Stories of Hope: The Case of Confused Labels

by | Last updated Apr 22, 2024 | Encouragement

Perhaps you have heard this story, but I want to give it a different slant with a new and inspiring story. When Thomas Edison was a boy, his teacher sent his mom a letter informing her that since her son was addled (mentally disabled), he had no further need to attend school. When young Thomas queried his mother about the letter, she replied that the teacher wrote that since her son was a genius, it was beyond their capacity to teach him. Years later, as he sorted through his deceased mother’s belongings, the world-renowned inventor found that letter.

Like Edison, the “Jane” in this real case history was misdiagnosed. Unlike Edison, she had real mental deficits, not a genius, but fine intellectual ability lying buried. Would Jane ever learn? What would finally unlock her mind in her struggles to learn?

While there is a place for legitimate diagnosis and we do not want to be in denial of any real or potential problems, misdiagnosis or incorrect labeling can be detrimental.

Brain Injury

When Jane was nearly three years old (1953), she developed a brain infection and was in a coma for several weeks. When she eventually awoke from the coma Jane was partially paralyzed and her speech was so garbled no one understood her. Gradually she learned to walk and attended a  private kindergarten, but she did not, like other children, correctly learn the basic alphabet or the sounds the letters represented. Jane was diagnosed as being “mentally retarded”* in 1955, but fortunately her mom refused to believe the diagnosis. In reality, Jane was developmentally slow.


Her mother developed a cruel disease—paranoid schizophrenia—in which she would deny that Jane and her twin were her daughters and accused them as  being “spies.”  Much of the knowledge students are supposed to learn in their junior and high school years was lost as Jane spiraled down into a paralyzing depression. She skipped many classes to stay with her Mom.

She attended summer schools and graduated from high school but without any permanent memory or fundamental understanding of the knowledge she had been taught. For example, by age 20, the only thing Jane remembered from high school biology was the difference between a vertebrate and an invertebrate. Because her short-term memory was good, she could excel at history. As she approached her 20th year, her long-term memory of all subjects (except history and typing) was below the 7th-grade level. English skills, science, and math were more like the 5th-grade level. To complicate matters further, Jane was utterly ignorant of any practical skills—cooking, housekeeping, sewing, budgeting, etc. Socially, Jane was “scared of her own shadow .” Physically she was awkward.

New Beginnings

Jane came as a lifestyle patient to Wildwood in 1972 but stayed on as a student. In those days, Wildwood’s missionary school did not care how ignorant a student was as long as they were committed to learning. In her second year at Wildwood, some in the administration felt she should become a worker in a nearby school for the mentally disabled as they certainly did not consider her a suitable candidate for long-term service. After all, it took some people over 30 minutes to understand what she said in a mere 5 minutes! With her garbled speech and her clumsiness, where would she work? Others saw promise in her efforts. Fast-forward through several decades. 

The Lost Keys: Humility, Persistence, Manual Labor

Jane performed seemingly menial duties—housekeeping, dishwashing, juicing carrots, bagging food, and gardening. She dropped out of an elementary physiology class twice, nutrition, and other health courses. She relearned the basic process of reading and pronunciation. By concentrating on her tongue and lip position, Jane could discriminate between the sounds and her speech improved enough. At age 37, Jane also learned grammar and when to indent paragraphs. She attempted physiology a third time and finally succeeded in passing. Eventually, she became a physiology instructor and authored several health e-books with a proofreader’s help. You see, Jane was not “mentally retarded”. Her accurate diagnosis would have been auditory dyslexia and clinical depression. True story. I know. I am Jane.

Retarded? No. Slow Learner? Definitely. Dyslexic? Yes! So what helped me? I did a lot of physical activity, had several years of manual labor, and was willing to work anywhere. As I shared what I learned, my ability to understand rapidly increased. The support and encouragement of a few teachers and a sense of humor sustained me. Beyond all these blessings is a loving God. As a classroom teacher, I have observed that these same principles have helped other slow learners to succeed, too—if they stay with these learning strategies.

*The author realizes that the term “mentally retarded” has been changed to “mentally challenged” and “intellectual disability. However, that was the condition she was diagnosed with in 1955 in her personal history.

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