Twice Exceptional - An Interview
In Gifted Education, twice exceptional (also “2e”) is the term used for those individuals who have dual (or even multiple) exceptionalities. They are both gifted “and” – such as gifted and learning disabled, gifted and bipolar, gifted and physically disabled, gifted and ADHD, etc. This dichotomy of polar exceptionalities can be incredibly frustrating for the individual (and their families and teachers), somewhat akin to being the rope in a tug-of-war – being pulled in one direction by their gifts and talents and the intense desire to pursue them, while also being pulled in another direction by some sort of physical, intellectual, psychological, or emotional challenge that can complicate (or even get in the way of) their ability to develop and fulfill their giftedness.
I have a dear friend who is twice exceptional. We were both members of our university’s Honors Program and have known each other for about 15 years or so. Back then I saw her as a brilliant person with a sunshine personality. The fact that she had physical limitations was apparent, but I simply accepted that as a part of her and then looked beyond it to her great talents and fun qualities. But in the last decade(-ish) as I have learned about twice exceptionalities, I’ve come to realize that her physical disability has just as much influence on her life and who she is as her amazing intellectual gifts do. She is currently working on a PhD in Disability Studies (DS). With my perspective of twice exceptional coming from a gifted education angle, and hers coming from both personal experience and a disability studies perspective, we have had some interesting conversations over the years about the twice exceptional.
Given that she has such a unique perspective, I asked her if she’d be willing to be interviewed on the topic of twice exceptional and share with all of you some of her experience of what it’s like, along with some of her insights from the disability studies angle. She is choosing to remain anonymous, but I can tell you that she grew up in a small Montana town, was a part of her school’s gifted program, took all of the less-than-a-handful of AP classes that her high school offered, and pursued many out-of-school intellectual opportunities as well because she had such a craving for intellectual stimulation (reading, private Spanish lessons, reading some more, memorizing poems, reading, going on an exchange to Italy, and still more reading).
So, for your ponderment, here are some thoughts from someone who has been there. Everything in italics is her own words. As you read her responses, consider how her overarching messages also apply to gifted individuals whose 2e dual exceptionality is something other than a physical disability.
Describe your twice exceptionalities, the “Gifted and…”
Anon: After spending a year in Italy as a high school exchange student, I graduated co-valedictorian of my class and went on to finish my B.S. in Sociology at a Montana university on a full academic scholarship. I’ve done graduate work in ESL (English as a Second Language), Composition, and Literature; I’m hoping to finish my PhD in Literature and Disability Studies in the next five years.
I always seemed more interested in learning than the majority of my classmates, especially before attending college. School wasn’t much of a challenge for me. I excelled in languages and have lived in Japan as an ESL teacher. The one factor that always seemed to be in my way was exhaustion.
I usually don’t discuss my medical history with normates (people without disability), since the average person seldom has their medical privacy breached by strangers--while people with disabilities, especially those with visible physical disabilities, have their privacy breached on a regular basis. However, imagine you’ve already shared with me some aspect of your medical past, in which case I would comfortably share that I have a mild form of cerebral palsy. This causes muscle tension, fatigue, low tolerance for exercise, and a range of more difficult physical issues. To the average observer, it seems I just walk with an uneven gait; however, the physical challenges I face are much more involved.
As a child/teenager, what were the challenges you faced as a student who was twice exceptional?
Anon: I always wanted to do so much more than I physically could do. The main struggle, I think, was trying to “pass,” trying to act like I was a normate and could accomplish everything I saw my peers doing. Instead of using my limited energy for some task which suited my gifts, I would tire myself just keeping up with normates—finishing the same P.E. exercises in grade school, etc. Mediocre performances like this only wasted my mental capacity since I usually finished too tired to think. It was a combination of stubbornness and the implicit sense of shame I gleaned from others’ constant stares and toxic pity. Since I had no other lens through which to view myself until I really started reading works by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and other Disability Studies scholars, this incessant urge to “pass” really didn’t recede until my late twenties.
As a gifted student, I was often bored. I think that’s why I went to Italy at the age of 16—it was a challenge, and I needed a challenge. Also, growing up in a small Montana town was very isolating for me because I was the only visibly physically challenged student and one of the few who cared about learning. I had nobody to talk to; I used to talk with adults because at least they could provide stimulating conversation. In college, I met kindred spirits in the Honors Program, but I didn’t meet other intellectuals with disabilities until later graduate work. Having a community of like minds and bodies has been such a relief, and I wish that had been accessible to me during those tough growing up years.
(Tamara): In our follow-up conversation, she talked about how being around other twice exceptional individuals felt like home to her. Being a part of our university’s Honors Program was wonderfully stimulating and it provided her with what she felt was finally an intellectual peer group, but it wasn’t the only “right fit” she needed. The always-available stimulating conversations were a breath of fresh air to her mind, but the intensity of all those gifted individuals was physically exhausting for her. It was later, finding and being around other twice exceptional people, that created that “ahh, home” feeling for her. And she had to wait until her mid-twenties to find that. Our gifted youngsters often have enough struggle just finding intellectual peers. Double that struggle for a twice exceptional kid. If there is a twice exceptional child in your life, what can you do to help him or her find not only intellectual peers, but most importantly twice exceptional peers?
As an adult, what are the challenges you face as a person who is twice exceptional?
Anon: I still can’t quite find the balance between rest and work. If I overshoot the mark and take on too much, I can be ill for several weeks. However, if I become too concerned with resting, I cut myself off from opportunities I might really enjoy. My energy is a rare and valuable resource, and I still haven’t learned how to spend it correctly. Many folks have this same struggle, but the consequences I face if I get it wrong are more severe and longer lasting than normates might experience.
Medical and academic hoop jumping also drains energy I could use for more productive tasks. In order to access the services and accommodations that would level the playing field for me, the forms, signatures, waiting periods, fees, and other paperwork often form a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. There is no established path through a PhD that recognizes the physically different body, no alternate track or timeline. One must be individually created, which can take herculean effort. The ADA opens the door for me to pursue careers similar to my gifted classmates, but that doorway is often stuffed shut with paperwork.
What benefits or blessings have come in your life due to being a twice exceptional person?
Anon: The capable often have such a hard time accepting that the body changes. Entropy is working on all of us and eventually our capacities will diminish. Rather than feeling depressed or worthless in the face of physical changes, I accept them as a normal part of life. I’m also better prepared for injury, such as a broken leg, since I make sure my environment is as accessible as possible. I’m surprised that so few homes are built with minimal accessibility even today (wide doorframes, one ramped entrance, main floor bathrooms that accommodate wheelchair users, and at least one main floor sleeping area). These elements are something I notice and plan for. Then, when injury happens to myself or my family, we’re already prepared.
I also love the fact that others open up to me about the struggles and difficulties in their lives, even if they aren’t people with disabilities. Perhaps others realize that I have experience with struggles and will not reject or ignore them for their perceived weaknesses. I’m honored by how many personal details relative strangers are willing to confidentially share with me. All people are imperfect, all people need others—these facts are perhaps much easier for me to accept.
You are working on a PhD in Disability Studies. Tell a little bit about that and what drew you to that field.
Anon: I’ve always been searching for an alternate paradigm to the normate worldview that people with disabilities are “not,” less, “dis,” or lacking – we have not yet developed a semantics for describing ourselves that does not somehow agree that we are less. However, since I first picked up Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies, I’ve been hooked on the books and journal articles of DS scholars. From the historical work of Paul Longmore to more autobiographical works by Georgina Kleege and Nancy Mairs, and finally some theoretical introduction by Simi Linton (Claiming Disability is a great introductory text for someone just getting to know DS) and more involved theoretical works by Lennard Davis, these books redefine the way I see myself in the world. My goal is to add to the conversation with writing of my own.
What emphasis, if any, do you see on strengths in the Disability Studies field?
Anon: Reading DS texts leaves me feeling empowered; I no longer feel as if I am at the mercy of others to define me, rather myself and members of my community are coming together to define ourselves. We are writing books, taking interviews, staging protests, working to pass laws, teaching classes, and working toward changing the cultural perception that we are less than normates. In fact, the idea of normal is a fantasy oppressive to people with and without disabilities (sometimes termed the “temporarily able bodied”). Though the Deaf community does not largely identify as disabled, I was encouraged to see Gallaudet students protesting first for a Deaf President, and more recently for a Deaf President who better represented their desire to protect the culturally Deaf history and future of Gallaudet. I’m proud to identify as a person with disability, and this is a complete change from the view of myself I had in childhood. I confront ableism head on now, instead of taking on that “cloak of ugliness” Toni Morrison speaks of in The Bluest Eye. Morrison used this image to portray how racism is first offered and then received like a cloak. The image also works for prejudiced and stereotypical attitudes toward people with disabilities. I don’t put that cloak on anymore, and I hope to work toward helping others refuse it as well.
(Tamara): When it comes to twice exceptionalities, gifted education tends to take the focus of a strengths model, i.e. focusing on the person’s talents and assisting in development of their gifts. What unfortunately happens so often in schools for our twice exceptional students is a deficit model of focusing on assisting the disability (whatever type it might be) almost to the exclusion or neglect of the gift. (Or, the twice exceptional are only recognized as one or the other – either the giftedness or the disability gets missed and goes uncovered.) Imagine if my friend had been forced to go to P.E. for three hours each day for intensive work in her area of disability. She would’ve had nothing left in her to pursue her talents in her advanced classes. I’m certainly not saying don’t provide assistance and therapy for the disability (that should happen), but the message of gifted education is that 2e students are gifted, too. A child who is learning disabled in one area and gifted in another will need services for both exceptionalities. Each of us – gifted education, special education, parents, regular classroom teachers – can help the child tackle a different piece of his or her puzzle.
What advice or insights can you provide to people who aren’t twice exceptional that might help them understand what it’s like to be a person who is?
Anon: If you don’t have close friends with disabilities with whom you can discuss their experiences as equals (meaning you are open about your experiences as well), try finding some. We’re everywhere.
Think about events planned for gifted students. Are they accessible to folks with disabilities?
What about semantics? Does that 80’s term “lame” creep into your vocabulary? Do you overuse words like blind and deaf in exclusively negative ways? We know better than to use “woman” or “Norwegian” in only negative ways, but somehow it seems natural with terms related to disability.
(Tamara): And I would add – How much collaboration do we have in our schools between gifted education and special education? Are we open to the reality that an individual child can be both gifted and ______? How well do we allow and encourage a 2e student to pursue and develop his or her gifts? What can we do to level the playing field for 2e students so that they can pursue their talents with the same level of access as their 1e gifted peers?
What advice do you have for twice exceptional children and their parents and teachers?
Anon: Find twice exceptional peers; look high and low until you find them. The comfort of friendships with those who understand our experiences in body and mind cannot be replaced.
Read DS books. Younger folks can start with autobiographies, but keep reading through the histories, literary studies, and theoretical texts. Find one book you like, then start reading the books that author cites. Even if you can’t travel to others like you, if they exist on your bookshelf, then they are with you, in a way.
Read if you are twice exceptional, and read if you teach or parent someone who is. Try not to emphasize the supercrip overcomer biographies, also read books by those who are challenging the social order, the idea that being a normate is somehow inherently superior.
Make individual efforts to increase accessibility in your home, your school, and your community. Accessible architecture (T: and lesson plans!) works alongside changed attitudes to create an atmosphere where people of all abilities feel welcome. When I see a ramped church dias, feel someone’s business card printed in Braille, or visit a private restroom ready for wheelchair users I feel welcome—though I may not need each of these accommodations at the moment.
Educate yourself to get the vocabulary you’ll need to express yourself and advocate for what you need. Then when you’re ready to speak up and ask for something to fit you better, you’ll be better prepared to do so.
Additional Links of Interest
"The Spoon Theory" by Christine Miserandino (a great analogy)
My Thirteenth Winter by Samantha Abeel
To Be Gifted and Learning Disabled by Susan Baum and Steve Owen