law school was to sit in the front of the classroom, and away from doors and windows, which allowed me to minimize the negative effects of ADHD on my ability to concentrate. Instead of watching everyone clicking their pens, I was engaged and in the lecture. In law school, I had reserved seating as a formal accommodation, because many of my classmates also wanted to sit in the front. They had learned that classroom placement was one way to maximize potential, regardless of whether or not one has a disability.

To Disclose or Not To Disclose

My strength has always been in identifying with others and building personal relationships, and I have found that people have been very accepting when I have disclosed that I have disabilities. As an undergraduate at UCLA, I was President of the Disabled Students Union and a member of the Associated Students UCLA Board of Directors, and through building relationships with different organizations representing students of color, I made sure that disability was included in the University’s proposed diversity requirement. As a law student, I was the Senior Symposium Editor of the Hastings Law Journal and responsible for choosing our annual symposium topic, so we held the first ever National Disability Law Symposium. Being comfortable with the person I am enabled me to positively affect others’ perceptions.

Nevertheless, I advise young people with invisible disabilities to be cautious about disclosing their disabilities to prospective employers who may be less enlightened about their abilities. It is better to wait until after a job offer is made to disclose your disabilities (you are under no obligation to disclose during the interview process, and it is illegal for an employer to ask), lest the job offer be withheld because of discrimination, which still occurs, yet is difficult to prove.

Today, I am an attorney with my own law practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, where one of my practice areas is special education. I have found that my disabilities are an asset, because I understand the issues confronting the parents, child, and school districts and can help develop creative solutions to achieve better outcomes.

Having disabilities has shaped who I am, and I would not be where I am today if not for my experiences as a person with ADHD and my disability identity.

The author owns her own law practice in Oakland, CA, where special education is one of her practice areas. She may be contacted directly at [email protected].