A Designing Mind: Turning ‘Disability’ into Asset

My year-two teacher is remembered in my family for telling mum and dad I would never read.
Despite this definitive diagnosis nearly four decades ago, this year I earned a PhD in education. But I did not pursue this degree because I loved school. I did it because I hated school.
Primary schooling was completely and utterly miserable for me. Nearly every teacher singled me out for scorn not because I was naughty, but because I could not learn from the ways they were teaching. I was sent to the reading tutor. I was sent to the speech therapist. I was sent to the child psychologist. If not for sport and art, I would surely have been sent to the principal’s office.
As a rubbish learner, I took refuge in those things I could do well. My artwork was included in shows, it won awards, and I sold limited edition prints at the age of 17. Sport treated me even better. I captained the football (gridiron), wrestling, and Lacrosse teams in high school, and played all three on the NCAA level in university.
At about 15 years of age I figured out that ‘success’ in academics was not about learning, but about getting good marks. Getting good marks in class was like scoring goals in sport. I developed the attitude that school was a game, and slowly but surely I learned how to play it. While I always played by the rules during physical competitions, I’m afraid I cannot say the same about academics.
A combination of creative problem solving (aka cheating), art, and sport eventually earned me a place at one of the most prestigious universities in America. It was not until my first year at uni that I willingly and eagerly engaged in learning. I remember the first day of class, sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other students. I took out my notebook and wrote on the cover:
Enviormental Studies 101
I girl sitting behind me tapped my shoulder and said, “It’s spelled e-n-v-i-r-o-n-m-e-n-t-a-l.”
Despite my embarrassment that day, the environment and its protection has guided my life ever since. I chalk this up to a number of reasons: 1) as a child, I took refuge from school in nature (along with art and sport) and developed deep bonds with the streams, lakes, and forests of my home range; 2) I was deeply moved by what I learned in ES 101 and subsequent courses on an emotional level; and, 3) for the first time in my life I was able to engage a subject of study that functions like my brain. In other words, ‘the environment’ and my brain thrive on interconnectedness.
Up to that point, all of my schooling was about reducing information into small bits to be memorized and presented back to the teacher in pre-determined ways. As Laughton King – who presented three fabulous programmes in Whanganui in early September – would say, I was a diesel brain in a petrol school. And we all know what happens when you put petrol in a diesel engine.
Laughton brought his fresh perspective to our city and helped me re-appreciate that my biggest liability as a child has become my biggest asset as an adult. That is, my brain’s natural tendencies to seek out interconnectedness, recognize feedback loops, and visualize slow change over time.
What was once labeled a learning disability now provides me with the ability to engage with the eco-design process as if it were completely natural, which, after all, it is! Ecology is, by definition, the study of the living and non-living components of a system and the interactions between them. While the discovery of ecology did not save my life, it has provided direction, meaning, and a career, because lord knows I was never big enough to play professional gridiron!