Disabilities – Blessings and Curses

When Roxanne Reeves was given her doctorate from the University of New Brunswick, it symbolized much more than five years of hard work and study.

For Reeves, recognizable to many New Brunswickers as the wife of former premier Shawn Graham, the PhD will symbolize her triumph over a lifetime of learning disabilities and the struggle to cope in a world that often seemed bewildering.

“The slew of letters after my name announces to the world that I am smart,” Reeves said in an interview at her Fredericton home.

“During my graduate studies, I won more than $80,000 in scholarships and fellowships to pursue my research. But there is still a gap. I have the proof that I am smart, but the person inside me still doesn’t quite believe it. For so many years, my internal voice was very cruel and very vicious.”

Living in a Political Fishbowl

That internal voice told Reeves she was slow and backward. Not knowing she actually had a cognitive disability, she developed intricate coping mechanisms to help her navigate the world. Her problems were complicated by politics during Graham’s years in public life. Reeves has trouble recognizing faces – a key ability in political life – and she compensated by writing voluminous notes about each New Brunswick riding and the people she would likely meet in those areas.

“My memory misfiles things,” Reeves said of her disability, which affects her visual, spatial, sequential and working memory.

“I have it all in there. Ultimately I will know your face and your name, but it takes time. … I learned to hide these things. I learned to camouflage my deficits.”

Her massive dissertation – at least the size of War and Peace – deals with mentoring issues. In the last few years, she has completed, back-to-back, an undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and a PhD. 

But those academic accomplishments all came after she dropped out of university four times, totally defeated by repeated low marks on written essays and exams. 

The Accidental Doctor

It was a chance meeting in a coffee shop on campus that ultimately provided Reeves with her academic and personal salvation.

She met Lee Ellen Pottie, a PhD student in English literature, who told Reeves about UNB’s Student Accessibility Centre. 

Pottie tactfully suggested to Reeves that she may have a learning disability and should have an assessment. “I had been overseas for about 10 years and I had totally missed this thing – learning disabilities,” said Reeves, who lived in Japan, South America, and Italy before returning to New Brunswick. “What the devil were they?

By this time, Reeves, who worked as a model in Japan and created stained glass in Italy, was in her mid-30s. Once she had the diagnosis of her learning disability from a psychologist, Reeves started to look at the world and her opportunities through a new lens.

“It was a process. I kept the diagnosis to myself for quite awhile. But then I began to revel in the realization that while I had specific learning glitches, it didn’t impact my entire brain,” Reeves said of her experience.

Sitting in a sun-flooded room in the downtown home she and Graham share with two elderly cats, Reeves marvels at what she has accomplished – published articles, presentations to conferences and the prized doctorate. “None of that would have been possible without the tools the centre provided me to move forward and find workarounds for the gaps; none of this would be possible without mentors,” she said. “I have strategies that I never had before. So something that was horrifically difficult now is significantly less difficult.” 

Adapted from The New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal; Author, Chris Morris