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Living with Learning Differences


Dana Buchman is a celebrated American fashion designer. Her line of women's clothing can be found in major department stores around the country. Now, Ms. Buchman is in the headlines, not because of her spring collection, but because of her new book, A Special Education: One Family's Journey Through the Maze of Learning Disabilities, revealing her difficult and transformative acceptance of her older daughter's serious learning disabilities.

Twenty years ago, designer Dana Buchman seemed to have it all. She was married to a high-powered attorney, had launched her own clothing label and had her first child, a daughter, Charlotte. "The next turning point came when we realized that Charlotte -- something was going on with her," she says. "We had her diagnosed and we were told it was learning differences."

In addition to difficulty understanding written words, 4-year-old Charlotte had trouble counting. She couldn't tell a story, moved awkwardly and had absolutely no sense of direction. Her mother feared those symptoms would affect not only her schoolwork, but her ability to function in the real world as well. "I burst into tears and thought it was the end of the world," she says.

But it wasn't. It was just the beginning of the journey she would take to help her daughter. "What I did was just throw my whole self into it," she says. "It was almost like having another job, taking Charlotte to experts, trying to talk to the teachers at the school, trying to learn about her particular type of learning differences and see what she needed."

As she toured the country to promote her fashions, Dana Buchman met other parents trying to deal with their children's learning disabilities, and realized she had to share her family's story. The result was A Special Education. "I decided to write the book when Charlotte was a senior in high school," she says. "I realized it was sort of the end of the journey. She was grown up and going off into the world. And I realized how different she came out than I thought she would be when she was diagnosed with learning disabilities. And more, I realized how different I was."

Buchman says her daughter's learning differences have transformed her.

"I had been brought up to think I should try my very best at everything. I was an A student. I sat in the front row in the class. This is how one should be!" she says. "Watching Charlotte struggle with things, showing her weaknesses and vulnerabilities to the world - you know she was constantly battling with LD popping up and embarrassing her, frustrating her - it really changed me. I feel like I've become more human. I've learned to acknowledge weaknesses, everything does not have to be perfect. I realized that it can make life richer in a way."

Although the 'battle' with learning disabilities continues for Charlotte, there have been victories. Last summer, she graduated from high school. She's now in college in New England. And she says she's learned how to accept herself and deal with challenges. "I'll never get over my learning differences, but I can always work with it," she says. "It pops up everyday, but I laugh at it almost all the time."

One of the challenges Charlotte learned to handle is dealing with her younger sister, Annie. "It's supposed to be that the older sister always helps the younger sister," she says. "And I've always felt that I was never able to do that. The challenge was seeing my sister would be able to go skiing or play the piano really well while I had to take my time and be slower or seeing that she'd be doing calculus and I'd be doing elementary school math. You know it's hard to see your younger sister succeed, while you are staying in the same place. But she has always been there when I didn't understand something, to step in and support me. She's definitely has been the greatest sister I could ever have. I wouldn't want anything better."

Charlotte says she hopes her story will change the way people with learning disabilities look at themselves and how they are treated by others. "Everyone is unique in their own way. I wish kids would see that," she says. "I remember this teacher one time, I wasn't understanding the whole math concept of grouping numbers like 2 times 2 and he said to me, 'You are not learning. You're not trying.' And I said, 'I'm trying!' It was just the process that they were teaching me wasn't working. Sometimes, teachers don't realize that they have got to be careful with what they say. Or like saying, 'This is such baby math.' This is insulting to a kid."

Charlotte hasn't chosen her major in college yet, but says she just wants to do what she likes and help others… inspired by the hard work her family has done to help her live a full life.

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