Teaching English Learner Students with Disabilities

Erica Sommer

Erica Sommer is a special education teacher in Del Valle Independent School District, which serves students in and around Austin, Texas.

Sommer works closely with the district’s substantial English learner population, has almost 15 years of teaching experience and has been passionate about teaching for as long as she remembers. She shared with us how working with English learner students and those with disabilities has impacted her as a teacher and individual.


English learners make up one of the most diverse student groups in schools today. When English learners enter our schools, they come from varying racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. Serving the needs of English learner students, particularly those identified as having a disability, can be a challenge for schools and teachers, but it is also an interesting and exciting group of students to teach and learn from.

I have had many unique opportunities to work with English learners who are also students with disabilities both at the very beginning of my career in Kansas City, Kansas and now, as I work with students in and around Austin, Texas.

In Kansas City, I worked with English learner students with disabilities who were part of a public-private school partnership in the district.

In my current school district, bilingual students make up about 87 percent of the student population, and about 60 percent of those students are English learners. I really enjoy this work, especially the relationships I’m able to build with individual students and their families.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with a young English learner with learning disabilities including dyslexia. She has been such an inspiration to me. She is the hardest working student I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait to get invited to her high school graduation!

Teaching English learners with disabilities is of course challenging at times, but those challenges become learning experiences. I have found several strategies that work well when facing challenges in my work.

  1. I learned to ask for help when communicating with parents. This sometimes requires getting a translator, and these situations have helped me to develop another skill, which is to learn how to communicate effectively while using a translator.
  2. I have learned to be flexible and open to change.
  3. I have learned the importance of connecting with classroom teachers and advocating for my students. I work with bilingual teachers and mainstream teachers in settings that are more collaborative and less formal than an official individualized education program team or planning meetings. What we do is more about coordinating our work and sharing professional development opportunities and information. We work together like this because we know it will make our jobs easier and ultimately benefit of our students.

I think that the best way teachers and schools can help English learners, students with disabilities and all kids is by working with their parents. Reach out and learn how to effectively communicate with parents of English learners because this can be absolutely crucial to a child’s success in school. We, as teachers, can be someone who influences our students’ whole trajectory in life.

The most rewarding part of my work with English learners with disabilities is actually saying goodbye to my fifth graders, and knowing they have so much more to do and accomplish! These students make a big impact on me as an individual, especially those who are particularly surprising and the most challenging. I often find that my students who seem tough and rugged throughout the year are the same students who cry and hug me on the last day of school.


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.

Erica Sommer
Posted by
Special Education Teacher Del Valle Independent School District, Del Valle, Texas

October and Disability Awareness

ICYMI "In Case You Missed It!"

In addition to announcing OSEP’s new director, Laurie VanderPloeg, and interviewing Caryl Jaques at Little One’s University preschool, this October, we highlighted aspects of disability awareness for National Disability Employment, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Down Syndrome!

Check out the stories below:


Down Syndrome


Courtney and her twin sons

It Takes a Village | 10/19/2018

Courtney’s twin sons just started kindergarten. This military family also moved across the country this year. Read how she’s advocated for her son with Down syndrome to be included in the same class as his brother.


Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate

I REALLY Love My Life! | 10/12/2018

Rachel, a 19-year-old, loves her family, friends, school, social activities and so much more. She’s traveled to DC and testified in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome.


ADHD | Dyslexia | Learning Disabilities


Lena McKnight

Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice | 10/30/2018

Lena struggled through middle and high school, but she eventually earned her GED, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Read how Lena learned more about her learning disability, accepted her challenges and found her voice.


Strong Foundations School logo

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All | 10/29/2018

Beth McClure envisioned a school designed specifically to provide excellent reading instruction to all students, so she started Strong Foundations School, a public charter school.


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

From Miami to New Jersey | 10/25/2018

Myriam recounts her journey from a young, new mom learning her daughter had a speech delay and attention issues to a career assisting other parents of children with disabilities to help them navigate their rights and get involved in their child’s education.


Dylan and Nicola at the beach

Reflections on Where We’ve Been: A Mother and Son’s Journey with Dyslexia | 10/23/2018

Dylan is a college sophomore, a soccer player and ceramic artist who loves to travel the world when there’s time. He also has dyslexia. Dylan and his mom share their story in hopes of inspiring others.


Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents | 10/09/2018

Sixth-grade student pens blog about dyslexia in “My Truth About Dyslexia—What I Wish for Other Kids with Dyslexia and Their Parents.”


Candice Crissinger and children

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story | 10/04/2018

One mom, two sons 10 years apart in age. Candice shares her family’s story of the vastly different experiences they had when seeking educational supports and services for her sons with disabilities and ADHD.


National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Hands On Hyatt trainees

Hands On/Hyatt | 10/31/2018

Hands On Educational Services, Inc., a vocational training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for careers in the hospitality industry, celebrates its 20th year of partnering with Hyatt.


WINTAC logo

Meeting WIOA Requirements: Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance | 10/31/2018

Learn different ways to stay current with employment trends related to the workforce and people with disabilities.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce | 10/30/2018

Way2Work helps Marylanders with disabilities transition into the workforce. Check out some of their success stories!


Alaska and Nevada VR Websites

Successful Work Experiences | 10/26/2018

The Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Nevada Ready show how states are creating programs to help youth with disabilities transition into a work environment.


Logo - National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)

Transition Resources Help Agencies and Service Providers Support Youth with Disabilities | 10/24/2018

The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has many resources that help state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, VR service providers and other service providers prepare student with disabilities for successful postsecondary education and employment.


Veronica and Victor

ASPIRE! | 10/22/2018

With the help of ASPIRE, families in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah are taking charge of their futures, learning about benefits available in their state, and more.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

Finding Rehabilitation Training Materials: RSA Technical Assistance and Other Resources | 10/22/2018

OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration’s grant recipients offer numerous training materials and resources for those interested in vocational rehabilitation. Learn how to find these resources through the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM).


Nyrka

Meriden Public Schools’ Community Classroom Collaborative | 10/18/2018

Meriden K–12, a Connecticut public school, gets creative to help students like Nyrka find success by bridging the gap between school and adult life.


AR PROMISE logo

The Importance of Connection | 10/17/2018

The Arkansas PROMISE program shows how a personalized connection between youth & their families and case managers can leave a positive, lasting impact on youth with disabilities.


Kwik Trip Storefront

Kwik Trip | 10/16/2018

The Wisconsin Workforce’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation worked with KwikTrip, a family-owned business of convenience stores, to successfully recruit and train individuals with disabilities for the role of “Retail Helper.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

The National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM): Finding Promising and Effective Resources in the Clearinghouse Library

| 10/12/2018

Calling all vocational rehabilitation professionals. Did you know NCRTM provides quick, streamlined access to resources and technical assistance centers funded by OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration?


Ida and her service dog

Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond | 10/10/2018

Ida’s a Drew University senior with a recent internship and employment offer from JPMorgan. She’s also legally blind. Read Ida’s story and about her work with the New Jersey Department of Human Services Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge.

“Always Aim High!” | 10/03/2018

Christopher has a computer science degree. Yet, he applied to nearly 600 positions without much success—that was until a California Department of Rehabilitation vocational rehabilitation counselor helped him connect with Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program.


NDEAM 2018 Poster: Man in a wheelchair conversing with co-workers over laptop computers.

“America’s Workforce: Empowering All” | 10/02/2018

OSERS and OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration proudly supports numerous programs relevant to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


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My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

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


My name is Douglas Rawan II. I am 11-years-old, live in Massachusetts, and I have a story about dyslexia.

It starts back in fourth grade when I began to feel different than my friends in school. Making jokes was the way I would cover up having no confidence in school. No one knew that inside I felt stupid. I remember one day when my mom asked me to do some reading and writing, and I threw pencils on the floor and my book. I remember my mom looked really sad. Inside I knew it would be too hard, but I didn’t know why. Since Kindergarten, my mom hired tutors to help with reading, but nothing changed at school. I also had a hard time focusing at school until one day I came home and told my mom that I asked the assistant principal for a standing desk. My parents didn’t even know what that was.

One day, my fourth grade teacher called my mom and said she thought I was really smart but that my work did not show it. She encouraged my parents to get me tested. I did get tested, and after that I thought things would get better for me but they didn’t. My parents finally told me the testing showed that I have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] and dyslexia and that I was two to three years behind in reading. I was so mad and asked them “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME BEFORE?”

My parents didn’t know what to say to me and never even used the word dyslexia, as the school told them that they don’t use that word. Once I learned about dyslexia and all the famous people who had it I told my dad one day, “Dad, I hope that I have dyslexia as Albert Einstein had it!”

I am dyslexic, which means I have a problem with reading. Having dyslexia doesn’t mean you have low intelligence or are lazy, it just means that your brain works differently. When I read, I don’t understand what I am reading, and I get easily frustrated. When I see a long word, I think “OH NO,” because I think I can’t read the word. Sometimes I break up the word or skip it. Also, when I read it usually comes out slow. I forget what happens when I read. A lot of words are hard for me to read. This makes me feel stupid.

Luckily, I go to a new school, which helps kids like me. When I came to my new school for fifth grade, I had a gap between my reading and grade level. In my first year, I made more progress in my reading than I ever had before. Today I’m still a little below my grade level, but with the right instruction, I expect to close the gap all the way. The teachers help me understand how my brain works, which helps me to read.

I am now in sixth grade in small classes and can get the tools I need, which is helping me to focus and “unlock my brain.” The way they are teaching me actually builds new connections or neurons in my brain, which changes the way my brain works, helping me to communicate and read better. I don’t have to struggle alone and think about how stupid I feel any more.

Knowing that I just needed the right tools makes me wonder what happens to other kids who are dyslexic. Are there other parents like mine that need the help for their kids? I wish that kids like me who still struggle with reading and paying attention in school can get the help they need.

This is why I decided to write a letter last year to President Donald J. Trump asking him what he could do as our president to make sure no child like me was ever left behind. After I sent the letter, my mom started getting other calls from moms who also see their kids struggling.

At the beginning of sixth grade, I met a new student who was visiting my school named Michael who was having troubles just like me. My mom told his mom that I wrote a letter to President Trump, and she sent it to Michael’s mom. The day I first met Michael, he asked for my autograph. It made me feel like I just won the World Series. Michael had never met someone like me who had the same troubles as he did.

If I look back, I wish my mom didn’t have to cry so much. I wish that my school had tested me back in elementary school so that I did not struggle alone. I wish the word dyslexia was used all the time so all kids could know that some of the most successful people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Walt Disney and JFK Jr. all had dyslexia.

If kids like me knew that dyslexia doesn’t have to do with intelligence but that we have a hard time understanding how sounds and letters go together, which makes it really, really hard to read. I wish kids knew that when a teacher read me a test I got a 107, but if I had to take a regular test and write the answers I would get a 67 or 57. When the teachers told my mom that I just had to study more, I wish the teacher knew that it wasn’t the material I didn’t know, it was the way that they were asking me to take the test.

I wish for so many things for the kids who struggle. I wish I could go back to my old school and talk to all the kids who feel stupid because of reading and tell them the truth about dyslexia. I wish for all of this and so much more for kids and for their moms and dads.

I hope that no kid spends another minute feeling stupid and sad.


Related Blog: OSERS Assistant Secretary Collett expressed his commitment to rethink special education in a blog post last month.


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.

A Teacher’s Perspective on Advancing Dyslexic Education

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

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski

Alison Pankowski currently trains teachers in her New Jersey district in the Wilson Reading System and is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist. She is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.  Mrs. Pankowski was a contributing member to the New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook, released in September 2017.


As a dyslexia specialist in my school district, I build the knowledge base of my colleagues regarding early identification, structured literacy intervention and essential accommodations for students with dyslexia.

I explain, often, that:

  • “Yes, you can identify students at risk for dyslexia as early as five years old.”
  • “Yes, teachers should provide instruction in phonemic awareness in second grade to continue to build reading skills.”
  • “No, using audiobooks is not a crutch; it provides access to grade-level text for struggling readers and levels the playing field.”

While it is true that legislative efforts in my home state of New Jersey have helped to bring these types of conversations to the local school level, there is still much work to be done to ensure that our state dyslexia laws, enacted in 2013 and 2014, are implemented effectively.

There are still many persistent misconceptions about dyslexia, and much of the implementation gap exists because professionals cannot act upon what they do not know or understand.

The truth is higher education often does not include coursework on dyslexia in teacher preparation programs, so local education agencies must either figure out how to build capacity or wait until guidance is provided.

But where would this guidance come from?

In New Jersey, I was invited to join a group of individuals tasked with creating dyslexia guidance. This group consisted of practitioners with expert knowledge in the field of dyslexia, including learning disabilities teacher consultants, speech and language pathologists, psychologists, higher education professors, assistive technology experts, parents and N.J. Department of Education representatives.

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook

We worked together for more than 19 months to create the “New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook” with the intent to:

  • Build an understanding of dyslexia and related difficulties with written language;
  • Demonstrate how to identify and remediate students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties; and
  • Inform both educators and families in best practices to support students with dyslexia and other reading difficulties.

We met monthly to discuss how to best provide this understanding and specialized knowledge without overwhelming or alienating educators and families.

Our meetings involved thoughtful, often passionate conversations about what we had experienced or had heard from others around the state; both positive and negative, regarding how schools had chosen to implement the laws passed by the state.

Usually these discussions resulted in written revisions to chapters drafted on early screening, intervention, assessment, accommodations and assistive technology. These discussions then led to more discussions and more revisions!

As committee members with experience in the field, we met with educators and families across the state throughout the process to learn more about what guidance they were seeking and to assure them that it would be coming soon. We worked diligently to craft a resource that would provide best practices to meet the needs of their struggling readers.

The N.J. Department of Education released “The New Jersey Dyslexia Handbook: A Guide to Early Literacy Development & Reading Struggles” Sept. 25, 2017—just in time for Dyslexia Awareness Month in October.

My hope is that this handbook will be a giant step forward in closing the gap between the research on dyslexia and the implementation of best practices in the school and classroom.


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.

Alison Pankowski
Posted by
Alison Pankowski is an International Dyslexia Association (IDA) Certified Dyslexia Therapist and is the current Vice President of the New Jersey branch of the IDA.

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.


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
Posted by
A freshman in a Northern Virginia public high school and a youth advocate for Decoding Dyslexia Virginia

“Acceptance & Achievement: Because of my Dyslexia – Not In Spite of It”

Guest Blog post by Caida Mendelsohn


Caida Mendelsohn

Caida Mendelsohn

In early elementary school, I was aware that I was different from my classmates. I would get pulled out of class to work with and reading specialist. I took longer to finish worksheets in math class. I would stumble over words and make more mistakes than my classmates when reading out loud.

Eventually, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). My parents made the choice to move me to a local school that specialized in dyslexic remediation. This school would help build skills that I could use to be successful, even with dyslexia. The teachers there understood dyslexia and tailored their lessons to meet our needs.

I was no longer self-conscious when reading out loud and I no longer worried about how long it took me to finish a worksheet. All of the other kids in my class were dyslexic. For the first time, I didn’t feel different or weird.

When I went back to a general education classroom, I was given basic accommodations for my dyslexic and ADHD. In my 6th grade earth science class, I began to feel different from the rest of my classmates again.

Every night for homework, we had to read and take notes from our texted book. In reality, the reading was probably only 10 pages but it felt like 100 pages. It took me so long to do my homework every night. I would get frustrated and cry over my text book, then cry to my mom, and then cry over my textbook some more.

None of my friends in class seemed to have the same problems doing the reading and taking notes. Everyone else had organized notes with highlighter and bullet points just like the teacher taught us to do. My notes were messy and almost incoherent.

Then one night, while doing earth science homework, I had an aha-moment. I stopped taking notes on lined paper and started taking notes on printer paper. I started organizing my notes graphically and using colored pencils. When I began taking notes like this, homework became less hard and I started retaining and understanding more of what I was reading.

I realized that I think and learn differently than my peers because of my dyslexia. So why I was trying to study and learn in the same way they were? I needed to use my creativity and try a different ways of studying and figure out how best I learn.

As a junior in college, I still take notes this way.  Being able to think differently, be creative, and adapt is what has made me a successful student. And the challenges I’ve faced have helped me become the advocate I am today.

Having ADHD and a learning disability like dyslexia has been a challenge in some ways, and a great teacher in other ways. I have learned to accept myself and the way I learn. I have learned to speak up for what I need. And I have learned the importance of encouraging others to do the same.

On the nights I cried over my earth science textbook, I never imagined I’d be where I am now. I never imagined I’d be living in Washington, DC, or that I’d have two amazing internship opportunities—first with the National Center for Learning Disabilities and now with the U.S. Department of Education.

But anything is possible.

My experiences have inspired within me a desire to ensure equity in education for all students, including students with disabilities. I want to ensure they, too, have access to the same opportunities as other students. Because one thing I’ve learned is that what you are given in life – even dyslexia or ADHD—does not determine who you are. But what you do with that determines everything.


Caida Mendelsohn is a junior at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and is originally from Decatur Georgia. At Smith, Caida is majoring in Government and minoring in Education and Child Studies. Additionally, Caida is working towards the teaching certificate for elementary education. It was Caida’s personal struggle with her learning disability that first sparked her interest in education and disability rights and advocacy.

“From Hidden Potential to Harvard”

Guest Blog post by Laura A. Schifter


Laura A. Schifter and daughter Ellie

Laura A. Schifter and daughter Ellie

At age seven, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Right after receiving my diagnosis, my parents were told they should not expect much from me and that I would not be successful academically. This assumption came, not from knowing me, not from observing my ability to think, but rather from the simple fact that I had dyslexia, meaning I struggled to read words on a page.

Today, I have a doctorate and teach at Harvard. And many other students with dyslexia find success, too. So why are these assumptions so widespread and expectations so low?

Reading is often seen as the most critical foundational skill in education. Reading is not simply required in English classes, but in all academic classes. This is why it is easy to assume that if a child struggles with reading, they cannot be successful in school. Fortunately for me, my parents did not accept the professional’s assumption as fact.

Growing up, my parents ensured I got the access and support I needed to be successful. My mother allowed me to learn by going to museums or watching videos. I got access to audio books from Reading for the Blind and Dyslexic, and my sister even recorded homemade audio books for me.

However, sometimes these accommodations could not provide the just-in-time support I needed. That’s when I would piece together information from my peers and try to get by. At best, I was able to successfully fake that I had completed the reading. At worst, I would be exposed as not knowing an answer and humiliated.

Even though I had some teachers who looked at me and only saw my barrier with reading, I also encountered many teachers who challenged assumptions and saw my potential. I had an English teacher who met with me before class to discuss the readings; a chemistry teacher who provided additional scaffolding with writing conclusions; and a history teacher who encouraged me to take the Advanced Placement (AP) exam even after I was rejected from the AP class because of concerns that the reading would be too challenging for me.  The exceptional teachers I encountered never lowered expectations for my success, but rather found ways to support me in meeting the expectations.

My experiences, with supportive parents and teachers, are common to many successful students with learning and attention issues and even students with disabilities more broadly. However, given the large achievement gaps for students with learning disabilities, these positive and supportive experiences are not common enough.

In schooling, we place a high value on reading because reading is an effective way to represent content. But it does not need to be the only way. In fact, advances in technology can make representing information in multiple ways easy.

For instance, in my graduate work, I learned about the screen reader embedded in my computer. This tool allows me to have immediate read-aloud support for any accessible digital text. I now use it all the time from reading journal articles to reading emails to proofreading my own work. There are also many other types of technology and accommodations that can make a difference for students with learning disabilities.

In order to fully leverage technology as a tool to help struggling learners, teachers need to not only learn how to use the technology, but also commit to making their lessons accessible to all learners. This commitment can only be successful if we shift our thinking. We must think not about the limitations of the child, but about the limitations in the curriculum.

This shift will change our assumptions and enable us to see past the child’s barrier to reveal the child’s potential. It will help so many more students like me succeed.


Laura A. Schifter, Ed.D., is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, coauthor of How Did You Get Here: Students with Disabilities and Their Journeys to Harvard, and a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Professional Advisory Board.

Previously, Schifter served in Washington, D.C., as a senior education and disability advisor for Rep. George Miller (D-CA) on the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Schifter earned an Ed.D. in education policy, leadership and instructional practice and an Ed.M. in mind, brain and education from Harvard Graduate School of Education. She has a B.A. in American studies from Amherst College. Schifter was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was 7.

10 Million Book Downloads Today Provides a 10x Model for Tomorrow

This is a cross-post from the Benetech Blog. Benetech is a grantee of the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP)


By

Many years ago I had the wild idea to start a deliberately nonprofit technology company in the heart of Silicon Valley. I knew that technology, when applied for social good, promised to usher in positive and sustainable change. Today’s 10 million download milestone is a celebration of our ability to deliver on that promise.

Ten million is more than a big number. It represents our ability to scale technology for global impact. It demonstrates what is possible when technology makes it 80x cheaper to create and 15x cheaper to deliver an accessible book. It shows our ability to empower communities in need with the tools to succeed.10 million download with Bookshare logo

Today’s milestone is worth celebrating, but like any good social entrepreneur, I’m focused on what’s next. What innovation needs to take place so the hundreds of millions of individuals who are unable to read standard print can access every published book? How can we realize our Born Accessible dream of all digital content serving blind people and sighted people equally?  What investments can we make today in order to have the greatest impact tomorrow? Finding answers to these hard questions through scalable technology solutions is what motivates me and the entire Benetech team.

Bookshare’s success provides a proven model for answering these questions. First, we must identify technology-driven solutions that will be 10x better or 10x cheaper (or both!) in delivering social impact. Next, we must engage our communities to test prototypes and to separate the good ideas from the truly great ideas. We will then take the best projects, inject the needed capital and scale them for global impact. The Bookshare model guided us to our 10 million milestone, and it’s a key model that will guide us to identify, develop and scale technology to tackle the hard questions we ask ourselves every day.

Moving forward, we will work hand-in-hand with school districts, libraries and our nonprofit partner organizations to make digital content accessible to everyone who needs it. We will work with publishers to ensure the right tools, standards and best practices are available to build accessibility into all content when it is first created. Globally, we will engage the communities we serve until every person can access every book in the way he or she needs to succeed.

I look forward to sharing more milestones on our mission to empower communities in need by creating scalable technology solutions. I hope you’ll come along with me and the Benetech team on this wild ride.

Check out the press release to learn more about this exciting milestone.

LD/ADHD Proud to Be:
Eye to Eye’s Different Thinkers

Eye to Eye's "Different Thinkers" celebrating LS/ADHD Awareness Month

As the month of October and Learning Disabilities / Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (LD / ADHD) Awareness Month draws to a close, I have been thinking a lot about how our teams here at OSERS are strengthened by people who have different skills, different knowledge, and different approaches to problems. We don’t all think alike which brings strength to our work. I’d like to introduce some amazing students with LD / ADHD who think differently and bring strength to our society.

Recently, David Flink, Founder and Chief Empowerment Officer of Eye to Eye, authored a guest blog on the OSERS blog spot. In his post, David emphasized the importance that awareness plays in breaking stigma and building understanding around diverse learning needs. David frames learning disabilities and LD / ADHD awareness in the following terms, “We like to think, ‘It’s not a learning disability, it’s this ability to think differently.’” In his post, David talked about his own 5th grade reading struggles. Over the years, stories from his teachers and others who had LD and ADHD helped him succeed. He knew youth with learning disabilities needed hope, and they needed strategies for success. They needed mentors.

David founded Eye to Eye as a national mentoring organization run by people with LD / ADHD for people with LD / ADHD. The organization recently launched a National Share-Ability Campaign, which highlights the authentic experiences of students with LD / ADHD. If you’ve been in Times Square lately, you might have seen a giant screen “spectacular” sharing a story. Or maybe you know a student who has had a quiet, personal, one-on-one conversation: many have happened in classrooms and homes across the country.

As part of their Share-Ability Campaign, Eye to Eye asked their college-aged mentors across the country, “What would you like to share about your abilities as a different thinker?” OSERS features those kids’ inspirational answers here—positive messages by self-advocates who wanted to help others by telling their own story.

We welcome you to read their experiences and invite you to share your own.

 

 


Chelsea Bennett, Knox CollegeChelsea Bennett, Knox College

As a different thinker, I have been able to learn more about myself. Not only have I learned how to navigate my ADHD and explore how I learn best, I have also been able to learn great things about myself. My ADHD may be a challenge, but it has also taught me to enjoy the quirky, hyper, fun-loving person that I am because that is what makes me unique!


Katy Demko, University of PittsburghKaty Demko, University of Pittsburgh

Some people think my ADHD should hold me back, but I think it pushes me even more! It took me a while to figure out how I learn and it was a lot of trial and error. But I have come to realize that it is not a learning disability—I just learn differently.


Josh Dishman, Radford UniversityJosh Dishman, Radford University

My disabilities actually give me strength to work even harder towards a goal. Growing up, I was labeled as the wild, energetic kid who could never pay attention in class, which led many to believe that I was an idiot. As I grew up, I learned that having ADHD didn’t make me stupid, it just meant I had to work a little harder. I may have not been attentive enough to read a book, but if I listened to the book on audio, I was able to lead the class discussion on the novel.


Chris Gorman, Hobart and William Smith CollegesChris Gorman, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

I think that having ADHD allows me to approach problems differently. While most people would look to reach point D by going from A to B to C and then D, I always bounce around the problem. This lets me approach problems from a different angle and look at something in a totally different light than most people would.


Caroline Lee, Boston CollegeCaroline Lee, Boston College

As a different thinker, I can get lost on the way to class, forget where I put my textbook, and mix up my 10 AM class with my 12 PM class. But I still know that I have a valuable mind that can learn and approach things in interesting and meaningful ways.


Luz Madrigal, UC IrvineLuz Madrigal, UC Irvine

My ADHD brain is like a computer with a lot of different windows open all at once, and they are all functioning at the same time. I am a bit slow at learning new things just because I pay attention to too many details, but once I learn the task at hand, I tend to be above average in speed at that same job that took me longer to learn. I make sure I slowly learn everything, and once I do, WAM…I am extra efficient because I am a great multi-tasker! ADHD is pretty cool if you ask me.


Brianna Malin, University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignBrianna Malin, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I am a different thinker and I am very proud of it. Living with an LD and ADHD has helped me gain confidence and motivation to succeed in anything I do. I have determination, drive, and dedication to always do my best to reach my goals. This has also helped me to be resilient in the face of any obstacle. I am very grateful to be different and to think different because it makes me, me!


Georgia Mavrogeorgis, SUNY BuffaloGeorgia Mavrogeorgis, SUNY Buffalo

My learning disabilities provide me with the gift of being able to understand and see the world from a different perspective.
I’m more open-minded and accepting of individuals and their differences.


Becca O’Hea, ECUBecca O’Hea, East Carolina University

Having dyslexia has given me immense patience in having to spend extra hours completing reading assignments, and taught me to be a strong listener to compensate for being a slow reader and writer. I make it a point to tell others about my difference and how it has help me in furthering my career as a student and as a future school psychologist.


Brandon Odenheimer, University of DenverBrandon Odenheimer, University of Denver

I have been classified as LD and ADHD since 1st grade. Now I’m in my senior year of college, and I have been able to use my way of learning to succeed in my studies all the way. The ability to share my experiences with others is very rewarding.


Arthi Selvan, Temple UniversityArthi Selvan, Temple University

I’ve struggled a lot with being a different thinker, especially as a science major. To me, being a STEM major means you must be the type A personality: organized, efficient, a linear thinker, competitive. However, my learning difference benefits me. I have the ability to see and approach problems differently than most STEM majors do. I sometimes feel like I have a secret super power because of my ability to think differently.


Sam Solomon, University of WyomingSam Solomon, University of Wyoming

Nobody ever told me bluntly, that I was doing it “wrong.” But after a lifetime of little corrections and criticisms about how you think and live, you start to hear it. It takes a lot of courage, a lot of self-love to truthfully tell yourself that your habits and flaws and quirks are wonderful. It isn’t about fixing yourself. You have to form an alliance with your learning style.

 


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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.