What was it like for you to grow up with learning disabilities?
I was diagnosed in the second grade back in the 70s and back then it was called minimal brain damage. I really had no idea nor did my parents know what to do. I struggled in school like other kids similar to me and I ended up repeating second grade. During that time my parents pulled me out of my school and put me in another public school system but basically it was a school for people with all types of disabilities.
I rode the short bus that would pick up in front of my house and I struggled with self-esteem issues because I really felt like I was stupid. Nothing seemed to sink in and my language- based struggles affected me in pretty much every area. In second grade, my speech started acting up. I have a slight speech impediment and it makes me sound like I’m from the north or some other place.
My learning disability followed me almost like a shadow. The teachers said I was doing a good job but nothing seemed to stick and I just had really low self-esteem. It wasn’t until the fifth grade that I got involved in swimming and for the first time I could see positives and I felt good about myself. Things started changing in school a little bit, too. I got tutored a lot. I was able to take some regular education courses. My parents felt like that was the best thing for me and I was able to get into the University of Georgia.
Starting college was a really challenging time for me. I had a tutor but I couldn’t pass my English class, that’s English 101. First quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter I failed. If it wasn’t for some very supportive people &mdash my teacher at that time and a faculty member who really believed in me and told me to go get tested at the learning disability center at the University of Georgia — I would have been basically kicked out of school.
So I got evaluated again. I had been evaluated back in second grade, and I went through all the special education programs throughout my K-12 experience but here I was again and they told me I had a learning disability and I said, “come on guys I know that.” But at that time, I went on to really learn how I learned. I learned I was kinesthetic, I learned that I was a tactile learner. I learned all different types of strategies. I didn’t do amazingly well because I was catching up.
But I ended up graduating and actually feeling pretty good about myself through that process. And learning that I wasn’t stupid and I did start to believe in myself. I learned a lot of tricks that allowed me to continue eventually my graduate work as well as my transition to the work world.
Can you briefly say what your learning disabilities are or were?
I’m diagnosed with typical language-based learning disabilities such as dyslexia. I basically had trouble with all the things you can do with language and that includes spelling, handwriting, dysgraphia — all aspects of it.
I also had issues with memory. My working memory was pretty good but short and long term memory I struggled with and so it was critical that I found ways that I could anchor my new learning, so it would stick.
So reading and writing were both very hard for you at first?
Yeah, reading and writing. I was at the University of Georgia reading at a fourth grade level and it wasn’t until almost I graduated that my reading level spiked and I managed to increase it quite a bit. Back then I was using books on tape, a four-track tape recorder that I got from the Library of Congress.
We had volunteers at the learning disability center who would actually read my textbooks out loud and then I would use the four-track tape recorder to follow along. So hearing it and seeing it with that kind of multi-sensory approach made all the difference for me. I was able to retain information a lot better. It wasn’t perfect, but I was able to get through my exams and pass them pretty well.
So it was only really in college that you were able to absorb text and be more successful in school?
Yeah, I don’t know how I got through K-12, I mean I really don’t other than just incredibly determined parents, a lot of study and tutoring and frankly I loved swimming and I wanted to swim for the University of Georgia. I wanted to get there really badly and that was the ticket for me. I swam back and forth and I got out my frustration and my anxiety.
I got to the point where I started to do well in swimming and it boosted my confidence in school and I was no longer in special education, I think that made a big difference too. I’m sad to say that, but I think it really did.
Did you wind up being a varsity swimmer in high school and college?
Yeah, I swam for a very difficult program in Jacksonville, Florida, at a private school that brought in swimmers all over from the world. So I had a high level of competition in high school and that made a big difference. We learned about physical education. We learned about all kinds of things that kind of transferred into the classroom and that made a big difference for me.
I finished up four years of college and I became co-captain of the University of Georgia swim team. It wasn’t because I was the fastest swimmer, it was because I was probably one of the hardest workers and that was something I was really proud of.
How did you get into the disability field professionally?
I studied communications in college, and the reason that was so helpful is that in my last year in college I wrote a book called Faking It. It was one of the first books that was written from a consumer standpoint, the person with the learning disability. I was angry, frustrated with my teachers, with my parents, with everyone. And writing that book was a really therapeutic process for me. The book was co-written by Rosemary Jackson, my tutor. She was my ghost writer.
When the book was published it put me on a speaking tour and I was able to travel around and talk to parents and talk to teachers and talk to administrators and most important students with disabilities. And I was bitten. That was it, that’s all I needed, that’s what I loved doing, even though it was hard at first because I was sharing my own story.
For a lot of people with learning disabilities, that’s the last thing they want other people to know about. But the book put me out there. I met a lot of people, I learned a lot and I also started learning more about technology. I knew that assistive technology could make a big difference in my life and I knew it could help other students too. So I started getting involved with assistive technology work. Eventually I moved on to graduate school and got a degree in social psychology with an emphasis on assistive technology.
And the frustrating part about my graduate work was that I found that the textbooks were still not in a digitally-accessible format. So I became an advocate and I started to focus on legislation around why publishers were not providing accessible textbooks.
I started working with publishers to ensure that their textbooks could be accessible but we still have a long way to go with that. I started a program called AMAC — the Alternative Media Access Center — at the University of Georgia and eventually it moved to Georgia Tech, the Georgia Institute of Technology. At AMAC, we worked to convert hard copy textbooks — or digital textbooks that weren’t accessible — into accessible textbooks.
That project took off and when I left AMAC we were serving over 2,500 institutions across the U.S. and Canada with a variety of services, not just for learning disabilities and digital textbooks but also services for individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing, individuals who are blind and so on.
What led you to speak out and write a book at a time when there was very little first-person material out there and there was a lot of stigma? Why did you decide to go public?
At first, it was therapeutic and I think it started off that way. I never really expected it to be published. During that same time I was asked to speak on panels at the University of Georgia, along with with other students with learning disabilities. And I found that the panels started giving me the advocacy skills and the communication skills to speak out, to understand my own disability, and to promote the idea that students needed to be served better.
Were you worried that people might look down on you or that it might hurt you professionally? Did you have doubts about going so public?
Oh yes, and I still do. It doesn’t go away. It’s diminished a lot because my books are out there and my speaking. But I swam with 40 individuals at the University of Georgia. Twenty women and twenty men on the team and the last thing I ever wanted them to know about me was the amount of tutoring I was getting. I logged 100 hours of being tutored one quarter, and I didn’t want them to know about it.
And so even when I started speaking, it was something that I had to learn to deal with. And on the job when I transitioned out of college, one of my first jobs was Enterprise Rent-A-Car and I was the only one there that actually had a diploma. We had to take the driver’s license and take the contract and we had to fill them all out.
And I promise you those contracts went everywhere, I would get the addresses wrong. I lasted six months in that job and I think if I would have been more honest and told them about my learning disabilities and that I needed accommodations then maybe I would have lasted longer. But when I left the University of Georgia and got that first job, I also left this incredible support team of tutors and computer labs and technology and all that. I went out to the real world thinking oh my gosh, now my learning disability is going to go away and it did not.