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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Seeing Clearly - A Lesson in Empathy

For years I’ve asked participants in the Special Learning Needs training to imagine something that is difficult for them, something they have struggled with for years. Now imagine people you respect saying to “just try harder” to overcome this struggle. Just try harder to overcome this obstacle.

This was my attempt, as a trainer, to gain empathy for someone who struggles with a learning disability. People have told me this was a helpful exercise. It’s eye-opening. For my struggle, I’ve always imagined directionality. I’m not sure why, but that part of my brain absolutely didn’t develop. My best coping strategy before GPS was going the opposite direction of where my brain told me to go. The other way was most likely the right way.

Last week I had an experience that was more raw, more real for me. This is my new frame of reference.

For about 15 years I have considered LASIK surgery to correct my very nearsighted eyes. I’m not sure what it is like to wake up in the morning and be able to see. Since the first week of school in 1st grade, when I had my initial vision screening, I knew I couldn’t see very well. I knew this because a nice woman at school told me I failed the vision test. Before being told, I didn’t know that other people saw clearer than me. I just thought everyone’s world was fuzzy. My accommodation for 46 years has been glasses or contacts. I am very fortunate that this particular challenge in my life has a very nice, fairly easy answer. I can play on a level playing field with better sighted folks because I have special lenses. Being so nearsighted does have its challenges and especially as I age, I thought maybe there was a better answer for me, maybe I could find a better accommodation.

LASIK screening happened for me last week after talking about it with my local optometrist for eight years (that’s right – I just thought about it by myself for seven years – talked about it locally for eight more – then I made a decision to do something – please don’t judge – it does give a window on my world). Off to LASIK land I went for a series of testing. No worries, I’m very good at testing. I have always approached tests with confidence.

After some initial measurements of my eyes, I was placed in an exam room sitting without my glasses. My blurred world was not alarming to me. To be able to see, all I needed to do was reach over and pick up my accommodation – my glasses. The optometrist walked in and even in my haze I thought “I think he is pretty young.” Yes, as he came closer and I could actually see his face – that would be within a foot of me – I confirmed that I could definitely be his mother. When did they start letting doctors be so young?

We jumped right in and it was a short time before I was asked to read the smallest line in front of me. Now just to clarify, I had some strong refraction helping me in the large, very attractive accumulation of lenses they like to play with at the eye doc’s office. You know, “which is clearer, one or two, two or three,” and so on until they start over before actually moving into double digits. I’ve always wondered why they don’t just keep going. Are the larger numbers too hard to keep track of? So, again to clarify, I can’t see the largest “E” without major help.

So I read the top line (largest) to answer the request for smallest line I can see. I sensed this was not what he had hoped I would do. He asked me to try the line below. I struggled but must have guessed correctly because he rewarded my efforts by assigning yet another, smaller row for me to read.

“I would just be guessing.” I told the young doc. Now I stress the young part not because I thought in any way he was incapable. He certainly seemed like he knew what he was doing. I’ve been to many eye appointments in my day so I feel I am competent to judge qualifications. I stress the young part only to illustrate that pretty early on I felt he might be feeling sorry for the “the old gal.” This only served to magnify what I was fully knowledgeable of but just now focusing on (pun intended) for the first time – I was failing!!

I tried to guess, only because I am a people-pleaser. I squinted my eyes, strained my brain, tried with every fiber of myself. Yes, I tried harder. A little voice of reason told me I was not being rational, but my desire to please the young guy, my desire to succeed overrode the little voice. We plowed ahead.
Five separate times I was asked to “try harder”, and five separate times I tried as hard as I could. Silly, I know, I can try harder, but my vision is my vision. It’s not about effort.

I felt lousy. I don’t even have adjectives to describe my feelings. He told me good try. He was a wonderful supporter. He tried hard too. He tried everything he had in his optometrist play book. But I knew I was failing. I felt it in the air. I heard it in the tone of his voice.

An older, supposedly more experienced doctor came in later. Yes, I have entered the phase of life when I assume older is better. I believe this is called being middle aged. Oh well. Anyway, he broke the news to me. I am not a candidate for LASIK. I wouldn’t have the desired results.

We talked for a few minutes about all the reasons that is my reality. He patiently answered all of my questions. We were both professional and composed. Even though the very fiber of my being yelled, “This is not fair! How did I fail? I tried my hardest!”

I truly was bummed. I had allowed myself to dream of seeing without extra lenses. As I drove home (think Mr. Magoo), I processed what happened to me. I am blessed, I can reach over and put on accommodation and the world comes into focus for me. But for a few minutes last week, I felt the pain of trying my hardest and failing. That pit in my gut when I realized my best is not good enough. Yes, I’ve been picked last numerous times for the kickball teams back in the day, but most of my experiences have been about trying hard and succeeding. This time it didn’t matter how hard I tried.

One of the many things I love teaching teachers about special learning needs, is that I feel I help them to think differently about approaching their students. It’s not about trying harder; it’s about trying differently. My story illustrates that very point. I could keep squinting and trying harder or I can go about seeing in a different way. The latter has proven successful. The former just makes me feel lousy.

Asking someone to try in conventional ways when their brain is not wired to process conventionally is the same silliness as asking me to see clearly when my eyes are not shaped to see 20/20. We both need accommodations to succeed.
To all you fabulous teachers out there, thanks for helping your students to learn differently. Thanks for giving them the pathway to success. Thanks for helping them SEE!

For anyone wanting more information about helping your students, please email me at sgoldam@siue.edu for many options including free, online training we have available through the Southern Illinois Professional Development Center.

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