on being “special”

It’s curious that the word “special” has become such a loaded insult. We live in a world where diversity is appreciated, more than ever, but we still seem to think that there’s only one sort of intelligence. It’s a shame!

At first glance, most people who meet me would never suspect that I have a learning disability. I’m clearly very intelligent, academically successful, and lead an extremely independent life. If they find out, they say things I’ve heard a million times: “wow, I never would have guessed, you seem so normal”, or worse, “that’s not true, you’re too smart to be special”.

I always tell them that I am special. “But not like that,” they sometimes try. “You’re unique but you’re not…” Stupid? Untalented? Someone they’d immediately dismiss as not worth their time? No, I’m not, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disabled- it means that they’ve been terrible to other disabled people.

At school I fell into the category of students most likely to make teachers’ lives hell: the “twice-exceptional” children, exceptionally bright, but exceptionally “different”. Many, like me, were good enough at school that our disabilities fell through the cracks; others were immediately pathologized as “problem students” and languished in “trouble” or special-ed classes which were more focused on making them behave than teaching them anything. In both cases, we missed out on reaching our full potential because educational systems would rather we comply than recognize our differences and help us succeed.

School’s a lot like life, in that sense. In my book, I’m “disabled” the same way that Bluetooth might be disabled on your phone – society reckons we’ve got something missing from the way people “should” be, all the functions it thinks people should do in the specific ways it likes them done. We’re meant to grow up in a linear fashion, on a factory line: you learn to tie your shoes before you learn to write in iambic pentameter, if you ever learn the latter at all. I infuriated primary school teachers because I wrote my first sonnet years before I stopped struggling with shoelaces. Other friends skipped high school altogether and nevertheless ended up with any number of accomplishments we’d usually associate with people who are “normal” in the way that means “good at school”, up to and including honorary postgraduate degrees. It baffles me that the same people who praise me for being “so unique” shut down altogether if I even suggest that that uniqueness might include a disability, because to them, disabled people are people who are missing something which allows them to live normally, and I’ve led a more than full life.

Among other teenage escapades, I spent a lot of time working with artificial intelligences. Even in machine learning, things don’t always go the way we expect them to. It baffles me that when we still haven’t worked out how to replicate a human brain or indeed how it even works, we expect more regularity out of the great diversity of human existence than we do out of AIs! We design AIs for specific purposes, train them into specific kinds of intelligences so that they do well at what they do. We don’t expect them to be all-rounders, and we shouldn’t expect the same of people.

I’m very open about having ADHD. It’s a dis-ability, in that I don’t have the ability to focus on one thing or regulate my thoughts or impulses like someone who isn’t attention-deficit. But it doesn’t just mean I’m missing things – it’s given me a wide range of other skills, experiences, and abilities which someone who isn’t attention-deficit might not have! The energy, curiosity, adaptability and lack of social and sexual inhibition that make me a remarkable escort are all things I credit to the way I’m wired. Because my brain is so speedy but so bad at retaining information, I read and type much faster than most of my peers; because of the spontaneity my lack of impulse control has lent to my entire life, I’m much better at taking big life changes in my stride and making snap decisions when I have to; because I’ve always had a reputation for being “weird” and “abnormal”, I’ve had to develop a robust self-esteem that doesn’t depend on what others think of me.

Having a learning disability means living in a world that’s not designed for people like you to thrive. For many, other people’s assumptions that they’re “special” in a way that means “useless” hit them so hard or so early that they never get to experience life in all its fullness, and I think that’s a fucking tragedy. I was lucky enough to have enough formative influences who didn’t see me that way, and who encouraged me forward toward success. I wish everyone like me had the same opportunity.

It’s not impossible. Being successful as a person with an attention deficit requires significantly more organizational skill and self-discipline, sure, but it also requires significantly less labouring over having new and innovative ideas.

As a sex work mentor once told me, “Hey, one of the toughest parts of this gig is working out what sets you apart from everyone else, what makes you special. You already know.”

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