By Doug Sprei
National Director of Communications
In February, six Learning Ally members took center stage in the inspiring setting of the U.S. Capitol. The "Impact of Access" Roundtable
brought parents, volunteers, and community members face to face with our National Achievement Award winners -- serving up living proof that students with reading disabilities can flourish in school and become role models in society. A chorus of parents of kids with visual and learning disabilities added their voices as well.
Our intent with these roundtable events has been to engage the media and community in a rich discussion with young people who have bucked the odds in the face of obstacles posed by blindness, dyslexia and other reading disabilities.
Especially for those lucky enough to meet them up close, our NAA winners demonstrate that people who learn differently can read and succeed in K-12 and higher education, move toward success in the workplace, and follow their highest goals.
The atmosphere in Congressional Meeting Room North was warm and lively. Conversations percolated with humor and refreshing candor.
Learning Ally's President and CEO, Andrew Friedman
, was joined at the panelist table by our six top National Achievement Award winners
Left to right: Hoby Wedler, Margaret Perry, Steph Fernandes, CEO Andrew Friedman, Carson Wigley, Grey Pilant, Ashley Brow.
The star panelists included:
- Henry “Hoby” Wedler, a 24-year old graduate student from Davis, California; born blind, now pursuing a career in science. Having completed his undergraduate work at UC Davis – double majoring in Chemistry and History and minoring in Mathematics, and achieving a 3.83 grade point average – Hoby is now rocking the halls in grad school at UC Davis, pursuing his Ph.D. in Chemistry, and establishing himself as a role model and mentor for younger students.
- Stephanie Fernandes, a 22-year old graduate student from Ohio, is pursuing her law degree at The Ohio State University. Undeterred by total blindness resulting from Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, Fernandes graduated with honors from Boston College with a 3.93 grade point average. Now with her sights firmly set on a career in public interest law, Steph hopes to focus on education, disabilities and child advocacy. “Ultimately my education comes with a responsibility,” she says, “to use my talents to serve other people whose rights have been wrongly denied or ignored.” Click on the photo at right to watch Steph's great interview on "Let's Talk Live," a TV news show on the ABC affiliate in Washington, DC.
- Ashley Brow, a blind 22-year old from Massachusetts, who is in graduate school at Emerson College pursuing a career as a speech-language pathologist. After losing her vision in eighth grade, Brow summoned up unwavering determination to succeed in school. She completed her undergraduate work at Emerson with a 3.99 grade point average – and became the first person in her family to get a college education.
- Carson Wigley, an 18-year old student from Maryland who has dyslexia, now a freshman at Wake Forest University. In addition to taking advanced placement courses and graduating from high school with a 97.0/100 grade point average, Wigley was a Maryland state winner of Letters about Literature, a national competition of the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. At the Roundtable, she described what led her to found her own organization, SHINE Now, which has collected nearly 4,000 books for children in Title I schools and homeless shelters.
- Gregory “Grey” Pilant, a 19-year old student from Florida who has severe dyslexia and reading/processing disability. A high achiever during his early school years, Pilant harbored a lifelong goal to become a physician. During middle school, however, he underwent a crisis of confidence as his undiagnosed learning disability met with the demands of honors algebra and other challenging classes. After what he described as “a two-year tailspin,” Pilant was diagnosed with dyslexia and eventually guided by a school learning specialist to Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic. Now a freshman at the University of Miami, Grey is flourishing as a pre-med student while also working in hospital emergency rooms as a volunteer.
- Margaret Perry, 18-year old student from Maryland who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder. Before starting her freshman year at Duke University, Perry spent the summer working at SuperKids Camp in Baltimore, a nonprofit summer camp for inner city elementary students to improve their literacy and math skills. Now studying Public Policy and Art at Duke University, Margaret intends to use her creativity and knowledge about learning differences to be an advocate for those facing struggles similar to her own.
ADDITIONALLY, THE ROUNDTABLE provided a forum for parents of children with learning differences -- enabling them to air their experiences and share intensely personal testimony. Ten parents participated in person, including Kristin Kane
of Northern Virginia (photo at left
); and they were joined by a chorus of nearly 50 mothers and fathers from around the U.S. who sent in statements through Learning Ally's social media channels on Facebook and Twitter.
That combination of in-the-room and virtual voices added vividness to the dialogue and lent a national community atmosphere to the event. In all, the parental group made an extremely persuasive case for public policy and institutional reforms that could empower families to obtain accommodations they need and pave the way for educators to gain access to assistive technology.
This year's Roundtable enjoyed special sparks from a new element within the audience. Eight volunteer readers from Learning Ally's Washington, DC studio attended; their presence was appreciated by all, and added great warmth and interest. Our studio volunteers rarely have an opportunity to meet face to face with students on the "receiving end" of their labors. At right, volunteer reader Lindsey Dodson
was delighted to spend time with Steph Fernandes on the steps of the U.S. Capitol after the morning session concluded.
Stay tuned: In our next blog installment on the NAA Roundtable, we'll share potent excerpts from the conversation.
- Doug Sprei