Dyslexia and the Magic of Human Potential

By: Luke Trayser

This is Part 2 of our conversation with Ptahra Jeppe, an extremely dyslexic Syracuse University law student who is currently 10th in her class thanks in large part to assistive technology. Ptahra advocates for and advises families and children trying to navigate the often frustrating and always challenging worlds of dyslexia and education. Click here for Part 1.

Student walking down an isle in a library full of books

The Human Potential movement, at its core, believes there is something special—and typically untapped—in all of us. That is certainly the case for dyslexic students. In prior decades, and even still today, they are at the mercy of traditional curriculum delivery methods. Their capable and powerful brains are in danger of never showing the world what they’re capable of simply because they can’t process the written word effectively.

 

But now truly helpful assistive technology is here, and the educational world is finally becoming aware of it. Learning is slowly shifting from teacher-driven to student-led, and with that change has come the realization that students’ ideal learning conditions are as unique as they are. Not everyone learns best from reading on their own. Some students—dyslexic ones in particular—struggle with reading and excel when getting read aloud assistance. 

 

AT has the power to realize human potential in all students with disabilities, and that’s what we asked Ptrahra Jeppe about: what human potential means to her, how it impacted her career trajectory, and how it’s impacting the students and families she speaks to.

Two young girl students writing

“I think it’s a little bit of magic that lives in all of us,” she said. “It’s not just what you’re born with or capable of doing, and it’s not the ability to gain that knowledge or to not gain it. There’s something magical about people who are told all their lives that they can’t do something, then they do it anyway.” 

Indeed, whether it’s an undersized athlete, a self-made millionaire, or a dyslexic student, the negative opinions from people who think they know their future serve as fuel to keep going, and a kind of anti-self-fulfilling prophecy. Oh, you think I can’t do this? Okay. Now I’m going to.

Ptahra’s Law School Struggle and Success

“On a personal level, my journey to law school was not an easy one. I didn’t get the accommodations I needed at the first law school I enrolled in, and I had to withdraw. So technically, I’m a law school dropout! But now, with the right accommodations in place, I’ve gone from dropout to 10th out of 178. I’m still the same person. The only thing that changed was my accommodations.”

ptahra jeppe working at a computer

“We’re all human, and we’re all different. I speak to parents whose kids are better off in self contained 12 to 1. Others are better off in inclusion, or better off with athletics. I remember one of the biggest things that changed a kid with ADD’s success was having gym first period.”

 

“How humans interact in different spaces is human potential, and it’s infinite.”

 

Ptahra speaks from a lifetime of experience. Human potential is not some calculated, linear path that says you have to do A, then B, then C to maximize who you were meant to be. Where one student goes from A to B to C, another might go from B to C to A, or eliminate B entirely to bring D into the mix.

Realizing Potential Looks Different for Everyone

One summer not long ago, Ptahra spoke to an attorney about a student on the autism spectrum. When prioritization of skills came up, he told her that transition and navigational skills should not top the list since he would not know how to take the train by himself. The time and effort would be better spent in other areas. That fired Ptahra up, and she gave her two cents.

Boy on computer working at a booth with head in hand

“I said that makes sense if you think navigation and transition skills solely means taking the train by yourself to get to work, but it’s much more than that. It could also mean knowing how to look both ways before you step into traffic, or knowing how to get off the bus at the right stop and go home. That way, his mom can cook and do other things instead of waiting for him at the bus stop each time. Being productive, reaching your potential, the path to getting there is unique for that student, and for all of us.”

 

“Personally, there will be things I’ll never be able to do. I’ll never be able to transcribe. I’ll never be a court stenographer because I’d fail. Growing up, people used to just ask, ‘Does she know how to write? Or spell? No?’ and my potential was limited to that.’

 

“But then I discovered that little bit of magic, and others saw it, too. We worked together, we tried new things, we advocated, and we never gave up.”

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Conversations have a typical flow whenever Ptahra voices a big goal, then tells the person she’s talking to that she’s extremely dyslexic. They look at her and ask her how she plans on doing it. She has an honest answer for them.

 

“I don’t know! I was told I’d never graduate high school. I don’t know how I made it all the way through 12th grade. I had no idea how I’d survive undergrad, and I certainly have no idea how I’m making it work in law school.”

 

That feeling, Ptahra has found, is close to universal for dyslexic students. Many long term effects, and even long term goals, can’t be anticipated at the start. That’s why Ptahra talks to families about the importance of trying things until something works well.

 

“I try to tell them, well, this is what I did,” she says. “So at least they’re starting at square two and not square one. I’m speaking to more and more law students with disabilities these days, and the universal truth is you don’t know what you don’t know. I know what it’s like to be a successful student with dyslexia, but I have no idea what it’s like to be a successful lawyer with dyslexia. I’ll find out when I get there.”

Paying it Forward

When Ptahra was growing up, she didn’t know any other dyslexic people, and when she finally did, they were all young white men who had plenty of help. Their moms went to school with them and their girlfriends wrote their papers. It was discouraging for her, until she realized something.

Young boy writing with classmates

“At first glance, I had nothing in common with those guys apart from our dyslexia. But I noticed they were self-accommodating. I could do that, too. They needed to write and to read, and they found help. So that’s where I started. How do I get read to? What does that look like?”

 

“I would never have been able to go to law school 30 years ago, or even 10 years ago. But assistive technology, programs like Snap&Read, they let me do it.”

 

And today, when talking to students and parents, Ptahra reminds them that their situation is unique, and it’s not one-size-fits-all. Just as she found common ground with fellow dyslexics years ago, they might find some common ground with her.

 

“I try to live my life in truth, to be honest and transparent so I can help break down the stigma that’s still attached to dyslexia,” she said. “I hope I can continue to speak to people, to encourage them, tell them they can do this. I’m here. I did it, and you can do it. It looks different for everybody and that’s okay. It’s not about becoming a lawyer or a teacher. It’s about becoming you.”

 

For far too long, dyslexic students were held back by the curriculum that was forced upon them. Reading was a struggle, learning was a struggle, and many students no doubt felt lesser than their peers and endured extra frustration and hardship in their lives.

 

But now, dyslexia is being talked about. Assistive technology is widespread and is more powerful than ever, and those tools can drastically alter the course of a student’s life. Socially, dyslexic individuals are finding each other, talking to each other, and learning from each other to maximize their inherent human potential. 

 

What works for Ptahra may not necessarily work for the students she talks to, and that’s a beautiful thing. We are all unique, so it makes perfect sense that the way we prefer to learn is unique as well.

If you are ready to give your dyslexic students the tools they need to realize their human potential, learn more about Snap&Read and Co:Writer. They just might be exactly what your students need become exactly who they were meant to be.

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