The Tom Weidlinger and Bullfrog Films production Original Minds is a film about five high school students classified as having at least one learning disability (LD). This film encourages viewers to (re)consider not only learning disabilities or challenges, but also how those with LDs adapt to them. It highlights the five students and shows each of them in their daily lives, their challenges, how they change, and ultimately, how they succeed by understanding themselves better based on the metacognitive model presented by Weidlinger. Original Minds debunks the thinking that people who have any LD or difference are part of some stereotyped collective. The goal becomes making those with a disability more than a diagnosis—it is to make them people: real, feeling, flawed, and yet, perfect.

The five students, Kerrigan, Nattie, Marshall, DeAndré, and Nee Nee, are chosen to be part of a program designed around a Metacognitive Model, which begins with a 128-question survey called STRANDS, or Survey of Teenage Readiness and Neurodevelopmental Status. This produces a graph relative to each student showing where his or her respective strengths and weaknesses are. The results, according to the downloadable guide (on the website or DVD), are "only a rough tool" that provides insight into several areas: attention, memory, sequencing, language, visual processing, motor function, organization and strategy, and higher order cognition (8). Rough or not, each student shows areas of strength and weakness that seemed true to their respective behaviors displayed in the film.

To help build cohesion among the students, they administered the STRANDS to each other. As students answered the questions, viewers can occasionally guess what the answer might be just by the body language or previous scenes. For example, DeAndré is asked if he has trouble sitting still during class time; he stops for a moment, smiles, and provides an affirmative answer, then continues swaying back and forth to an unheard rhythm. The inclusion of students questioning each other speaks to the idea of camaraderie and belonging, showing that these students are not alone and they are not so different from others.

More importantly, the highlighted students want to demonstrate to viewers that they are not so different. In fact, Nee Nee makes an explicit plea to be challenged in her schoolwork instead of being labeled an "outcast." Teary-eyed and discouraged, she says, "I get it easy a lot because of my learning disability." Each student seems to have felt, at one time or another, that he or she has been pigeonholed into a stereotype such as being dumb, or as Nee Nee and Kerrigan articulate, an outcast. DeAndré makes the point even more clear; he explains, "I think it's hell. Cause you know what everybody thinks a learning disability is." Thus, Original Minds seeks to change what those who don't know much about LDs think, while providing a cogent reminder to us all.

Throughout the film, the students use newfound tools or strategies that allow them to grow, learn, and contribute, not as outcasts but as people. They, on occasion, need help with recognizing or utilizing various means to better implement their ideas. For example, Nattie demonstrates a difficult time with directions or an ability to visualize (in her mind) a sequence or organize numbers (algebra and geometry prove challenging). Nattie realizes that when she verbalizes step-by-step directions to herself, this helps her in everything, from doing long division to painting a landscape. To some, her outspoken self-directions seem quirky or odd. However, Original Minds establishes that just because this may not be common, it doesn't mean it isn't effective or shouldn't be used.

Regardless of any distinctions, these students want to belong to something greater than themselves. For Nee Nee, it is her dance group. She realizes that dance and the friendships that derive from it are the incentive to attend class regularly—even with her ailing mother who is dealing with breast cancer and the added stress of unpaid bills that Nee Nee has to handle. In some ways, Nee Nee feels responsible and believes she needs to be home with her mother to care for her. Most teens don't have to be concerned with such stresses. But Nee Nee works through these struggles. Likewise for Marshall, the physical exertion and teamwork demanded of rowing team or crew becomes part of his motivational toolbox. The point is clear: as each student becomes more socially connected and feels like he or she is understood, they perform better.

Moreover, each student finds his or her own way to adjust to a different way of learning and being part of larger society. For DeAndré that is writing music and finding the rhythm, which helps him organize his thoughts. In Nattie's case, it's breaking tasks down verbally into steps, much like a recipe. With Nee Nee and Marshall, both find a physical activity (dance and rowing, respectively) that provides focus that carries through into other aspects of their lives. These adjustments are not novel and some might call them mundane, but part of the point is that sometimes what seems so obvious is overlooked.

One of the cultural challenges the film mentions is high school dropout rates of about one million students per year, and how roughly one-third of those that dropout are classified as having a learning disability. There is also a brief but underlying theme touched on throughout regarding bullying; Original Minds suggests bullying plays a role in LD students dropping out. However, although this is highlighted at times, such discrimination and even harassment is nudged aside to show how regular, yet original, the protagonists are. One of the strengths of this film is showing the normalcy (and difficulties) of teen life regardless of race or social class or other distinction. Unlike some other films that highlight the disability, this one reveals it in an everyday context where any disability is merely another issue in the already turbulent teenage years.

There is, to a degree, a double-sided coin that one must grapple with: to what degree does the system adjust for a small group of students? On one side, the argument is that the system must do the greatest good for the greatest number. This might suggest that students with any LDs be carried along to an eventual voluntary (or involuntary) removal from the "education" system. On the other side, the argument might go that we assist, guide, and help all students. Original Minds pokes some holes in both positions. For those that suggest they eventually fall out of the educational system, the film does a precise job to show how each student is productive and contributes to the community. For those who might believe there will be on ongoing bottomless pit of resources used on these students, the film demonstrates marked improvement with, what appears to be, simple training, instruction, and techniques.

Probably the most explicit example of this is DeAndré's case. He is walked through understanding his own thought processes (somewhat begrudgingly at first, which only highlights the effectiveness) and later writing a paper so he can graduate high school and attend college. DeAndré seems resistant to any professional help. For example, he states, "Can't no one tell you how you learn." Later, after speaking with a psychologist and working through the program, he explains he was wrong. In doing so, he gains a sense of trust in the system that he believed to have been working against him. Towards the end, we see him happily accepted to a university, and the director of the university's Education Opportunity Program promising him, "We're gonna be in your business the whole year" to help keep him on track. This reassures DeAndré and, again, boosts his confidence.

The goal of making those with LDs real people and not stereotypes is achieved. Original Minds shows these five students through their respective strengths, and by doing so, it marginalizes any weaknesses. This film does not empathize with the students, however. Rather, it challenges them to address their LDs in ways that empower them to learn and address their LDs themselves. Nor does Original Minds fictionalize these students' stories; it is not acted—with each scene, viewers realize this is genuine. From the raw emotions of tears and frustration, to the joys of belonging and acceptance, we see the students take a measurable level of control over their own lives. More importantly, this film takes into account the students themselves and sees the world through their eyes. This is part of the difficulty in categorizing such a film in a broader context because in many ways, it breaks new ground in LD studies. Original Minds avoids the "overcoming" theme in disability studies and presents LDs as differences, embraces them, works with them, understands and adapts to them. By doing so, it avoids the adversarial nature of overcoming and focuses on the frame of bettering oneself and one's community—a genuine goal for us all.

Works Cited

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Copyright (c) 2012 Craig A. Meyer

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