No Limits in My Life

By Elizabeth Rouse, Central College Class of 2020

Note:
October 12 is World Sight Day and October 15 is White Cane Safety Day / Blind Awareness Day

Elizabeth Rouse

Elizabeth Rouse

Elizabeth Rouse is a 19-year-old sophomore at Central College in Pella, Iowa. She is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in English with the intention of attending law school in the fall of 2020. In her free time, Elizabeth participates in Bridge Club, belongs to the sorority Zeta Upsilon, and volunteers as a YoungLife leader in her local high school community. 


When I was about five-months-old, my daycare provider noticed I was not tracking things with my eyes in a way that was similar to other babies my age. After a visit to my pediatrician that led to a visit to a genetic specialist at the University of Iowa, my parents discovered that I have Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis (LCA), a genetic disease that stopped the rods from forming in my eyes. This recessive genetic disease is not common. About 3,000 people in the country have it. My vision is 20/400 in both eyes, and it is something that cannot be corrected with glasses. The “cure” is genetic replacement therapy. Being legally blind has proven to be a challenge, but my parents never allowed me to use it as an excuse to sit on the sidelines. They pushed me to excel in everything I chose to do, and they helped me and others who supported me to succeed.

In elementary school, my accommodations were simple. Verbalizing by the teacher, brailled calendars, and other classroom items supported my participation in classroom activities, and, of course, I used a white cane in the hallways. I had a paraprofessional, a wonderful woman named Bonnie, who learned braille and went to trainings to best support my needs and those of my teacher. Over the years, my friends and classmates got used to my needs and pretty much got out of my way in the hallway, limiting the use of my cane indoors. This helped me feel much more like the other students. I am very grateful that my school was small enough to allow me to get to know everyone and create such a level of comfort and success.

In middle school, the challenges began to come more frequently as the curriculum got harder and travel became more a part of my daily experience. My paraprofessional continued to support my needs but in a different way. She went to my classes with me to help me learn how to develop specific skills, such as taking notes. Additionally, class materials, such as quizzes, written up by teachers ahead of time, were sent to be brailled by the Iowa Department of the Blind library services. Any materials needing to be brailled that could not be planned ahead of time were transcribed on sight by my paraprofessional.

My textbooks were also available in braille, but these presented a challenge in and of themselves. Because braille takes up a ridiculous amount of space, a normal sized textbook for history or science could be anywhere from 25 to 40 volumes in braille. This made carting my materials from class to class a bit more difficult. The administration in my school allowed me a rolling backpack to lessen the stress on my back. Additionally, I was given a bigger locker than most of the other students to compensate for my larger amount of materials. While I did not want to use my white cane, I found I had to use it to get used to traveling in the middle school as well as let others know of my presence. Eventually, I was able to use it infrequently, as I had done in elementary school.

When I started high school, I was terrified. As I have an older brother, I knew some of the classes I would have to take would be a bit difficult. I am forever grateful to the teachers I had my freshman year as they made my transition to and experience in high school much less stressful. I specifically remember having a biology teacher who went above and beyond to make sure I was included in the learning experience just as much as the other students in my class. The teachers and I learned how to learn together in many ways. Flash drives for exchanging content and assignments became an important tool for us.

Additionally, I was a bit nervous about extracurricular activities. Most of my friends were athletes, but I could not participate in volleyball, basketball, or other fast-paced sports. However, this caused me to seek participation in other activities. Throughout high school, I was an avid member of the choir and theatrical programs in my school. I led my team in a battle of the books club competition, and I was the president of Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. I was super stoked my sophomore year when I decided to become a member of the wrestling cheerleading squad and found much success.

I graduated in 2016 valedictorian of my class and received multiple high-value scholarships to different universities. I chose Central College in Pella, Iowa. As a sophomore, I could not ask for a better place for me to earn my undergraduate degree. I plan to major in English with minors in theatre and religion. My long-term plan is to go to law school.

What I have learned in my life is that the only limits I have are those I put on myself and there is nothing embarrassing about asking for help. My journey so far has helped me understand that achieving greatness is not tied to my gender, race, socioeconomic status, or any accommodation I may have gotten in order for me to have a level playing field. Greatness is achieved because of effort and discipline. Those come from my own desire to be the best at what I choose to do, vision excluded.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my blog post. If I could teach everyone in the world one thing, I would like to project that just because a person has some limitation that is out of their control does not mean they are less of a person. Given the right tools and supportive people who want to see them succeed, the possibilities are limitless.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

How Having ADHD Made Me a Better Advocate for My Daughters

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Jessica-Gordon

Jessica Gordon

A guest blog by Jessica Gordon, a parent of children with learning and attention issues and Regional Manager for Understood at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.


“She is smart, but she just needs to apply herself.”

If you looked back at my report cards in elementary school, every single one would say that. Even after recognizing that I struggled to pay attention, my family assured me that I didn’t have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because I was able to watch television for long periods of time.

My experience isn’t as unique as I would hope. In fact, according to The State of Learning Disabilities report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, 78% of parents believe that any child can do well in school if he or she just tries hard enough. And 33% of educators believe that sometimes what people call a learning or attention issue is really just laziness.

For me—and probably for many kids struggling in school—that wasn’t the case. I was applying myself and doing the best I could, but I wasn’t able to focus or pay attention. My teachers were frustrated that I would score in the 90th percentile on standardized tests but fail to turn in spelling tests and math worksheets. Through trial and error, I found strategies to keep myself organized in school. But by the time I went to college, I sought an evaluation and was told that I do, in fact, have ADHD.

Thanks to advances in research and more experts exploring these issues, our understanding of ADHD has grown tremendously over the past few decades. According to Understood.org, girls are not identified with ADHD as often as boys, and they are often identified much later. The signs can look significantly different in girls and boys. For example, girls may not display the behavior challenges that boys do and might, instead, be chatty, disorganized, or emotional. And, much like me, because girls work hard to compensate for their challenges, it can often be overlooked.

Now, as a mother of three girls, nothing is more important to me than knowing my children’s strengths and challenges and advocating for what they need. When my oldest daughter was in second grade, she began to exhibit the same signs I did at that age. Recognizing those familiar signs, I knew I had to take action. I wanted her to have the same understanding of herself it took me decades to develop.

We went through with an evaluation, and my oldest daughter was diagnosed with ADHD—just like me, but much sooner. My middle daughter was also diagnosed when she reached second grade. And my youngest, who struggles with reading and writing as well as attention, is in the process of being evaluated right now.

When I was younger, I became an advocate for myself only after the system failed to recognize my struggles. But I don’t want that to happen to my children. Instead of making assumptions about what their future might look like with learning and attention issues, I make a point to consider their strengths, their interests, and their ideas about themselves. I want to ensure that my children—and all children—are on a path to understanding themselves and harnessing their strengths and talents.

Having ADHD myself and raising three children with ADHD is a unique challenge, and one I think many parents can relate to when learning and attention issues run in the family. But it is true that parents are their child’s best advocate. When your instincts tell you that something is going on under the surface, it’s important to trust that. It’s critical to seek out professionals who will listen and help you support your child in the way you know you need to.

I often wonder how different my life would have been if my parents and teachers had recognized my ADHD earlier and provided the accommodation and supports I needed all those years ago. Fortunately, my children won’t have to wonder about that. And I hope other parents trust their instincts, listen to their children, and follow a path that gets them and their child the supports they need.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.

From Daughter’s Advocate to National Advisory Board Member

One mother brings personal experience to the new
National Center for Improving Literacy

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Shultz boating with her daughter, Catherine.

Laura Schultz is co-founder of Decoding Dyslexia Maryland and previously worked as a Congressional Staffer for Rep. Helen Delich Bentley and later as the Director of Federal and State Government Relations for a national trade association in Washington, D.C. She has a background in public policy and consulted for a Florida-based public relations firm for many years before “retiring” to focus on dyslexia advocacy to help children who struggle to read, write and spell in public school. She has two children, one a senior at Leonardtown High School and the other a junior at the U.S. Military Academy. Her husband is active duty Navy and they are a proud military family


Something was wrong, but no one could quite figure out what to call it.

At age three, my daughter Catherine spoke very few words compared to her brother. Early evaluations revealed that she needed speech and occupational therapy services.

Catherine displayed behavioral issues including aggression, which the school psychologist later attributed to possibly too much stimulation. At other times, she was withdrawn. She was held back in preschool because of these issues.

When she entered kindergarten, Catherine had meltdowns because of her frustrations with language.

What I saw was her having difficulty finding words and using incorrect language, which resulted in a scrambled output of the words she could find.

After three years in preschool and a year of kindergarten, she could not identify her letters and sounds, write her own name or spell simple words. I felt strongly that we were looking at a reading problem, and my advocacy finally resulted in her being found eligible for special education as a child with a “specific learning disability.”

As Catherine prepared to enter first grade at age seven, I was frightened and frustrated feeling that my child was in crisis and it did not seem that the district’s special education personnel knew how to address her reading and writing needs.

The years of pull-out services, small-group instruction and reading interventions produced few results.

Unfortunately it would take another six years from the time she was identified as having a “specific learning disability” before we understood her specific learning disability was dyslexia.

One year her teacher pulled me aside to share the Patricia Polacco book, “Thank you, Mr. Falker” and encouraged me to read it to Catherine. It was the first time anyone almost mentioned the common learning disability by name.

By fifth grade, our developmental pediatrician formally diagnosed Catherine with dyslexia. We shared the news with her school team hoping that we would finally be able to get the appropriate instruction in place for our daughter.

Unfortunately, we still found it difficult to bridge the divide between the evidence-based interventions being recommended and the programs and expertise available in our school.

By seventh grade, we had to move on to seek private reading and writing instruction for Catherine.

Through pinpointing Catherine’s dyslexia and getting her the proper services she needed, she is now a high school senior pursuing a certification in Computer Aided Design and Drawing (CADD), taking two English courses and making plans for college.

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Laura Schultz and daughter, Catherine

Students like my daughter sit in every classroom in every school in every state. They are ethnically, culturally and socio-economically diverse. Many of these students will have access to the resources our family ultimately pursued and that is good, but truth be told, many more will not and that is a problem.

Unidentified dyslexia often creates social and emotional difficulties for struggling children. Parents’ and schools’ lack of understanding and awareness of dyslexia and other disabilities can exacerbate a child’s struggles unnecessarily. I knew other families and schools would benefit from knowing about early reading interventions that included phonological awareness and decoding instruction—this type of instruction would not only reduce the underlying cause of a child’s anxieties or challenging behaviors, but would also teach them to read.

My family’s experience, in what I would describe as an excellent public school system, motivated me to reach out to other parents of children with dyslexia. I knew that many of these families were experiencing similar situations and that collectively we may be able to raise awareness and bring much needed resources to our schools and communities.

We established Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, a parent-led grassroots movement that offers awareness, support and advocacy for children with dyslexia, their parents and educators.

Through my advocacy work with Decoding Dyslexia Maryland, I was asked to serve as a parent stakeholder on the Family Engagement Advisory Board for the National Center on Improving Literacy* (NCIL), which was funded by Office of Special Education Programs in September 2016.

NCIL is an important component of the U.S. Department of Education’s mandate under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to support students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The center is tasked with:

  • Developing and/or identifying tools to screen for and detect reading challenges early;
  • Identifying evidence-based literacy instruction, strategies, accommodations and assistive technology;
  • Providing information to support families;
  • Developing and/or identifying professional development for teachers on early indicators and instructional strategies; and
  • Disseminating these resources within existing federal networks.

Schools today are searching for information and assistance in implementing the evidence-based instruction outlined in ESSA and required by many of the new dyslexia laws passing in state legislatures across the country.

As I near the end of my family’s personal pre-K-12 journey, I’m excited to be able to offer NCIL the benefit of my daughter’s experiences to help change the way students with reading challenges and dyslexia are identified and taught to read.

It’s my expectation that NCIL, in collaboration with parents, educators, community partners, and reading researchers, will offer our public schools the information and guidance they need to bring the science of reading into their classrooms and to close the research-to-practice gap that sometimes hinders their ability to deliver best practices in literacy instruction to the students that need it the most.

This October, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month, is the perfect time to learn more about the mission of the NCIL and to spread the word to your schools and communities about dyslexia and this new research-based resource. Encourage teachers, principals and families to visit the NCIL website and make suggestions about the types of information, tools, trainings and resources that are most needed.


* The National Center on Improving Literacy is a partnership among literacy experts, university researchers, and technical assistance providers, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


“Voices from the Field” Interview with Nina Brown, Early Childhood Special Educator in Fairfax County, Virginia

Note: October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Nina Brown

Nina Brown

Nina Brown earned her master’s degree in education from George Mason University and is currently a teacher in Fairfax County, VA, where she has spent the majority of her career. Prior to that, she taught in Liberty County, GA. She has dedicated her career to teaching young children with disabilities and partnering with their families to help build a foundation for educational success. She recently graduated from George Washington University with a degree in education leadership and administration in special education, in hopes of continuing to support students and families throughout the county.


How did you begin your career in early learning and special education?

As a child, whenever we went to visit my grandparents, we would always spend time with my aunt in her group home. She had developmental disabilities and medical needs that prevented her from living at home. Even though I was only a child, I recognized the limited access and opportunities available to her within her community. She was an adult, but had never attended school, which seemed incomprehensible to me. From a very young age, I knew I wanted to go into a profession where I could advocate for people with disabilities. I combined that with my love for children and eventually earned my master’s in early childhood special education. After 17 years of teaching, I recently earned an education specialist degree in leadership and administration in the area of special education. With this degree, I hope to have a broader impact on children and their families throughout the school district in which I work.

What recommendations do you have for improving educational experiences of children with Down syndrome?

I believe that high-quality early childhood education is fundamental to long term success for all children, but most critically to students with disabilities. Early childhood special education is often the “gateway” to the education system, and it has been my goal throughout my career to be a positive liaison between schools and families.

Two steps fundamental in facilitating positive educational experiences are

  1. helping families access community services and supports, and
  2. incorporating evidence-based instructional practices into classroom activities.

Children with Down syndrome tend to have strong social skills, so building upon those strengths to increase their learning opportunities in all areas of development is beneficial, regardless of their age. Teachers and parents should always have high expectations of the abilities of children with Down syndrome. Children with Down syndrome often know much more than they are able to communicate. The use of visuals and manipulatives in acquiring new skills builds upon their strengths as visual learners. Providing increased processing time and consistency are also instructional strategies that complement the learning style of many students with Down syndrome.

What suggestions do you have for expanding access to high-quality early learning opportunities for children with Down syndrome?

One of my responsibilities as an early childhood special education teacher is to transition preschool students into kindergarten, helping to ensure they will be educated in the least restrictive environment, with their peers, in the school closest to home. It has been my experience that acceptance of students with disabilities varies among schools within the same district, even though inclusion benefits all students, with and without disabilities. Schools may look at a label or diagnosis of a student to help in their decision making for programs and services. I believe it is my responsibility, and that of all teachers, to look at the individual child and their abilities first and foremost. In all aspects of my job, I strive to advocate for the needs of students in order to help build a strong educational foundation to make the most positive impact on their future.


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Understanding Teachers Make “All the Difference” for a High School Student with Dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan

Carter Grace Duncan is a freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school. She is a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia who enjoys sharing her knowledge with students with disabilities about how accommodations in school can help create a pathway to academic success.


A teacher can make the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Actually, they can make or break a child’s entire school year by understanding what accommodations in a 504 plan or an individualized education program (IEP) can do to help a person like me who works everyday to overcome the impact of dyslexia, dysgraphia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

I think I am lucky to have been surrounded by teachers who worked hard to make sure I was able to be as successful as my peers.

I have had a 504 plan since the fourth grade. It’s supported me through elementary school, middle school and now into high school.

At the beginning of the year, I introduce myself and my accommodations through email. I think it’s important for my teachers to know why I benefit from something that most of the other kids in my class don’t use. The game changers for me include:

  1. Extra time
    Dyslexia makes me read slowly and work hard to decode words. This means that it takes me more time to take tests. Knowing that I can work hard and answer the questions correctly at my own pace is very helpful for me. I would like to be able to show my teacher what I know.
  2. Read on demand
    Reading and spelling are harder for me than my classmates. I can decode almost any word after my remediation; it just takes me some time to do it if it’s a harder word. If I am really stuck, I would like to ask for help to have the word or phrase read to me. It makes me way more comfortable in class to know that if I get stuck, my teacher will know that I really need the help.
  3. Small group testing
    It helps to be on my own or in a smaller group. If I am taking a test with the class I might get to the third question and someone next to me is finished with the test because they can read it faster. I’d like to be able to focus on the content and do my best.
  4. Technology
    I use my iPad to ear read (text to speech) everything I can. Eye reading is tiring for me. Sometimes, I use an app to change a handout to a readable PDF and then ear read it, if I need to. Normally, I just eye read the handouts. My iPad also has an app that will let me record the classroom lecture, if I need it. I don’t access the curriculum exactly like my peers, but the system in place right now works really well for me.
  5. Teacher notes
    I am dysgraphic, too. That means it is hard for me to put my thoughts onto paper quickly. I learn best by listening to the teacher first and then practicing what I have learned. It is very hard for me to listen and copy things from the board or write things down as the teacher is talking. I take notes, but I miss a lot. The teacher’s notes help me make sure that I don’t miss anything when I am studying.
  6. Advanced notice when called on to read in class
    This accommodation makes me feel comfortable in class. It feels terrible if I think I might be called on to read out loud without knowing what I am going to read. If my teacher wants me to read something, they’ll just tell me the night before and I will practice first. I am a good reader now, but I still get nervous when I have to read out loud. Messing up on a word like ‘began’ feels really bad in a classroom full of my classmates. That’s what dyslexia will do to me.

With the help of my parents, my teachers and my accommodations, I’ve created a successful learning environment for myself. Because I need to work very hard to achieve the academic success I’ve had, I don’t take anything for granted. I appreciate my teachers who have made an effort to understand me and my accommodations.

Teachers really do make all the difference!


Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.


Carter Grace Duncan
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A freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school and a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia