Princeton Junction resident and Cornell University freshman proves that dyslexia is not an obstacle to educational success
PRINCETON, NJ – Learning Ally, a 66-year-old nonprofit serving individuals with learning and visual disabilities, has bestowed its highest award to
Brian Meersma of Princeton Junction, NJ. Meersma is one of six students from across the U.S. who will receive cash awards and travel with their families to be honored at Learning Ally’s National Gala celebration in Washington, DC on April 18.
Meersma’s passion for learning is matched by his passion for contributing to his community. He has been recognized with a Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award and his township issued a proclamation to him for “making significant contributions to the environment.” He even received a personal letter from former President Clinton expressing admiration for his community involvement.
An accomplished student, Meersma achieved Dean’s List status in his first semester as a freshman at Cornell University. He uses his technological savvy, a supportive educational environment and access to resources such as Learning Ally to manage his dyslexia.
It wasn’t always this way. Some of his middle and high school teachers warned that reading with technology was a “crutch,” creating a dependence that would impede his learning and limit his success. Yet without assistive technology, Meersma struggled mightily.
Buoyed by the guidance of Dr. Brian Friedlander, a New Jersey-based assistive technology specialist, and the support of his family, Meersma was not deterred. “I do almost all of my reading using audio and text-to-speech technologies,” he says. I don’t see it as a crutch; it is a necessary tool. I have cousins who are blind and they read using their fingers to feel the letters on the page. Most of my friends and family read using their eyes. I read using both my eyes and ears. The way I think about it, we all just have different ways of getting information.” He adds, “I’ve never minded being the only one in class reading on a computer or tablet. What I do mind is the alternative—being the only one who doesn’t understand the book.”
Meersma’s fascination with the tools that enabled him to thrive, and his desire to contribute to the community drove him to launch an acclaimed assistive technology blog, which quickly grew to reach a large audience of teachers, administrators, parents and students. He also ran a summer reading club for students who are dyslexic to “teach them how cool it is to read with technology and not have to struggle through every word.” One of the participant’s parents remarked, “I am in awe of Brian. He provides a service to students with dyslexia so they won’t have to struggle or be labeled as different and so they can achieve in life and school. My own child has dyslexia and has denied his disability because he didn’t want to be different. Brian took his difference and made a difference.”
Now Meersma is frequently approached to give presentations on technologies for students who have learning differences like dyslexia. He has also become involved in legislative advocacy with the goal of improving support for students with disabilities. “As I learn more about computers, technology and public policy in college,” he says, “I hope to contribute to developing the next generation of accessible technology and finding other ways to support equal access for people with dyslexia and other disabilities.”
About the National Achievement Awards
Since 1959, Learning Ally has honored exceptional students who are blind or visually impaired through its privately endowed Mary P. Oenslager Scholastic Achievement Awards (SAA) for college seniors and beyond. Hundreds of students apply for these prestigious awards each year and are selected by committees of Learning Ally volunteers, board members, parents, educators, donors and staff. Students are recognized for their academic excellence, leadership, and service to others; each award winner has a long list of honors and accomplishments, and has graduated with a GPA above 3.0, with most near the 4.0 mark; and they have thrived on their education paths thanks in part to their use of accessible educational content and assistive technology provided by Learning Ally. For information about applying for Learning Ally’s National Achievement awards, visit https://learningally.org/naa/apply.
About Learning Ally
Founded in 1948, Learning Ally helps K-12, college and graduate students, veterans and lifelong learners – all of whom read and learn differently due to blindness, visual impairment, dyslexia, or other learning disabilities. Through its support programs and audiobooks, Learning Ally enables families and teachers to help students thrive and succeed. The organization provides support to parents and students through events, webinars, personal consultations and other tools; and integrated learning management systems and professional development for teachers. In addition, Learning Ally’s collection of more than 80,000 human-narrated audio textbooks and literature titles can be downloaded on mainstream smartphones and tablets, and is the largest of its kind in the world. Several thousand volunteers help to produce the educational materials, which students rely on to achieve academic and professional success. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Learning Ally is partially funded by grants from state and local education programs, and the generous contributions of individuals, foundations and corporations. For more information, visit https://learningally.org.