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Living with cerebral palsy (CP) is not easy, even if one has a mild variant of the neuromuscular disability. There are many challenges – physical, emotional, financial, and social – to overcome, and those of us who have CP has to deal with them as best we can.
I have, in other entries of this blog, already written about what it was like for me to grow up as a physically disabled child and adolescent in the last decades of the 20th Century. If you’re a regular reader of this Cerebral Palsy Guidance feature, you know that although I consider myself lucky that my CP is not severe, it wasn’t easy growing up with a disability.
Now, I’m not saying that my life is a 20th and 21st Century Dickensian tale full of tragedy and adversity. I’ve had a relatively good run over the past half century, with the normal mix of triumphs and failures that make up the average middle class American’s life. I have lived, studied, and worked in three different countries (the U.S., Colombia, and Spain).
I’ve written for various online publications, including the now-closed Yahoo Voices, Examiner, and Epinions. I’ve had a couple of successful and happy romantic relationships. I even learned how to take care of my late mother during the last five years of her life.
Now, of course, the physical manifestations of cerebral palsy (the involuntary twitches, the sometimes-painful muscle spasms, and my propensity to sometimes drop things or stumble for no good reason) have caused me grief. No doubt about it. They make me feel self-conscious and often lower my self-esteem. (It’s even more depressing when people comment about my CP, either out of malice or frustration.)
The biggest source of frustration in my life, however, isn’t what I can’t do because I’m not physically capable. I long ago came to terms that I wasn’t going to join the military or be as graceful on the dance floor as Fred Astaire or John Travolta. My particular bete noir, folks, is that I have a learning disability.
Specifically, I have a painfully hard time with mathematics.
I’m not an expert on learning disabilities, mind you, nor am I fully versed in all aspects of CP. I do know, however, that many – not all – individuals with cerebral palsy also suffer from cognitive issues that impair their ability to learn. CP, after all, isn’t a disease caused by a virus or bacterium; it’s an acquired condition that occurs shortly before, during, and after birth, usually as a result of a brain injury. It is logical to assume that the damage from such an injury is not limited to the motor control section of the brain; collateral damage to other parts of the central nervous system is also likely, especially in cases where a baby is deprived of oxygen, is premature, or severely underweight.
Although I have never been diagnosed by an educational psychologist (or, if I have, I don’t remember), I believe I have a cognitive disorder known as dyscalculia. According to Dyscalculia.org, “dyscalculia is defined as a failure to achieve in mathematics commensurate with chronological age, normal intelligence, and adequate instruction.”
I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, totally innumerate. I can understand the basics of arithmetic well enough. I can add, subtract, multiply, and divide whole numbers. I understand fractions, percentages, and decimals. I know just enough math to balance a checkbook, know when bargains are good for shopping, and even understand that temperatures below zero represent negative numbers. In short, I have enough math skills to survive outside the intellectual rigors of academia.
I have to admit, though, that acquiring even this basic understanding of mathematics was a titanic struggle that caused me much heartache. How titanic was this fight to understand math?
-It took me two complete school years to grasp multiplication. Yes, folks. From the beginning of third grade all the way to the end of fifth, I grappled with the times tables.
-Division was only a bit less difficult; it “only” took me one academic year to grasp it because division is “multiplication in reverse.”
-I grasped the notion of “negative numbers” to some degree, but I can’t work with them without the aid of a calculator
-I never understood algebra, factoring, real and unreal numbers. If you ask me to solve for x in a simple algebraic equation, I’d probably short-circuit.
When I was in high school and during my long stint in Miami-Dade Community College (now Miami-Dade College) as a journalism major back in the ‘80s, I tried everything. Tutors, extra time after school with my algebra teacher, remedial math courses at the college level. Nothing worked, and after I flunked remedial math with a grade of NP (did not pass), I reluctantly gave up and dropped out of college.
I don’t like dwelling on it, but for me, the decision to drop out of Miami-Dade was the most painful I’ve ever had to make. I wanted so badly to get my degree in journalism back then. I’d climbed up the ranks of the campus paper’s staff (from reporter to managing editor) from September of 1985 to December of 1989.
I earned an honors study program scholarship during my freshman year. I’m listed in the 1986-1987 edition of The National Dean’s List, which is like a Who’s Who book of America’s best college students. I was even my college paper’s first foreign correspondent; I submitted a series of articles that I wrote while I participated in the College Consortium for International Studies’ Semester in Spain program during the Fall 1988 semester.
I hated dropping out of college. To this day, the fact that I can’t earn a college degree because I can’t grasp one subject – math – leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s the worst aspect of being one of the many persons who have suffered brain injuries. I came to accept the physical limitations on my life imposed by my disability long ago. But to have come so far in my training as a journalist only to have to drop out of college – that’s the real tragedy.