"When you're learning to read and you're 29 years old, who do you share your triumph with?"
Dale Brown, director of the Association of Learning Disabled Adults, a self-help network for learning disabled adults, asks the question and knows the answer well. She has multiple learning disabilites herself, and says, "One problem with these handicaps is they're dealth with alone."
For learning disabled adults, achievements can be overwhelmed by a sense of alienation because their successes, as well as their handicaps, are often invisible to others.
The Association of Learning Disabled Adults was established, Brown said, primarily to provide the opportunity for learning disabled adults to come together for moral support and to assist each other in developing more efficient ways of dealing with their disabilities through discussion groups and recreational activities. The group also wants to educate the public about learning disabilities and enlist the aid of professionals.
Another goal fo the nonprofit group, which has grown to about 40 members here in the last four months, is to provide a work exchange, where learning disabled adults can share their skills in exchange for help with their disabilities.
The group is for people 18 years of age and older who are learning disabled, a term which has been applied to a variety of problems in acquiring, storing and/or retrieving information. These problems do not include those that are due primarily to visual, hearing or motor handicaps, to mental retardation, emotional disturbance or to environmental, cultural or economic disadvantage, according to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
When three members of the Association gathered recently, they talked freely about their disabilities and how they affect their lives.
"Awareness of the problem is the big thing," said Rockville resident Patrick Lee, a 21-year-old student at Montgomery County Community College who has dyslexia, an impairment of the ability to read. He reads on a fourth-grade level, he said, sometimes skipping whole lines or failing to see a particular letter in a word or words in a sentence.
Despite his disability; Lee said, his vocabulary and oral comprehension far exceed his reading ability, and he graduated from high school with a high C average.
Talking with other learning disabled adults "has given me a lot of self-satisfaction," Lee said. "We're saying, 'We're not losers. We're winners. We're just a little bit different.' We're just looking to be accepted as we are."
Not knowing that a learning disability exists can be a shattering experience, says Brown, a 24-year-old District resident who is an administrative assistant at the American Occupational Therapy Association.As a child, many things other youngsters could do were extremely difficult or impossible for her, she said. "I always knew" that something was out of the ordinary, she said, but she didn't know what it was.
"My head was always sort of drooped down and I walked funny," she said. At one time, it was very difficult for her to understand conversations over background noise. That has improved, she said, but she still tries to avoid potentially difficult hearing situations. She also had difficulty in motor planning, which means "It's hard for your brain to tell your body what to do," she explained.
Brown tried to make up for many things she couldn't do as a youngster by trying harder than others. To learn how to jump rope, she broke the skill down to its simplest parts. She began by laying a rope on the floor and just jumping from one side to the other.
After seven years of trying, she got a driver's license. Again, she had to break it down into a number of basic tasks. She would practice, "This is the accelerator. This is the brake. Over and over."
It was while she was in a work-study program in college that she discovered the nature of her problems.
"My productivity was about half that of my coworkers," she said, and she noticed that many of the mistakes she was making were hearing-related. But tests showed that her hearing was all right.
Then she came across a list of qualities of brain injured children, she says, and recognized herself in most of them. "It changed my life, she recalls. "I started to like myself. What I thought was neurotic was really coping with a real handicap."
It was this experience that led her to organize the local Association of Learning Disabled Adults, originally a part of a self-help group, Time Out to Enjoy, which has its headquarters in Chicago. "I really want to give someone else this same experience," she said.
Silver Spring resident Gale Bell, 33, a fine arts graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, tells of a similar experience.She was reading on a second-grade level in the seventh grade and did "very poorly" in school. "It was hell," she said.
"I thought something was wrong. I thought I was different from everybody else - stupid, not human. Everything I was good at," like art and sewing, "was considered a hobby."
She said part of her disability is that "I process too slowly what I see and hear." She has a hard time with directions, has trouble taking down numbers in the proper order and sometimes starts a word in the middle of the word. When she reads, letters and middles of words appear and disappear, she said. She also has a hard time going up and down stairs. "I'm seeing one thing, but my brain is back a few seconds."
"It wasn't until I saw a campaign on TV on dyslexia" and read about learning disabilities, Bell said, that she began to understand her problem, "began feeling really better about myself."
Now she sees the group as "someplace to go and talk, be accepted for the way I am, have examples to look up to." She also hopes to "educate people so they can accept people - not make them hide or be ashamed."
For information on the Association's meetings and recreational activities in the metropolitan area, call 762-2338 or 593-1035.