Invisible Staircases part 2: The Revenge!
By Michael J. Pennington: Disabled Author.
You may not notice, but I changed my byline. I love my byline it’s a good byline. Michael J. Pennington. It sounds good, rolls off the tongue, but I’ve put a lot of thought into it and I’ve decided its not enough.
I have lots of stuff wrong with me. I have a number of sleep disorders, I got some sciatica in my legs, I’ve been described as morbidly obese, and I’ve tested in the diabetic range. But when I say, “Disabled Writer,” I’m referring to only one thing. An unspecified learning disability I’ve lived with since childhood.
You see I grew up in the ’80s and in the ’80s, they weren’t so big on diagnosing the problem. The just shaped the ol “special Ed” label on you and sent you to special education classes. Where they thought you how to run a cash register and how to count change to prepare you for your future career as a fast food employee.
So I don’t even know the name of my disability. I think it’s dyslexia, but I’m not sure. I can tell you I mix up letters and numbers, but it’s much more than that. I pronounce silent letters, that is to say, if I see them I say them. I know not to say them if we I can say “salmon” just fine but if I’m reading out loud it’s going to be sal-mon” guaranteed. The weirdest thing I’ve experienced was a word breaking. Words just break for me. What that means is ill completely forget how a word is spelled. Simple words I’ve known forever. And it’s not that I forget how to spell them its that I’m mentally blocked from knowing. So if the word cat blocked for me I couldn’t think of the letters c a t, maybe k a t, ch a t, but not c a t. It’s infuriating.
For years I didn’t talk about my learning disability. I don’t like not being able to do something. I don’t like making excuses. I don’t like giving up. In short, I’m one stubborn bastard, and like too many I saw my disability as a weakness.
Spelling and grammar have always been a struggle for me, but in eighth grade, I did something remarkable. I taught myself math. Everyone assumed because I was “Special ed, ” that it meant I was stupid and in many cases, it meant I was lazy.
See my struggle in math was because I didn’t understand it. What they were busy teaching me repetition and procedure, and I had been taught so many procedures I was confused as what to do. They taught me the ‘what,’ but nobody taught me the ‘why.’ So one day I decide to figure it out. Starting with number one and then every concept after that. (I’m still doing it.)
Soon I couldn’t fail a math class and my parents pushed to get me in mainstream classes. I graduated high school an average student, but I graduated.
Like anyone with a disability. I’ve had challenges. Before computer applications, I couldn’t get a job unless someone filled out my applications. Computers were a great thing for me but I couldn’t get a computer job because of my spelling. I could write four thousand words in a single day but I was able to pass a typing exam.
I’ve spent my working career lifting heavy things because that was the work I could get. The exception to this was when I got my job working security. Which wasn’t really a brain-intensive job.
I told myself it didn’t matter. I had a dream and I was going to pursue it no matter what. See shortly after high school I got me an idea. I’d write a book, sell it and be rich. So I did, but a crazy thing happened when I did. I loved it! So much so I decided this was going to be my life’s ambition. To be a published author.
So I started writing my books and I started taking classes at a local public college. I’d save up and pay out of pocket, I wasn’t thinking of a degree, I just wanted the knowledge. Now I did okay there, my creative writing teacher loved me, and there was one algebra class in particular where my teacher took an interest in me. He saw my potential as a mathematician and pushed me hard. I left his class with a ‘B’ but I knew I had earned it.
Soon I found myself tempted by a private school who was offering a multimedia degree, and I thought that might be useful to me in my persist as a writer, but I quickly switched over to a degree in animation.
I’m going to take an aside here to give you a little insight into the kind of person you are dealing with. My first animation class was 3d modeling. This was just a basic class to teach us the workings of the animation program we were using. On the second day of class, I get an idea and I match into the classroom storyboard in hand and I tell my teacher I want to do this for my final project. We had only made one thing in the class and that was a couch. And he was like “are you sure?”
And I was like “yes!”
And he was like “okay.”
So every day after that I sat at my computer with two windows. One was the lesson, and the other was my final. I completed my final and ended the class with a big fat ‘A,’ In fact, I was riding high on a 4.0-grade average. Me the little special ed boy 4.0 in college I was so proud. That was me if I set my mind to it I went after it with everything I had.
But this created a dilemma, remember that B? I didn’t transfer my credits because it would ruin my GPA, but those English courses were coming and I knew they were going to be hard for me, but I wanted that 4.0 I was determined.
Well, the English 101 class came and I put myself through hell for that course. I would proofread and proofread and proofread. I stared at those words for hours. I stared at them till my eyes hurt and my head was pounding. Commanding myself, willing myself to see to just see the mistakes I knew were there.
Every time my papers came back there was a sea of red ink. I’d make the connection and still more red. It was heartbreaking it was soul-crushing. I never told anyone this but I hated myself for not being able to ace that class. I walked away with a C for my efforts, and I’m quite certain it was pity that got me that. My 4.0 washed down the drain gone forever.
I know what you’re thinking why didn’t you ask for help Mike? I did. I told the school about my disability I told my teacher I asked if there were any resources. Nope. My friends offered to help and friends are great, but at the end of the day being a proofreader for me is a full-time job, and friends they have their own lives. You feel bad constantly asking them to read stuff for you.
Not to mention the comments. The well-meaning, but hurtful stuff they say. Like “have you ever taken a basic English class?” or “have you proofread this?” or even “do you proofread?” I don’t tell them I won’t show any of my work unless I’ve proofread it at least five times.
There was a brief time I was considering a job teaching English in Japan. I decided it wasn’t going to get me closer to my goal. But the words of one friend stuck with me. “Mike, ” they said “you can’t even write basic English! How are you going to teach it?”
All the while there is this sense that you aren’t trying hard enough that you don’t care. That you want others to do it for you. Whether it’s really there or not its what you feel.
Moreover, I just don’t want to ask for help every goddam time I want to write. It’s annoying, it’s like asking permission. Please daddy, can I write something today?
What I’m saying is that just expecting someone with a learning disability to just get help from their friends is unrealistic.
You might think all this stuff would put me off writing, but no, I still love it and I want you to know I’m quite happy for what I achieved.
I have been writing for twenty years. I have written six books in my spare time and published two! I have written ten thousand words in a single night and all while being a husband and a father and living my life.
I clawed my way to the plate picked up the bat and took a swing. I failed spectacularly! Yes, I did, but I took my shot and that’s all I really wanted.
If I were alone I’d be quite content to drift off into obscurity to write my books that nobody buys and publish my blog that nobody reads.
There is one thing that bugs me. Did I fail because I suck or did I fail because of my disability? I don’t mind sucking if at the end of the day I suck, oh well but if people just dismiss me because of my spelling… That makes me angry.
See I’m not alone and my experiences are far from unique. Publishers have no guidelines for disabled writers. I can find no resources for adults with disability and it pisses me off. We have to do better.
There was a story about Einstein, perhaps you heard it? How he struggled at math when he was young. Of course, any two-bit history buff will tell you it’s not true.
That story was a great inspiration to me growing up, and it saddens me it’s not true, but it does make me wonder could I be that story?
Me the special ed kid who never got better than a c in English class a best. selling author? That would be a story.
So maybe I shouldn’t accept my fate quite so easily. Maybe there is a little girl out there who’s being told she can’t be an astronaut because she has dyslexia, maybe there’s a boy out there being told not to think about being president because he has autism.
Even my daughter who has ADD and has struggled in school because of it.
Maybe they need me to keep fighting.
So I’ve decided t stop hiding my disability, and put it in peoples face.
I’m going to fight for disabled access to the publishing community.
I’m going to fight for disabled access in our schools because I didn’t fail those classes, those classes failed me.
I am Michael J. Pennington: Disabled Author and I’m dammed proud of that fact.