Which Came First, the Gift or the Disability: Does Twice-Exceptional Mean Twice as Lucky or Just Twice Bitten?

Happy July, readers!

My, it has been a long time! Frankly, I haven’t felt much like writing lately, but I was starting to miss the blog, and I did promise to finish my series on children who are gifted, their education, and issues related to giftedness. If you recall, the first two posts concerned whether “gifted” could be treated as a disability, and if so, what to do about that, and the disturbing trend of students who are gifted being used as perpetual tutors or junior teachers.

The post that follows covers a new facet of gifted education: what it means to be “twice-exceptional.” Normally, I’d pull out a dictionary definition here, but I don’t think I need one. That’s because I know quite well what this term means. From kindergarten to high school graduation, I was the “twice-exceptional” student–highly gifted in reading and writing, but with cerebral palsy tagging along after me whenever I went to school. And if you think having a disability is tough out there in “the real world,” try juggling giftedness, too. It’s a bit like being a mom of twins–two equally precocious, demanding, unique twins who you can’t see yourself trading because they are who you are, but still manage to run you ragged more often than not.

I know what you might be thinking–so, the giftedness was the “good” twin and the disability was the “evil” twin? No. As much as we would like to change this, I am reminded every day that unlike in novels, there are rarely clear-cut “good” and “bad” characters in real life. We’re all created in God’s image, and God is absolutely, infinitely good. He cannot be anything else. But, we also have free will, and we also sin. We were all born with, if you will, the ultimate disability–the sin disease. And sin is evil. It hurts people and property. It is the brainchild of the one sent to steal, kill, and destroy. Now, does everyone sin all the time? Are they defined by sin? With a few notable exceptions–those who chose to use their free will for the worst kinds of evil–no. And is everyone defined by goodness? Are we good all the time? Absolutely not. What that means is, our traits can be good or bad as well. Society would like to say disability is always bad, giftedness is always good. One is a tragedy, the other, a rare blessing. But each can be both at the same time, their roles can switch, or they can mesh with each other.

Let’s get personal for a minute. I want to tell you a little about my own twice-exceptional experience. As I said, I was a child who was gifted at reading and writing from an early age, and was also considered mature for a little kid. I distinctly remember having an easier time talking to teachers, even in first or second grade, than other kids. I would rather have hung around the adults and gotten one-on-one attention than moped around a playground full of equipment I couldn’t use. And yet, I could not tie my shoes–in second grade. I wrote stories and poems–on a computer, because kindergartners’ handwriting was better than mine. I had to ask classmates for help opening my milk carton at snacktime. I’m sure my teachers wondered, what do we make of this kid? But at the time, I didn’t realize any of this came from either a gift or a disability. It just was what it was, and I didn’t know why teachers and classmates made such a big deal out of it, like when a second grade classmate accused, “You think we’re all your servants and you’re the queen.” (As a lifelong princess fan, I had to admit, that sounded good to me, particularly if that snotty kid was one of the maids).

There were times, of course, when my disability was a huge pain, and yet, helped me out more than I expected it to. I’ll give you an example of a time when my gift–the “good”–and my disability, the “bad”–twin, seemed to switch places. I was in about the fourth grade, and despite excelling when it came to books and stories and the like, my math grades were abysmal. You are reading the words of someone who regularly got grades like 24 or 13–yes, 13–on math tests. My parents saw no reason for this other than my hatred of math, so I would get lectured or disciplined for the grades. But they never really got better–until my elementary school’s gifted coordinator stepped in. She and my regular teacher finally seemed to realize there was a disconnect, that the question was not, “Why is she so stubborn about math?” but, “How is such a smart kid failing so badly?” The disconnect, we discovered, was due to a lack of depth perception and trouble with “busy” formulas and figures, not to mention columns I couldn’t line up. This was something everybody had missed, because I already wore glasses and had undergone three eye operations besides, so my vision looked about as good as it was gonna get. Except, of course, that CP hit my eyes harder than anyone realized. And if I hadn’t had CP, I probably would’ve ended up being defined by poor math skills–among other negatives–placed in “special” classes, and certainly not on the cusp of finishing a second graduate degree. There, the disability was the good guy. My giftedness was still a treasure, but because it made me look like, as my father said, “a fourth grade genius,” it masked the truth when I really needed help.

At times, twice-exceptionality was, as Monk would put it, a blessing AND a curse. For example, when I was in eighth grade, I wanted to travel. Specifically, I wanted to go to a writers’ camp at a university five hours away. Did I qualify to get in? Sure–otherwise, my teachers wouldn’t have sent me home with the brochures. Could I actually go? Not realistically, my parents said, because due to CP, I hadn’t mastered certain independent living skills yet. For example, I got minimal-to-moderate help with bathing until my early teens. My perceptual problems might have caused major trouble at an unfamiliar place so far away. So again–a treasured gift, coupled with a disability that ruined things I really wanted to do. (Could we have worked it out so I was able to do those things? Perhaps–but maybe we weren’t thinking of alternate possibilities at the time, they didn’t exist, or I wasn’t used to questioning the absolute, “Disability = NO.”)

And at times, twice-exceptionality is exactly what it sounds like–a meshing of gifts and disability. But too often, twice-exceptional students are treated as if “and” has been replaced with “or.” Their disabilities are served–often through “special” help–but they don’t receive enrichment opportunities. In fact, some twice-exceptional students are barred from gifted education programs because the school system erroneously believes their disabilities–often learning-related, though not always–preclude their doing the challenge-level work.

I did an entire research proposal on this issue last fall. Researchers such as Winefield, Nincpon, King, and others reported that twice-exceptional students often experience self-esteem problems. They feel confused–like I was confused–because on the one hand, they’re told they’re smart. But on the other, they’re painted into the “disability” box, and we all know by now what THAT can look like. They wonder which one, if either, is their true identity. And some twice-exceptional children, such as ones with ADD or ADHD, grow up to have a poor quality of life–as if their gifts never mattered at all.

Forgive me. I know a smart lady like me is supposed to “get it.” But I “get” this about as much as I did high school geometry, in which I made a 75–bless my long-suffering teacher’s heart. “Exceptional” is a word that’s supposed to mean “good.” No, more than good. It’s supposed to mean the best of the best–those whose personalities, selves, and souls sparkle just as much as the rest, but whose sparkle is unique enough to warrant a few closer looks. Chocolate cake is “good.” Chocolate cake with moist insides, thick, dark frosting, and an ice-cold glass of milk is “exceptional.”

So, we call these children–these people–twice-exceptional. This doesn’t mean they’re better than anyone else. Remember, I said all selves and souls sparkle. But it is supposed to mean that these people have something unique and wonderful that not everyone gets to experience. Yet, these individuals, just like individuals with only disabilities, are treated as people who have no positive side, only a negative one. Yet another group of people to feel bewildered about, shuttle into “special” places, and forget about as soon as possible. “Exceptional children”–a term we should use for ALL children–no longer means “wonderful kids.” It means, “the ‘special’ kids who need to be monitored, controlled, put on “plans,” and in general, just endured.”

That breaks my heart, and it makes me mad. That’s true for any child with a gift or a disability–I don’t think anyone deserves that kind of attitude. But for those who are twice-exceptional, well, let’s say it’s twice as personal.

Do any of you know a twice-exceptional adult or child? (Not counting me; I mean, in your personal lives). If yes, think of this. These people truly are exceptional, because they know something very few of us ever will. They know what it is to excel, and what it is to struggle, often with something that has no cure or “quick fix.” They know what it is to feel triumphant, and what it is to wonder, why was I chosen to have this disability? They know success and failure can be wrapped in the same package–and oh, boy, do they know the value of effort in spite of past failures. They can reach people on both sides of the “disability” fence in a way few others can.

That’s pretty exceptional, don’t you think?


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