Black and white photo of woman with her head in her handsBrianne M. Collins is a guest author and PhD student in psychology at the University of Calgary. You can follow her on twitter at @BrianneMCollins

Imagine you are sitting in a classroom surrounded by fellow graduate students. The professor is talking, but you find yourself lost and confused. Looking around the room, your colleagues seem engaged and clear on the material. Feeling discouraged, you sit back in your chair, and you experience a creeping suspicion that someone is going to find out that you do not belong here.

This is a common graduate school experience—called imposter syndrome—that can be debilitating for even the most composed graduate students. There are also other kinds of insecurities that plague graduate students such as the often compulsory requirement of being a teaching assistant and post-graduation employment anxiety. Beyond these more commonly shared experiences, imagine the following scenario…

You are sitting in the same course, still feeling lost and like an imposter. All of a sudden, snapping you out of your worried daze, your professor asks you to solve an impromptu mathematical equation. Although you do your best to calculate the answer in your head, you struggle and eventually have to say that you do not know the answer. Looking down, you feel the heat from the stares of your colleagues around the room.  

After class, you quickly pack up and head home feeling embarrassed and alone. Knowing you sincerely want to learn the material, you open your books and begin to look over the problem you struggled with in class. However, you find yourself getting distracted by emails, you keep getting up from your seat to grab a drink of water, you decide to take a 10 minute break that turns into two hours, and, then, ready to try again you realize you have misplaced some of the materials you need in order to study. Exasperated, you put your head in your hands and wish you did not have to go through this experience day in and day out, that you could actually accomplish what you want to accomplish, and that you did not feel so alone.

While graduate school is tough for the best of us, this scenario is only a glimpse into the experience of graduate students who have a learning disability (LD) and/or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). As LDs are often defined as problems with information processing that manifest themselves in particular areas of academics (e.g., deficits with problem solving that contribute to math difficulties), they have the potential to significantly impact an individual’s graduate school experience. Although not directly an LD, ADHD is another condition that causes similar impairments in academic, and other, domains that can also be accompanied by one or more learning disabilities.

Unfortunately, LDs and ADHD are rarely discussed in graduate school despite their existence being more common than people might think. Often, LDs are misunderstood as a sign of lower intellectual ability and ADHD is commonly mistaken for a lack of effort or motivation. If you have an LD and/or ADHD, you have likely been told to “work harder” or “stop procrastinating and just get it done.” The experience for individuals with LDs/ADHD, however, is more complex and unrelated to intellect, effort, or motivation.

Having been diagnosed with ADHD myself (and having an undiagnosed math LD), I made a choice to walk the majority of my university career without disclosing my disorder in hopes of showing that I belonged and that I was smart enough. Despite experiencing severe burn out during my undergrad, battling unrelenting guilt and shame stemming from my ADHD, and trying to maintain a façade of productivity and positivity, I recently came to a point where it became necessary to disclose my diagnosis. Being in a position where I was so far behind that I might fail my upcoming candidacy (similar to comprehensive) examinations, I found the need to explain to my supervisor that my marginal progress to date was not a lack of effort or motivation. In fact, I had been spending hours a day in my office trying every strategy I could think of in an attempt to get my reading done, yet I kept falling farther behind. Although I initially felt a sense of defeat after years of being determined to manage my diagnosis on my own, I have found that being judiciously open about it has opened up new avenues in terms of resources. In addition, I have been inspired by Brené Brown’s work on vulnerability where being courageous enough to share my diagnosis with my supervisor and a few close colleagues has only strengthened those relationships.

The issue to disclose your diagnosis is particularly difficult because so much is context and person specific. In my case, disclosing ended up being liberating and constructive, but there are people and circumstances that will not be so accommodating. Thus, the choice to divulge something as personal as an LD and/or ADHD is one not to be taken lightly. Luckily, there are some great resources on the topic of disclosure including a podcast by Dr. Ari Tuckman that helps to put some of these questions into perspective.

There is also the issue of managing stigma in an environment where having severe difficulties focusing or a learning disability seems almost counterintuitive. Although stigma is certainly not isolated to the academy, there are certain misconceptions that can impact both how others might view a person in light of his/her diagnosis and, in turn, how he/she views him or herself. For instance, receiving accommodations (e.g., additional time on an exam) or taking prescribed medication are particularly contentious. Unfortunately, there is an existing belief that one or both of these provide impacted students with unfair advantages as compared to their peers. Despite the occasional, and arguably reprehensible, pro-stimulant articles that advocate the non-prescribed use of related medications, both accommodations and medication actually serve to level the playing field for people who typically have average to above average intelligence and are capable of understanding material, but have difficulty accessing it because of their diagnosis. It can be compared to having a hearing impairment or poor eyesight, as a person would not be denied a hearing aid or a pair of glasses on the grounds of providing an unfair advantage to him/her. It is important for the success of graduate students with LDs and/or ADHD that we address these kinds of misconceptions to ensure equitable treatment and access to support services.

If you or someone you know is navigating graduate school with a learning disability and/or ADHD, the internet is an excellent place to find a wealth of both conventional and innovative resources including basic information, as well as various apps to help with things like time management (e.g., It’s Focus Time) and studying(e.g., Quizlet). There is also an array of adaptive technologies (from moderately priced to more expensive) available to help with writing (e.g., Dragon Dictate) and reading (e.g., Read and Write Gold). Additionally, podcasts (e.g., Dr. Kenny Handelman) are also great resources that offer helpful expert information. Finally, there are number of excellent organizations across North America, such as the CanLearn SocietyCADDRA, and LD Online, who are committed to education and advocacy with the hope of both minimizing stigma and improving the quality of life of those diagnosed with learning disabilities and/or ADHD.

Are learning disabilities and/or ADHD discussed in your graduate school? As graduate students and future academics/professionals, what can we do to support those with these issues?

[Image used with permission of the author.]


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