Our daughter Hillary was in the fifth grade when she was originally diagnosed with a language disability. It wasn't until she was a freshman in high school that her disability was given a name: Aphasia. Hillary's Aphasia is both expressive and receptive, meaning that reading, writing, processing information and speaking are all more laborious tasks for her than for other students. At the time of the diagnosis, doctors told us that college was an unrealistic aspiration for Hillary.
Hillary's strong work ethic got her through two difficult years of junior high school. It was clear from the beginning of high school, however, that it was going to take more then hard work and determination to keep Hillary's self-esteem and desire to succeed intact. The increased work load and more complicated subject matter meant hours of studying every night. The results were barely passing grades and a student who was left feeling defeated and worthless. Although Hillary had an Individualized Education Program, neither she nor I were savvy enough to take full advantage of what it offered.
We are very fortunate to live in a school district that offers an innovative high school program called LEAD (an acronym which stands for Learning and Educating About Disabilities). This program, which is unique to Cheyenne Mountain High School in Colorado Springs, is under the direction of the school's Special Education Department Chair. LEAD is an accredited class made up of college-bound students with learning disabilities and AD/HD. During class time, LEAD students learn about disabilities and their legal rights as students with disabilities. They also learn that self-knowledge and self-advocacy are powerful tools for the student with LD and AD/HD.
The LEAD curriculum includes opening up the students' cumulative folders so they can examine and understand their own test scores and assessments. This information helps them support their requests for the accommodations and modifications they might be entitled to. Students learn about their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and how to actively participate in their own IEP or 504. LEAD students learn not to rely on teachers and parents to advocate for them. It is a responsibility they take on themselves.
During the course of Hillary's four years as a LEAD student, she developed the habit of writing letters to each of her teachers at the beginning of the semester. These letters explained her disability, what accommodations she needed and why. Accompanying the letter were articles on Aphasia she had found on the Internet. Hillary educated teachers about her disability and they not only accepted her need for accommodations, but encouraged her to use them.
LEAD provided a niche for Hillary, a place where she could be accepted and understood. In addition, it taught her to focus on her strengths. One of LEAD's most important lessons is that a learning disability has nothing to do with intelligence. As Hillary's confidence and self-esteem grew, she became more successful at dealing with academic challenges and graduated from high school with an enviable grade point average.
Since its inception, 95% of the high school's LEAD students have gone on to college. Hillary is now one of those students. In spite of dire predictions from well-meaning professionals, Hillary is currently a freshman at a four-year college. Each day is a challenge, but the lessons of LEAD have served her well. She confidently explains to each of her college professors about her disability and how it affects her. She does not hesitate to use the accommodations that she knows she is entitled to. Hillary finished her first semester of college with grades that anyone would be proud of.
Although LEAD is unique to Cheyenne Mountain High School, it is my hope that some day all schools will offer a similar program that will teach students with learning disabilities the crucial skill of self-advocacy and the importance of self-knowledge. It takes commitment from administrators, parents and teachers, but all students with learning disabilities and AD/HD should be given the necessary tools for success, both in college and in life.
Listen to the "A Parent's Perspective — Tools for the High School Student with LD" podcast today!