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Student Adventurer and Blogger “Commander Ben” Becomes Dyslexia Advocate

Categories: Assistive Technology, Learning Disabilities, Parenting

Learning Ally member Ben Shrader was diagnosed with severe dyslexia in kindergarten, but did not publicly reveal his learning difference on his very popular science blog until eighth grade. Along with his other passions of filmmaking and fighting invasive plant species, Ben now writes about dyslexia with an emphasis on the positive aspects, including how he uses technology to overcome spelling, reading and writing challenges. Loyal followers of Ben’s blog are familiar with his entertaining videos about taking on invasive plants in the Texas Hill Country. “Commander Ben” destroys “the bad guys” using Taekwondo, a creative way to keep his movies about combatting invasive plants action-packed. Ben’s blog is filled with interviews with scientists and naturalists and other videos about his ecological outings. One post covers his Invasive Hunter Academy, a multi-sensory program he created to help kids of all learning styles grow their knowledge about invasive plants. Ben’s academy debuted during the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Invasive Species Awareness Week in Washington, DC. During the Kids’ Day event at the US Botanic Garden, over 200 kids had fun learning about invasive species and became future invasive hunters through Ben’s academy. One of his most recent accomplishments includes being the only middle school student to have his video be one of 25 selected from over 200 entries for the 2012 Lights. Camera. Help. Focus on Good Film Festival. With so much positive recognition and hard work turning into success for Ben, his father, Ted Shrader, was a little hesitant when Ben decided to discuss dyslexia openly on his blog. “My uncertainty came from a fear that people would start viewing Ben only for his dyslexia, rather than seeing him for all the neat things he does.  But Ben wanted to be an Ally – he wanted to share his experiences in order to help others. Since he began writing about dyslexia on his blog, many kids and parents have written in to thank him. I’m glad he made that choice because dyslexia is a part of him and he is giving others hope.”

The Journey Surrounding a Dyslexia Diagnosis

Mary Shrader, Ben’s mom, remembers that when Ben was younger he didn’t enjoy playing with the toy blocks with letters on them. Nor did he look at books like other kids did. “It caused Ben unhappiness and he had an aversion to those things. I didn’t think much about it, but as he got older even he knew almost instinctively (because he was so smart) that something was wrong. He asked me, ‘Mom, why can’t I read CAT? I can’t even read CAT!’ It was hard to see that struggle and frustration in him.” At six years old after undergoing many excruciating tests, Ben was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. After trying several possibilities at school, the Shraders felt he would benefit from a different environment. Although she was working as an attorney, Mary made the choice to homeschool Ben.

As the family hired tutors and specialists to help Ben at home, he became more and more hungry for knowledge. “We just couldn’t supply everything he needed," says Ted. "We could only read to him so much, and we wanted him to be able to learn and explore things on his own – so, that is when we started looking for resources, especially textbooks. We needed him to be able to access that information."

Ted found Learning Ally online and suddenly remembered that many years ago, he had volunteered as a science reader at the Austin studio when the organization was called Recording for the Blind. “I thought, 'wow, this has been right under my nose. This is it!'  We got Ben signed up, started downloading audiobooks from Learning Ally’s library and put them on his reading device. We started with novels and then began downloading his textbooks. He had a voracious appetite for those books. Now he is able to go at his own pace and we are so thankful.” “I’m just so proud of him. He is such a good young man,” says Mary. “I think his dyslexia has made him more empathetic towards others when they are struggling and we are so glad he continues to use his dyslexia for good.” Ben’s perspective is that he wouldn’t be who he is today without dyslexia. “I don’t like all the negative information you see online about how bad it is to have dyslexia," he says. "I wanted to put something good out there, to let kids know that dyslexia can be a good thing.” As he prepares to attend high school, Ben is also working on his next video entry for an upcoming film festival. Watch this video to hear more as he shares his perspective and advice for others with dyslexia: Check out more videos from Ben on CommanderBen.com including his coverage of dyslexia and Learning Ally or follow him on Twitter @InvasiveHunter.