On Oct. 21, Services for Students with Disabilities held its first event for students with non-apparent disabilities. The event was the premier of the film Speaking Our Truths: Surfacing the Stories of Non-Apparent Disabilities, which follows the lives of several people who have struggled to receive an education with a non-apparent disability.
The film opened with a quote from the filmmaker himself – Ben Foss: “For most people, poetry is like music, but not for me, because I am dyslexic. Even though I love words, trying to read poetry is like listening to music with only half of the notes.”
Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyper Disorder (ADHD) are the two most common learning disorders. There are over 20 million people in the U.S. with one or more of these disabilities. The film showed that, besides the issue of dealing with the disorder itself, students have also had to deal with disbelief, stigma, and the issues of “passing.”
Jess Miller, the director of SSD, said, “I have been working as the director of Services for Students with Disabilities at Mills for three years now and an overwhelming number of the students that I serve have non-apparent disabilities.” She continued, “I know how hard the students work, and I know that it tends to be very private. Students with learning disabilities tend to be out there alone.”
This is the first time that SSD has held an event for non-apparent disabilities, but according to Miller, students can look forward to more in the future. She said, “I want to make our campus aware of how many students with disabilities we have, that you wouldn’t know just by looking at them.”
Foss joined the Mills community for this presentation of his film and discussion about non-apparent disabilities. He is the president of Headstrong, the non-profit organization he founded in 2003 to support people with learning disabilities, primarily through online community and by providing useful resources. The mission statement, according to their website, is “to give people with dyslexia access to hope and success.”
Foss hopes to motivate a movement for people with non-apparent disabilities to raise awareness and make assistance more available. According to Foss, people with non-apparent disabilities are largely unrepresented in the existing disability rights movement.
After the film, a panel including two Mills students also spoke with the audience about life with their hidden disabilities and how they are succeeding.
Junior Alisa Rodriguez said, “I have only known that I have ADHD in the past two-three years. I have been in sales for a long time, because if there is one thing I can do, it is perform under pressure. And I really excelled in sales. But I could never finish anything. I have literally been working toward a college degree since I graduated high school; I am still working at it and I am 40-something.”
Graduate student Christina Rosetti, at Berkeley, said, “I am dyslexic and I have ADHD. Not a good combination! I didn’t learn how to read until age nine. I think the most important thing is just knowing what accommodations you need and how to get them.” Also, “It’s important to understand that it is always going to be hard. At every level, there are new difficulties. It is very important to know the organizational structure of whatever institution you are a part of, so that you can get the most help. And realize that learning disabilities have an effect on everyday life.”
Foss concluded, “The most important thing is learning to speak about it and to be comfortable with it. I encourage everyone to get identified. I like the word identified, not diagnosed. I don’t have a disease, just like I am not diagnosed black, and I am not diagnosed a woman. This is something that I am.”