Wesley Brooks is one of six students from across the U.S. to receive Learning Ally’s National Achievement Award
- It hasn’t been easy for Wesley Brooks, of Metuchen, to succeed in school. He is visually
impaired with limited peripheral vision and mild cerebral palsy, and teachers haven’t always understood his challenges. But, in spite of this, Brooks has thrived. He is one of six students from across the U.S. to receive Learning Ally’s National Achievement Award.
Learning Ally, a 68-year-old nonprofit, serves individuals with learning and visual disabilities. Each year, they award six students scholarship awards and honor them at the organization’s National Achievement Awards Gala celebration in Denver. Students are recognized for their academic excellence, extraordinary leadership and service to others.
“The main goal of Learning Ally is to enable students with these different ways of accessing information to be able to flourish and move on to do whatever they want to,” said National Director for PR and Communications Doug Sprei. “Despite living with two handicaps, Wesley has been an active and vocal leader in a distinguished list of school and community based initiatives — and he is keenly interested in advocacy for people with disabilities.”
Brooks graduated in January from Monmouth University and is exploring career options in support of people who have disabilities like blindness, possibly even working for Learning Ally.
Learning Ally helps people who learn differently and “are committed to helping individuals with a visual disability or learning differences achieve their full potential.” They have the largest collection of human-read audio books and literature titles in the world, and supply parent support services and give educators strategies for the classroom.
They support K-12, college and graduate students, veterans and lifelong learners — all of whom read and learn differently due to dyslexia, blindness or visual impairment and other disabilities. Learning Ally’s collection of 82,000 human-narrated audio textbooks and literature titles can be downloaded by students using their smartphones and tablets.
"Learning Ally first intersected with me when I entered high school,” Brooks said. "It not only helped me to graduate and increase my independence, but it became a lifelong tool that I will use the rest of my life, from college and high school textbooks to recreational reading. It’s a way for me to be a part of the world and achieve what once was not very possible.”
He said he had struggled at times in school with instructors who were not understanding.
“It was very difficult because in college, I had professors who had a dim approach on special needs and disabilities," he said. "One said to me, as I had majored in English and secondary education, ‘Oh, you are an English major, you shouldn’t be using audio books.’ Some people really just don’t understand.”
Brooks, 24, first started using Learning Ally’s services when he was 14.
“It allowed me to keep up with what my friends were doing academically and through leisure," he said. "It was really invaluable to me, with the audio books, computer software and other technology.”
Brooks doesn’t know exactly what career he wants to pursue, but he is currently exploring options.
“My goal is really to give back," he said. "I want to help advocate for other people with special needs. Learning Ally did such a great job helping me be successful, that I want to help other people. I think when teachers saw that I could keep up with the various tools Learning Ally supplied, it opened up their eyes to the fact that people do learn differently. Technology was a huge help.”
He credits his mother with helping him succeed.
“She was very involved in my education and taught me how to be a strong advocate for myself from when I was a little kid,” he said, adding that his mother would invite him to come to meetings with school officials, and, “She’d ask me if there was anything I wanted to say, and encourage me to speak for myself. She is a very strong advocate for me.”
He said winning the scholarship, going to Denver, seeing Learning Ally’s headquarters and meeting some of the volunteer readers was an incredible experience.
“I got to meet some wonderful people and saw firsthand what Learning Ally has done for me," he said. "I want to help someone else in that way, make an impact. I hope that others won’t have to go through what I faced in getting an education.”
Sprei said that thanks to technology, Learning Ally was able to help students like Brooks more than ever.
“Our entire library is all digital on the cloud," he said. "Students can access it in any mainstream device they have, their iPad, computer, Android device, whatever they need. It’s all about giving as easy as possible access to students like Brooks who need their education materials to come in a different format. When you meet a student like Brooks, you realize the whole notion of disabilities is turned upside down, because he’s so talented.
“What the award really represents is recognizing students who have blown past barriers to move towards their goals and become assets to society. The scholarship and award really recognize outstanding academic achievement and community leadership. Wesley is a remarkable person, and he really wants to give back, wants to pay it forward. He knows the journey he’s been on, and he wants to help make it easy for students to follow in his footsteps.”