Can you tell us a bit about your history and personal experience helping students with disabilities on their path towards college with your organization Eye To Eye?
I was identified with a learning difference in third grade with dyslexia and ADHD. I grew up believing my learning difference was a negative and not something I should embrace. Thanks to a series of moments with incredible mentors, I learned that my learning difference could be an asset as an educator and leader. This experience has given me the resiliency required of any good leader.
Eye to Eye is creating an open and empowered community of college and high school students who learn differently. We use this community to serve and give back to a younger generation who may otherwise not have role models that can understand them in a way our mentors can. Over the years, we have begun to see former Eye to Eye Mentees graduate high school and go on to serve as Mentors and leaders in their communities.
What do you tell students who don't believe they can attend college with a learning disability?
First off, college is not for everyone. However, anyone who wants to attend post-secondary education most definitely can do it. There are incredible resources available for students with learning differences. Every college in America is required to have a disabilities service office, which is designed to support students by providing them with accommodations, mentorship, and opportunities to receive tutoring. Eye to Eye is a prime example of this, with over 4,000 alums who have attended ivy league universities, state schools, and community colleges. These alums go on to have incredible success as advocates for the 20% who learn differently.
What are some common misconceptions about learning disabilities and education?
I would say the most common misconception is the idea that a learning disability goes away, that you can overcome it, or that you can be cured of it. Having learning and attention issues doesn't mean a child isn't intelligent. In fact, kids with learning and attention issues often have above-average intelligence. Remember, learning disabilities are not an intellectual disability. Learning and attention issues are very common — 20% in our community have a learning and attention issue, like dyslexia and ADHD. It's a myth that kids with learning differences are just being lazy — while these issues may not be visible, they're just as real as any other disability.
Should students be up-front with universities about their disability during the application process? Or is this something students should bring up after they have been accepted and plan to attend that university? What are some strategies you have seen students successfully use to address their disability with universities during the application process?
I would be upfront about it. It is against the law for a university to discriminate against a student with a learning disability. Understand how your learning difference affects you and know what your strengths and weaknesses are for succeeding in college.
If your college process allows, ask for an interview so your school can get to know you on a personal level and not just define you by your grades or SAT/ACT scores. I've known many students who have written college essays about the resiliency and unique strengths that their learning difference has given them.
Everyone has challenges, and the ability to showcase your challenges and how they've influenced you as a person is valuable for anyone who is going to be able to succeed in something as challenging as college.
If you could give one piece of advice to students with a learning disability applying to college, what would it be?
When touring colleges, make sure to visit the disability services office. Connect with the people there to evaluate if you feel like it's a place you could go for support, advice, and to receive a community. This may be the most valuable office in your entire college experience!
What do you feel are the most important attributes or characteristics a student with learning disabilities should consider when selecting a university experience and why?
Identify whether the college or university is a good fit for you. Many students go to a specific college for the wrong reason — their family went there, it's local, near the beach, has great athletics, etc. When in actuality, students need to be looking for a place that's going to have the right community to embrace them, support them, and have a learning environment that will help them succeed.
Many colleges have systems in place within their institutions that are not necessarily created with students who have learning disabilities in mind. How can students and faculty and administrators work to create more supportive spaces and systems for these students?
Professors need to be willing to embrace the accommodations that students need — whether that's a different room for a test, extended time on a project, or receiving an audio textbook. It's often the stigma that comes with these accommodations that is the greatest preventer of a student having success in school. A student who uses a wheelchair would need a ramp to enter a classroom in the same way a student with dyslexia may need an audiobook to read a novel.
I would also say for students it's important to embrace technology as a way to support your learning environment. Some of our favorite apps include:
- Wunderlist (to keep you organized)
- Speech-to-text software (to keep you up on all the required reading)
- BookShare (allowing you to get audiobooks for free)
- Grammarly (to support you in all the writing required)
- Microsoft OneNote (offering immersive reading tools)
Where can students seek help/advice if an issue does arise?
The disability services office should be your fist stop to receiving support. I also recommend that you work to create a community of peers so you have your LD brothers and sisters to lean on and work with when times get tough.
Are there any barriers that the students you work with commonly experience once they start college? Things they weren't prepared for? Things their peers didn't seem to be experiencing?
Often, students think that when they enter college they no longer need the supports and accommodations they may have utilized in high school. Statistically, 90% of students with LDs will utilize accommodations during their K-12 education, while only 17% will utilize these accommodations in college. This major drop can lead to students struggling, working harder than needed, or even failing out of school. When you start college, you must be your own best advocate for what you need to be successful.
How do you suggest a student addresses stigmas that may be associated with learning disabilities on a college campus?
Often professors misunderstand learning disabilities and how they affect their students. Therefore, you should make sure early on in the semester to develop a relationship with your professor(s) so they get to know you, understand how your LD affects you, and how they can best support you in class.
Another great thing students involved with Eye to Eye do is host awareness events on campus. Whether it's bringing an Eye to Eye Diplomat to share their story or hosting a film screening of a documentary, students actively work to educate people of what learning differences really are.
What are ways students can start to build a long-distance support system if they attend college away from friends or family?
Next year, over 200,000 students with learning differences will be attending college campuses across the country. Know that you aren't alone on your campus. Although there's great value connecting with friends and family over social media, there's also value in seeking out others who learn differently so that you have community both near and far away.
Any final thoughts for us?
Eye to Eye works in over 160 schools in over 22 states and with outreach efforts active in all 50. Know that you're part of a national community of brilliant, intelligent, young people who learn differently and are not succeeding despite of their LD, but because of their LD. I encourage you to either get involved or share your story. By having an open and empowered community, we can all succeed.
Marcus SoutraPresident, Eye to Eye
Marcus Soutra was discovered to have dyslexia and ADHD at a young age. He struggled in grade school and felt frustrated and misunderstood. After successfully graduating college at Keene State with a degree in social science and secondary education, he chose to devote his life to creating a world where all youth with learning and attention issues, like dyslexia and ADHD, can achieve their fullest potential. As President of Eye to Eye, Marcus steers its continued evolution as a driving force for change for people with learning and attention issues in education, government, the workplace, and pop culture. He serves on the Understood Advisory Board, is a contributing member to Reimagine Learning, was named a New Leaders Council Fellow in 2008 and received the 2017 Keene State Alumni Inspiration Award.