Thing Never To Say To Parents Of Special Needs Kids

Having a child with special needs puts enough stress on a family without having to entertain hurtful, thoughtless comments, too. My son is learning disabled and has qualities on the autistic spectrum. At school, he has accommodations so that he can be in a standard classroom, but we have had to deal with a variety of challenges along the way.
When asking about a child with special needs, lead with kindness. It can make that child — as well as their parents — feel more comfortable. These statements, in contrast, will only cause distress:

1. “But he looks so normal!”

Special needs kids can’t be judged by their looks. Just because a child doesn’t look disabled to you, doesn’t mean he isn’t. Special needs like autism, dyspraxia, and various processing disorders don’t look like anything.
2. “Was he born that way — or is it something you did?”

Every parent of a child with special needs racks their brain trying to figure out what caused their child’s issue. You are not the first person to think or say this. There is plenty of guilty feelings to go around with children with special needs.
3. “Are you sure it isn’t a behavioral problem?”

People often look at parents of special needs kids as bad parents with out of control children. Most of us would trade our child’s disability for a bratty kid any day.
4. “Isn’t he too old for that?”

Whether it’s about a pacifier, a sippy cup, or diapers, parents of special needs kids observe different milestones than those in conventional childhood. Sometimes it’s just a developmental issue, but children all mature at different rates.
5. “Does he not know how to read yet?”

(See #4.) Especially for kids with learning disabilities, parents are very aware that their child should be reading by a specific age. Try not to make it worse by being yet another person who points this out.
6. “Why does your son get a service dog?”

Service dogs are only given to children who need them — and they help with a host of conditions, from autism to anxiety. These animals are highly trained and provide amazing help to kids and adults. Instead ask, “Is that a service dog?” Then, a parent or child can chose to explain the situation to you — or not.
7. “Will he have to live with you for the rest of his life?”

This is another thing that all parents of special needs dwell on. In a perfect world, we all want our children to grow up and be independent. Sometimes, this is not possible. Parents can also be in over their heads and need to seek out a special facility. Either way, it’s challenging. Ask yourself whether this is really your business.
8. “Do all of your children have this problem?”

Some diseases or disorders are inherited; others have no link at all to genetics or family history. While learning disabilities can be found in families, most come out of the blue. If you know a family well enough, the question can answer itself. If you don’t, you likely shouldn’t ask.
9. “Does your child have special needs because you were too old when you had him?”

Advanced maternal age can certainly come with more concerns than with younger mothers, but plenty of special needs can arise regardless of the mother’s age. My son was born when I was 26. Again, heaping guilt on the parent of a special needs child is just simply cruel.
10. “Do you think he will be able to graduate high school or go to college?”

Isn’t this the dream of all parents? There are plenty of children who don’t have special needs and yet drop out. Still, children with special needs generally try very hard to be “normal” — which includes getting a degree and moving onto the professional world.
A good rule of thumb

Ask yourself if your question, regardless of how innocent you intend it, could be hurtful to a parent of a special needs child. Plus, many of these questions will likely answer themselves as you get to know the child and/or the parent. Be patient. What you learn could be invaluable!

Ask A Lawyer! When The Going Gets Tough…

 Special Education Lawyer and All Around Awesome Guy

I had the privilege to meet attorney Wayne Steedman of Callegary & Steedman almost 15 years ago, and he is still fighting for the rights of children with learning disabilities. I had the chance earlier this week to chat (when he had a spare half hour between IEP meetings) with Wayne about the state of affairs in education, IEPs, and funding for private schools. My son was represented by Wayne after we tried to find a program that would allow him to learn while addressing his learning differences. My son is now 20, and I hoped to hear that things had improved since then.

Amy: So Wayne, I was hoping in a way to hear that your business had slowed down in the last few years for your firm, but I know that’s not the case. Are things any better in public schools for children with learning issues?

Wayne: No, business isn’t slow, in fact, it is busier than ever. I would love to tell you that things are better since we got funding for M, but they haven’t. It is still a battle, one child at a time, to get a proper educational plan through a well-structured IEP. I would say it is even more daunting today, as the straps are even tighter on the finances, and schools don’t want to do any more than they have to.

Amy: Wow, that’s terrible. I really hoped that by pushing the schools and getting funding, we had helped someone in Baltimore County besides ourselves. What do you think we can do as parents to push for change?

Wayne: Never accept the first answers you are given if you have any concerns about your child and their ability to learn in the classroom or at a particular school. To save money or deny your services, they will tell you everything is fine, and they do not believe your child has any learning problems. The problem starts at the top. It is all about money. Each school district wants to get your child in and out while spending the least amount of money possible. Every test and every service that is given to your child just means money to them. The principal of the school, the superintendent, the county council, they are all putting pressure on the employees to keep costs down.

Amy: So they know that there are kids in the classroom with undiagnosed or under diagnosed learning issues, and nothing is done?

Wayne: Absolutely! They would prefer to deny any services, and they definitely do not want to be in a position where it can be proven that they can’t educate your child, so they must pay for private school. They always say that they will have to raise taxes if education costs more, but they will have to pay now or pay later in terms of passing children through the school system who can’t or don’t learn. Later on they will have to pay with unemployment, drug and alcohol rehab, and through the criminal justice system.

Amy: So what is your advice for parents who suspect their child has a learning issue?

Wayne: Keep pushing until you get answers. If they will not evaluate your child, or they don’t seem to take your concerns seriously, put them in writing, and let them know you will be consulting an attorney. If you still don’t get satisfaction, consider hiring an attorney who can oversee the process, contact the school on your behalf, and attend IEP meetings with you.

Thanks again to Wayne Steedman for talking to me and helping me with my own conflicts with the school system. Until we all hit our school districts in a way they understand (in their wallets), they will continue to deny that issues like dyslexia actually exist. It is hard and aggravating, but our children are worth it!

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Using Dance As Language When Challenged With Dyslexia: Aakash Odedra

Aakash Odedra found communicating so difficult as a child in Birmingham, England, he sought out other ways. The conventional classroom was such a struggle, but the arts felt natural. Dance became his outlet. He worked to learn as many styles as possible, starting with traditional Indian dance, and soon, he was getting more attention for his dance skills than for his failing class work.

Today his is know as one of the UK’s top contemporary dancers. He is also sought after internationally, having danced throughout Australia and at the Apollo in NYC.

This is his biography his uses with his dance company:

“Diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, Aakash found conventional education at school very challenging. He felt defined by his learning difficulties, but not his abilities. As written language was so alien, dance became his preferred mode of expression. In Murmur, Aakash and Australian choreographer Lewis Major delve into the idea of warped and exaggerated realities. In a major collaboration with Major and Ars Electronica Futurelab (Linz, Austria), the company explores how the misconceptions of dyslexia can be revealed through visual design, light, sound, movement.”

View “Murmur” Here!


Aakash wants everyone to know that learning or expression should not come on just the conventional forms, and is passionate about sending this message:
To me, this suggested the dyslexic world: how letters on a page are processed differently by my brain. I was joined in my early experiments by Lewis Major, and we agreed we could co-choreograph the piece, which became Murmur. I wanted to work with another choreographer to make the other half of a double bill. I had always found the work of Damien Jalet most interesting. Lucky for me he said yes – and we created Inked. He is a very giving choreographer.

Murmur and Inked are designed to convey a message that intelligence has multiple forms and that sensitivity of the body raises one’s self-awareness. We will share a story that isn’t only mine or that of a dyslexic, but a journey that is universal through its emotion.

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Jack Horner and Jurassic Park

Usually, I like to read about someone who has taken their learning difference and used it to break out and make a mark on the world. Today, I wanted to talk about paleontologist Dr. Jack Horner, the brain and detail man behind the Jurassic Park movies, but it is better that he tell you himself. Dr. Horner has already written an inspiring account of his personal struggle. So here is what it was like to have learning challenges, but still have a desire to be an incredible scientist! Dr. Horner has never given up, even in the face of failure. Think about how you can apply this to your life!

Jack Horner: An Intellectual Autobiography
By: Jack Horner

Breakthrough event

As a youth, I was an introvert. I was extremely shy and deathly afraid of having to speak in front of an audience of any size. But in 1979, I received a letter from Philadelphia inviting me to give a lecture on my dinosaur discoveries to the American Philosophical Society, the organization founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. This meant that I would speak in Philosophical Hall, a building attached to Independence Hall, where not only Benjamin Franklin had spoken, but also America’s first paleontologist, Joseph Leidy, and his student and successor, Edward Drinker Cope. It was an invitation that I could not turn down, even though I knew I might be too afraid to speak. For nearly a month I labored over my speech, writing it out in large letters on a piece of typing paper. I read it over and over again, hoping that I would remember enough so that when I attempted to read it, I wouldn’t stumble or stutter, or get lost.

After I was introduced, I shuffled up to the podium, looked out at the audience, and nearly passed out. I looked down at my speech, and began my mumbling and awkwardly slow delivery, trying not to miss a word. About 10 minutes into my speech, a venerable old gentleman sitting in the front row of the audience stood up and rapped his cane on the podium. “Mr. Horner!” he bellowed, halting my miserable performance. “Get rid of your paper and settle down. Just tell us what you’ve found and what you think it means. We’re interested in what you have to say.”

For a moment, I was thunder-struck. I stood there petrified. Then I stepped away from the podium and told the audience what I’d found and what I thought it meant. That was the beginning of what has become a very long speaking career, and not since that day have I attempted to read a speech or use notes.

That day was a big breakthrough for me because I suffered from a lack of confidence due to a learning problem. It’s called dyslexia. It’s a word that, ironically, most of us who have it can’t spell or pronounce, but maybe that’s the point. I wasn’t diagnosed until well after I had reached adulthood, had struggled through school being considered lazy, dumb, and perhaps even retarded, and had flunked out of college seven times. Most people expected I’d wind up working at a service station, or if I was really lucky, I might get to drive a truck at my father’s gravel plant. Nevertheless, I guess I’ve always found low expectations rather liberating. Disparaging assessments just fired my determination.

Kindergarten through eighth grade was extremely difficult for me because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow. I would never stand to read out loud in class, even if the teachers threatened to give me failing grades. The joke was that I only carried schoolbooks to ballast my lanky adolescent body against the strong winds of highline Montana. Eventually, I managed to graduate high school, but just barely, having received Ds in all required classes, including English, in which my grade was a D minus, minus, minus. The teacher told me that this was essentially an F, but that he never wanted to see me again. That was indeed the last time I saw him, but I did send him a copy of my first book!

There was, however, one area of school besides P.E. in which I excelled: science projects. After an inauspicious beginning when, while tinkering with a chemistry set as a boy, I generated an explosion which blew out the windows of my parents’ basement, I went on to win several regional high school science fairs. My first project was a rocket fueled by zinc and sulfur. I launched it from the airport in front of a group of spectators and it zoomed several thousand feet into the air. The next year, I made a large Van de Graff generator, and then a Tesla coil.

For my senior project, I made an exhibit on dinosaur fossils comparing the dinosaurs of Montana with those of Alberta. It was an ambitious project that caught the eye of one of the judges at Montana State University in Missoula where the state fair was held. The judge was a geology professor, and he informally invited me to come to Montana State University and major in geology. I couldn’t bear to tell him that my grades were so poor that I might not even graduate from high school.

Amazingly, and to the complete surprise of my parents, I did manage to graduate from high school on time, even though I had average grades below D. Fortunately for me, at the time, all that was needed to enter a college or university in Montana was a high school diploma. So in the fall of 1964, I enrolled at Montana State University in Missoula, majoring in geology. By the time the university changed its name to the University of Montana in 1965, I would flunk out and get drafted by the United States Marine Corps.

I re-entered the University of Montana, and began where I left off, with a GPA of 0.06. Needless to say, I didn’t fare well, and began a series of failed quarters where Dean of Students Richard Solberg would send me my “pink slip.” Fortunately I had an advisor named James Peterson who believed I wasn’t lazy or retarded, and he wrote letters of support for my quarterly returns to school. He had to write five such letters. I didn’t finish college, but did take all the geology and zoology courses that I thought would pertain to paleontology. I also took a few courses in archaeology, microbiology, and even attempted English, but failed. When I left the University I believed I was as good a geologist and paleontologist as any other student at the doctoral level. I had even completed a thesis of sorts, and eventually published three papers from the data. It wasn’t about dinosaurs, but concerned the paleontology and geology of a stratum containing 300-million-year-old fish from Central Montana.

My goal in life was simple: I wanted to be a dinosaur paleontologist and make some kind of contribution to the field of paleontology that would help our understanding of dinosaurs as living creatures. To accomplish this I knew I needed a job in a museum, but I also realized that with my college grades and no degree, I might not ever get such a job. I made a living driving an 18-wheeler for a while.

I began writing letters to every museum in the English speaking world asking if they had any jobs open for anyone ranging from a technician to a director.

A few months later, I got three responses. One open position was that of a lowly technician at Princeton University’s Natural History Museum. One was for a head technician job at the Los Angeles County Museum. Another was for a research assistant at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I applied for all three, got interviews at each, and was offered all three. I made my decision not on the basis of rank or pay, but on where I’d rather live. I decided that L.A. and Toronto were too large for my taste, and that Princeton would be perfect, even though it was the lowest paying job. It was a paleontology position in a museum, and that was all that mattered. In 1975, my first wife Lee and I packed up our baby son Jason, and drove a U-Haul to Princeton, New Jersey. It would become seven years of culture shock for me, but home for both Lee and Jason.

Dr. Donald Baird was my supervisor in Princeton, and he, as the Director, and I the technician, made up the entire staff of the museum. Together, we made exhibits and worked on research projects. Two years after being hired as a technician, Don saw my potential as a research scientist and promoted me to research assistant. Two years later, I’d be in charge of my own research projects, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Although I had written the successful NSF grants, I had not been allowed to sign the grants on account of my lacking a PhD. As far as the geology department was concerned, however, I was a contributing paleontologist with scientific publications and grants, and was a full member of their research faculty.

In about 1976, a year or so after arriving at Princeton, I saw a sign on campus that was clearly aimed at getting the attention of people like myself. In large letters it asked a few pointed questions like, “Is reading difficult?” “Would you rather watch a movie than read a book?” “Would you rather make a phone call than write or read a letter?” and several other questions that I subconsciously answered affirmatively. At the bottom of this sign, it said that if you answered yes to these questions, you should go to such and such office, and someone would evaluate your learning abilities. The offer was made to Princeton University students, and although I wasn’t enrolled, I couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to find out why reading and memorizing was so difficult. I went to the office and argued to have them test me. Lo and behold! I was diagnosed with some form or another of dyslexia! The diagnosis didn’t make reading any easier, but at least it provided an explanation as to why I would probably never be able to pass even a simple college class, at least without having extraordinarily long periods of time to read and comprehend.

Coping with dyslexia

To this day, I struggle with the effects of dyslexia. It takes me a long time to read things, so it’s an ongoing endeavor to become as well-read as I would ideally like to be. Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.

My first publications were traumatic. I was afraid to even attempt to write something that would go to an editor. I had plenty of data, so I wasn’t fearful of critical review, but I had apprehension about people seeing how little I actually knew of the English language. It’s a phobia I still live with. After two junior authorships, I wrote three papers on my own, and each was published: one in the Journal of Paleontology, and two in the British journal Nature. I discovered that editors would forgive my writing errors and fix them as long as the science was solid. Writing is still very difficult for me, and I would always rather a more fluent co-author did the actual writing. I know what I can do and what I can’t do, and for the things I can’t do, I try to find someone to help. I think that’s really important, and certainly something I stress to people like myself. We must be able to admit that we need help where we do need it.

I don’t want people to think that I encourage my undergraduate and graduate students to avoid reading books, writing papers, or getting college degrees, because I don’t. I do, however, encourage different methods of learning and thinking. I don’t give memory tests; I give exams where both critical and synthetic thinking are necessary. I give plenty of reading (or books on tape) assignments, and have extremely high expectations of student essays and other written documents. Nearly all of my students are either honors students, or graduate students in paleontology, which bears the prerequisite of being competent readers and writers. I believe strongly in high academic standards, but I am willing to offer my students flexibility in meeting them.

Students describe me as a Socratic teacher in that I seldom give a direct answer to questions, but rather answer with other questions. Usually the questions that I ask have no particular answer anyway, and the exercise, or ordeal, depending on the student’s outlook, is intended to reveal rather than test. I teach the way I learn.


When people ask me who my mentors were, or to what I attribute my success, I usually cite not having had any expectation barriers. But, as I think more about it, it’s more realistically about family and teachers. My mother in particular, and some teachers were very supportive and made paths for me while others created barriers that I had to learn to get over and around. Both were equally important.


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xo Amy

Charley Boorman: Racing to Spread a Better Understanding of Learning Differences

  Today Charley Boorman is an actor, a travel writer, a television adventurer and President of Dyslexia Action, but growing up, he was just another kid with dyslexia, misunderstood by his teachers. Though born in England, he spent most of his school years in Ireland, largely undiagnosed, and misunderstood. It was his father, film director John Boorman, not his teachers, who first diagnosed Charley with the learning disability. In many ways, the validation from his father that he was intelligent, but dyslexic, allowed him to keep pressing on and to try new things when reading and writing proved difficult.

Boorman explains that he spent much of his time in school explaining dyslexia to his teachers. “At the time when I was going to school in Ireland people didn’t really have a clue about what it was, so I had to spend a lot of my time trying to explain to teachers what dyslexia meant,” he says. “I found I was being pushed to one side and I was being ear-marked as being thick, which is a very damaging thing to be told as a young kid.” He now shares his beliefs that teachers should have played to his strengths rather than harping on his weaknesses. “It’s unfair because often people who have disabilities – visual or hearing or wherever it is – they can very often excel in other things and it’s a matter of finding those things,” he believes. “Often dyslexic kids will excel in being a little bit mischievous or tying to find attention in other ways because they’re not getting it in class.”

Today, in addition to exploring the world on motorbike while creating shows like Long Way Down and Long Way Round with actor and friend Ewan McGregor, Boorman serves as a UNICEF ambassador and President of Dyslexia Action. He never misses an opportunity to spread the word to make life better for those challenged with learning disabilities.

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A Bit of Coaching Can Help You Forget Learning Disabilities 

  A hobby or a talent can distract you from your struggle in the classroom, but having someone take notice of your gifts can almost help you forget. School has always been a challenge for my son. He was accused of being lazy and not trying hard enough, even after he was diagnosed with dyslexia and a few other learning “quirks.” Luckily, we found him a wonderful school, The Lab School, where gifts are nurtured, and deficits are addressed creatively.    My son started running in second grade as part of physical education. His school, which specializes in dyslexia, dysgraphia and other learning challenges, would take the kids on a run to burn off extra energy. Within weeks, the school had to send an extra teacher on their runs to keep up with my son.  I had no clue that my son was a gifted runner. We had previously tried the usual sports, including soccer. It was a disaster. My son struggled with his left and right, and when the coach would yell “go left,” my son was confused and increasingly anxious. He was so afraid of disappointing his teammates that he preferred to just watch others play. With running, there was no anxiety about letting others down.   The following year, the school joined an area athletic league with other area private schools, and formed a middle school cross country team. My son told me all about it, but was sad that he was too young (it was for grades 6-8). The next day I got an email from a new teacher, Mr. Smith, who was coaching the new team. He told me he had been watching my son run, and he wanted him for the middle school team, as he was willing to make an age exception.     I had never seen my son so excited. He said “coach told me that I was the best runner he had seen at my age!” So Mr. Smith became Coach Smith from then on. My son was tall, so nobody guessed he was two years too young to be a member of the team. Over the years, my son went from the kid just enjoying a group run to a real competitor. Coach Smith pushed him, teaching him warm-ups, pacing, and cool-downs. Every day they ran together. He also had Coach Smith in the classroom, encouraging his reading and writing. It made me so happy to see someone other than myself pushing my son to consistently to work harder. For this reason, it was heartbreaking to hear that Coach Smith had left to teach and coach at another school for kids with dyslexia for my son’s 7th grade year. The kids were all sad to see Coach Smith leave. By then, my son was winning medals, and coaching the younger runners from his school. At the first meet that year, Lab School was running against Coach Smith’s new school. I had no idea how my son would react when he saw Coach again. The team got off the bus at a beautiful school on about 30 acres outside of Baltimore. It took about five minutes for my son to spot his former coach arriving with his new team. “Coach Smith!” My son ran as fast as he could, and threw his arms around his former coach. There was no animosity or feeling of rejection, just pure affection. The coach greeted him like family, asking him about running, school, and our family. It was as if no time had passed. The impression Coach Smith (known to me as Tony) made on my son had changed the way he approached sports and school.    As my son completed 8th grade, and prepared to graduate (moving on to a public high school), Coach Smith dropped by Lab School on his way out of town. He spent almost an hour chatting one on one with my son, and showing off his new motorcycle. That day when I picked my son up from school, all he could talk about was Coach Smith’s visit, and how they talked about trying out for a high school cross country team. “Mama, he said I can do it, so I’m going to try out,” he said. He also told me about the motorcycle, and how cool it was.    Two days later I got a phone call. Coach Smith had been in an accident on his way to visit family. He was hit on his motorcycle at an intersection by a truck, and had died on the scene. They wanted to tell me, so that I could tell my son ahead of time before the school made an announcement. My heart sank, and I cried. I cried for Tony, his family, and all of the students that would miss his brand of unconditional support. I needed to find the right words that would perhaps soften the blow, but it would be impossible. As I told my son what had happened, I saw his eyes widen, and then saw them welling up with tears. “But I just saw him,” my son said. “We just talked!” Tears led to anger, and back to tears. It was a difficult few days, as Tony was mourned at both schools. The following autumn, a run and vegetarian barbecue was planned to honor Tony’s memory. My son went and got a chance to spend some time with the many other students that had the honor to know Tony. It was a perfect day, and I know coach would have loved it. My son will never forget the chance he had to know Tony, and how special he was. I believe people come into your life for a season, a reason, or a lifetime, and Tony was one of those people who were there to teach everyone a little something about strength and hard work.  Tony, wherever you are, please know your memory and your lessons live on.

To Tony Smith!

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George Clooney: Charming His Way Through Dyslexia

 For someone now over fifty, George Clooney had the benefit of being diagnosed early with dyslexia (8 years old). His teachers said his charm and self-deprecating attitude helped deflect teasing and taunting that often come with learning disabilities.

“I would go to one school and I was the idiot,” says Clooney. “At the next school, I was treated like a genius. It was very confusing [to have dyslexia].” Clooney also had poor vision, and wore glasses early. At age thirteen, Clooney developed Bells Palsy, and half of his face was paralyzed.

This series of issues made Clooney an easy mark for teasing and bullies, but instead of retreating into himself, he made jokes, and looked forward. It’s hard, but if George Clooney can show us all, it’s that dyslexics can have an awesome second act in life. Nobody has to be defined by their learning difference if they don’t want to.

Hang in there, and take the time to enjoy your summer!

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Jamie Oliver: Creating the Perfect Recipe For Special Education


Chef Jamie Oliver is doing everything he can to change the poor quality of food served in schools, and to teach us all the benefits of good nutrition. He has also decided not to keep quiet when it comes to the way schools treat dyslexia and other learning differences. Oliver, himself a dyslexic, still remembers how he was treated at his school in Newport Essex. Today, instead of feeling shame and embarrassment, the highest paid celebrity chef is speaking out on what schools do wrong, and how they could be doing things better.

Oliver recently acknowledged that he had recently read his first book cover to cover. “I noticed that my daughters had read over 2000 books,” he said. “I read [the second book in the Hunger Games series] and now know what it is like to get lost in a book.” Oliver explains that is school, a teacher would bang on the door of his classroom, and yell: “Jamie Oliver needs to come out of class for special needs!” This helped to create an environment of teasing and taunting that caused Oliver to shut down to a conventional learning process. He remembers the boys in his class singing the words “special needs” to the tune of the Beatles song Let it Be. Oliver said he couldn’t wait to get out of school.

When living in Los Angeles for work, Oliver saw a different approach towards teaching. “My daughter’s school taught with a hippy approach that really works,” he said. They teach you based on the things you like. My daughter was learning through songwriting.” For all schools, Oliver says that he favors specialists in the classroom rather than a scenario where children who need additional help are pulled out. He believes singling children out is a form of bullying.

Today, the chef who thought he had no use for advanced education is working on a degree in nutrition, but he is doing it his way. Instead of attending a university, he has someone come to him to complete the coursework.

Adding More Than Magic

Okay, I’ll admit it, I’m a basketball nut. I was raised by a sports freak, and a love for basketball stuck, and was passed on to my daughter (an awesome point guard). So I understand that in order to be a true rockstar on the court, you have to have a special kind of intelligence. All elite athletes have a kind of smarts that are not found in most. They see a game three moves ahead, and are able to read other players, and intuit an outcome. Magic Johnson is one of those elite players that take the game of basketball to another level.

What many don’t know, it’s that Johnson attributes his struggle with dyslexia and ADD as the spark that drove him to succeed. “In the classroom, the giggles, the pointing, and the teasing made me feel terrible,” he said. “I wanted to show everyone that I was good at something, and also, that I really could read!” He practiced basketball in all of his free time, and went to summer school for extra help in the classroom. Even while living in poverty, with nine other children, Johnson’s mom encouraged his classroom efforts.

While practicing basketball after school hours, a security guard told him to stop trying, because he was never going to amount to anything. When Johnson signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson sought the guard out to show him how wrong he was.

While Johnson has become the face of HIV, he does not miss the chance to talk to kids about the learning disabilities that shaped his early life. He tells everyone that dyslexia made him want to prove himself, and he doesn’t know if he would have felt the push otherwise. Now retired from basketball, Johnson has become the consummate business man, owning half of the Lakers, as well as a chain of movie theaters that serve urban communities. He believes that his purpose in life is to give back and share the bounty he has been given. He as accepted dyslexia as part of his life, and wants people to know that finding your strengths is the key to life success.

  My girl on the court!

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Stepping Out of Disability and Into the Spotlight!

Learning differences know no color, race, or socio-economic background, yet identification of disabilities seems to be found more easily in communities with more resources. Like Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover has combined his passion for civil rights with his need to speak to kids struggling with a learning challenge.

My son attended the Lab School of Washington‘s Baltimore campus. Since its inception in 1968, the major fundraiser was a gala that honors someone in the national spotlight who has fought the good fight against dyslexia and other learning challenges.  The Friday before the celebration, the award recipient meets with small groups of students for an informal chat. These sessions were the highlights of my son’s school year.

Danny Glover was one of these award winners that really had an impression on my son. My son was then in the third grade, and hadn’t fully understood that there were adults out there that had dyslexia, and despite their struggle, went onto great success. At that point, I don’t think my son had seen any of Glover’s movies, but he had heard that Glover had worked with Oprah and Steven Spielberg, My son came home and excitedly told me all about meeting Glover, shaking his hand, and talking in a group of about 20 children. “Mama, Mr. Glover said we could call him Danny! He was so nice!”

He then told me that Glover had grown up in San Francisco, and always had trouble with reading, writing and spelling, but he understood math. “Mama, when Danny was in 7th grade, his school principal told Danny’s mama that he was retarded, and she shouldn’t worry about educating him. That is so mean and sad, and nobody should say that, especially since Danny is so nice and so smart!” Little did my son know that voices of doom are all around children with learning differences, especially when a school can’t or won’t meet a child’s leaning challenge. My boy also didn’t know that similar things were said about him early on, and I had been protecting him against these labels.


“Did you talk about anything else?” He nodded, and told me yes. “We talked about civil rights,” he said. I was expecting to hear about Martin Luther King, and marches, but instead he told me about New York and taxi cabs. Granted, this was not on topic with learning disabilities, but obviously, my son’s mind was opened to things you often don’t learn in school. “Did you know how hard it is for a black man to get a taxi in New York?” Now, my son is white, and of British and Irish heritage. He could have probably gone a lifetime without any understanding of what it was like for a man of color in New York, but I was pleased that a meet and greet with a celebrity was not just fluff. When I told him that I wasn’t aware of this problem, he told me that Glover tried and failed several times during his last visit to hail a cab, and was unsuccessful. “Danny is now working with the mayor to punish cabbies who discriminate, but we need to keep fighting for everyone to be treated as equals.”

So I owe a debt of gratitude to Danny Glover. Not only did he make my son feel good about himself, and better about his struggle with dyslexia, he taught him a new sense of compassion. He was thinking about struggles in general, and not just the ones in his life. My boy has always been sympathetic, but without this amazing conversation with Glover, I’m not sure that we would have been able to examine this object lesson so early in life.

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xo Amy