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A Hunger for Reading

special-needs-stories-boy-with-nose-in-bookI’ve been called many things throughout my life. …Lazy, stupid, doesn’t even try

My third grade math teacher doesn’t believe me when I tell her I can’t read the directions she has written on the board. Again and again I ask her to read them to me. She refuses.

So I sit in my third grade math class and draw (the one thing I can do). The teacher catches me and throws me out of class, saying I’m lazy, not even trying to do my work.

I cry because I want to do well, to understand…to read. But I just can’t, and I don’t know why.

The boy who everyone says is the stupidest in the fourth grade calls me stupid, so he can feel superior to at least one person, because at least he can read.

I cry because I feel that, in part, he’s right. I’m not stupid, I tell myself over and over again. It’s hard to believe when not being able to read is equated with being “slow.”

Our 2005 Anne Ford Scholar, Liana Mulholland, was identified with dyslexia and had to completely relearn how to read in sixth grade. She proves that disabilities can be a great advantage as it helped her see things differently to shape her love of art as well as make her active in civil rights organizations.

By fifth grade, I’ve given up and give in. I think I’m stupid, and there’s no point in trying my best, because it’s never good enough anyway.

In sixth grade, however, something new happens. My English teacher doesn’t care that I can’t read. She can see my imagination desperately search for a way out.

I love books and always have. When my mother read out loud, books took me to different worlds, away from the reality where people thought I was stupid. Books — the very things that had defeated me — could also bring me such refuge and happiness.

My sixth grade English teacher recognized that I could draw, creating worlds of my own where I could lose myself. She knew that I could also write about these things if given the chance. She taught me to love to write, even when no one, including me, could read my stories, because the spelling was so bad. I explained them to her, and she understood. Suddenly my best was good enough. I began to think maybe it was alright to try.

That’s when they assigned me a tutor. It took one very long, painful year. I had to relearn everything: sounds, syllables and symbols. By the seventh grade, after only one year of tutoring and despite hundreds of previous failed attempts, I had learned to read.

Since then I have devoured books with the hunger of someone tasting food for the first time. I’m trying to make up for six years of yearning, and failing, to read.

But I can’t just enjoy the privilege of being seen as the smart kid, who’s never struggled. I have a duty to tell people about my dyslexia; I want them to know that learning disabled people aren’t stupid.

I still have to have the “talk” with each of my teachers at the beginning of each school year, explaining my disability and the accommodations I need. Some are cooperative, some are less so, but the key for me is not to be ashamed.

The fight is never really over, though. Special education programs are always among the first to be cut in a budget crisis, though ironically, they’re the ones most in need of funds. That is why three years ago, as a freshman in high school, I spoke with pride and confidence at several town hall meetings on our district’s special education program. The administration had taken away my tutor and replaced her with an unqualified substitute, as they had done to other students throughout the city. I knew that as one of the few learning disabled students who could speak out, I had to do it for myself and others like me. Through my own organizing and that of others, we were able to reverse the budget cuts and I got my tutor back.

In some ways, my disability is an advantage. Because I couldn’t read for so long, I learned to look. I notice things about my surroundings that others may not. That’s why I’ve always excelled in art. It’s given me an edge and I intend to become a character designer in computer animation. I will learn the skills I need for this profession at the University of Michigan, where I have been accepted to the School of Art and Design.

My struggles with my disabilities have also made me understand the struggles of other disadvantaged people. Being dyslexic has made me realize that education can never be a “one size fits all” system. I’ve done extensive civil rights work since the eighth grade, motivated partly by my disability. I’ve helped organize marches and rallies, and spoken at a number of school board meetings for positive change in the school district. Being dyslexic, I understand what it’s like for people to make assumptions about me and my capabilities, and how discouraging it is to fall short of standards which my education had not prepared me for—knowing that I could excel if offered the appropriate preparation.

My disability had taught me not to judge people or to categorize them as smart or stupid. Everyone is good at something and has something to offer. I know what I have to offer: I can accomplish great things in animation if given the opportunity to learn the skills, and I can advocate for other people with disabilities. My own experience shows that learning disabled people have just as much to offer as everyone else if we’re given the learning tools we need to succeed, such as special tutoring services, tape recorders, books on tape, and extended time on tests. Everyone can contribute to society if they are given the help they need and deserve.

I’ve been called many things throughout my life. …Smart, hard working, motivated

Yet, I haven’t really changed. I’m still the same person, with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, a need to understand, a will to succeed. Only, now…I can read. Now I’m dedicated to ensuring that others like me get that opportunity as well.

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