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By: Luke Trayser and Ptahra Jeppe
Just a few decades ago, the prognosis of dyslexia was grim. Awareness was lacking and support was even worse; often, schools only knew that reading scores were low—not why or how to help. But as more entrepreneurs and even movie stars step forward and share their dyslexia stories, the world is taking notice, and the prognosis may not be so grim after all. When it comes to speaking to those challenges and opportunities, few people on earth are more qualified than Ptahra Jeppe.
Ptahra lives with dyslexia so extreme, it’s difficult or even impossible for her to read street signs, order from a restaurant menu or read an email. And yet, she is wrapping up a Law degree from Syracuse University. How, exactly, is someone with extreme dyslexia able to begin a vocation rooted in the written word?
The answer isn’t exclusive to any one thing. Family, educators, assistive technology (AT), multi-sensory education, and accommodations have all played a role in helping her navigate classrooms and offices. But—and here’s where she really gets fired up—there’s plenty of room for improvement.
By definition, dyslexia is a disorder. That one word immediately signals to children and faculty that dyxlexic students are not normal. They do indeed need additional assistance to make their way through school, and extra resources and effort are needed to help them succeed. So, yes, people with dyslexia learn differently. But at the same time, a stigma persists to this day that dyslexic individuals are less capable than people who read without difficulty.
That may have been true in decades past, but assistive technology has bridged the gap. When people who have no experience with dyslexia learn that people with the disorder now get the same grades, get the same jobs, and earn the same money as their peers, they usually ingest that information in eyebrow-raised surprise.
And that is the one thing most educators still miss. The tools we have available today don’t just let students get by. They shape them and put them on their career trajectories. As Ptahra puts it, assistive technology is not a crutch. It’s a ticket.
When teachers and administrators look at a student’s performance, they need to assess what to do next. Often they have mapped courses of action like intervention or extra instruction. It’s a natural position to take, and it takes practice to go beyond it. “When I was in school,” Ptahra said, “Nobody thought, ‘We’re giving her audiobooks, which will translate to listening to the world, which will allow her to read texts proficient enough that she can go to law school.’ Too often accommodations are not seriously considered or they are seen in opposition to instruction.
“Nobody saw my tools and accommodations as things that could grow with me. But that’s exactly what they were. That was my takeaway. AT was not a crutch. It was a ticket to wherever I wanted to go.”
For years, Ptahra has battled the stigma that she’s less capable, an opinion that often comes from people who didn’t take time to understand her entire story. “People say, ‘She needs to know how to read,’ to which I say, ‘I reached an elementary reading level after years of intensive reading instruction, but where would I have ended up without also having accommodations?’”
Humans have never been one-size-fits-all, and forcing education to be that way is an old habit that has taken significant time and effort to break. Just as we all have different appearances, personality traits and passions, we all have an ideal way to learn.
Ptahra uses a combination of Snap&Read and Co:Writer to learn and to work. She uses the software to read, to study, and to email. “We all have a toolbox. An arsenal to use,” she said. “If I’m consulting someone who needs assistance, step 1 is figuring out what we’re trying to solve. What does this person need? Then you go from there.”
“We all have different needs, so what are we trying to target? Does your child have ADHD? Dyslexia? Are they going to college? How does listening comprehension levels compare to independent reading? How involved and fluent in AT is their school district? The answers to these questions vary, and they help determine what tools need to be considered for the toolbox.”
“School districts,” Ptahra said, “need to buy in. Send faculty to workshops and trainings and talk about AT continuously. Every school has students who struggle, and when that happens, a staff that’s trained will know what the helpful resources are.”
What begins as assistive technology often becomes universally adopted. Take speech recognition, for example. What began as dictation technologies for people with writing issues now drive Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant. That’s the key, Ptahra says. In order to change the mindset about AT, it needs to be normalized.
“I think it’s funny when I see people getting frustrated trying to use Siri,” she said. I’m like, ‘Welcome to my life!’ But the more people use these tools themselves, the more they’ll understand them and grasp why they might be useful for students or employees who need them.”
Ptahra, currently ranked 10th in her Syracuse Law class of 180 people, recently asked her neuropsychologist what her reading level is. The answer? 4th grade. “That gap is HUGE,” she said. “It’s the difference between what my disability allows me to do versus what my brain is capable of.”
So, how do you help your students move from what their disability allows them to do what their brains are capable of? If you’re an educator, you may have already asked yourself that question. Ptahra has advice that can be summed up in a single word: practice.
“Reading with your eyes is a skill, as is reading with your ears. To any student who’s struggling, any adult who’s struggling, any parent who’s worried about their disabled child: it takes repetition. That’s how you get better at this. It’s how you get better at any skill. If you’re practicing listening to text, you’re getting better and better at it. You’re building stamina and preparing for exams or interviews or jobs.
Ptahra has a message and a vision for dyslexic students, and it’s the path toward success and fulfillment she found herself forging. “One day, you’ll be sitting at work. Or navigating the world. You’ll be doing this in a way you wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. I have these moments every day. I’m using these tools, but it’s not just that. I’m reshaping them and making them my own. Showing people ‘Hey, this is how I work. You can hire me. Your fear of it taking longer, me telling you I can’t do this stuff, missed deadlines and subpar work, it won’t happen.’
If you are ready to give your dyslexic students the tools they need to not merely survive in their careers but thrive, learn more about Snap&Read and Co:Writer. It just might be the ticket your students need to take off. To mirror what Ptahra eloquently stated, AT was not a crutch. It was a ticket to wherever she wanted to go.
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