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Engaging the voices of young people with learning differences


20% of students with learning differences leave school before graduating in the United States. But this number has dropped from 36% in the last 10 years.


“For the majority of my life, I hid my learning disability,” said Becca O’Hea, a college senior at East Carolina University (ECU). In middle and high school, Becca’s parents advocated for her so that she received special education services and other assistance at school. Despite this support, Becca did not often share her learning differences with others.

“Sometimes when I told people about my learning differences, they would look closely at me, as if trying to see my dyslexia in my face. Or, even more hurtfully, they would say, ‘but I thought you were smart.’”
– Becca O’Hea, college senior, East Carolina University


After Becca arrived at ECU, she met other college students who learned like her and realised they shared similar, sometimes humiliating, experiences as younger students. So, when an opportunity arose for her to mentor younger students, she took it. She joined Eye to Eye, a near-peer mentoring programme that connects middle school students who have learning differences with college students who also do. Through an arts-based curriculum and based on their own personal experiences, the college students help the middle school children begin to understand themselves as learners and develop the confidence and language to talk to others about how they learn.


The experience was as transformational for Becca as it was for the children she mentored. “Being around kids who had the same learning differences as me really gave me the confidence to speak up for myself, too. I couldn’t give them advice and not take that advice myself,” she said.


The Learning Differences Programme supports Eye to Eye because it engages young people to share their voices with others – including younger peers, families, educators, policy-makers and the broader culture. Oak Foundation values highly the inclusion of stakeholders in the work it supports. In the Learning Differences Programme, these stakeholders include not only teachers and parents, but more importantly, young people themselves who are experts on living with a learning difference.


Engaging young voices to provide feedback or in the design of a programme can expand people’s understanding of learning differences and wipe out the stigma associated with them. Eye to Eye mentor Stephanie Whitham said “school hurt.” She often felt that asking for the support she needed for her learning difference was a burden to teachers. One even said that she needed to earn it, as if she were a lazy student seeking an easy way out. These false perceptions led some of her teachers to say that she would never graduate from college. Thankfully, she had enough support from her family to encourage her to go to college and there she found Eye to Eye. “Through Eye to Eye, I learned to recognise the strengths I have as a learner,” she said. This experience and the support from her Eye to Eye peers helped her to continue through college: she graduated from the University of San Francisco this year.


Eye to Eye sees its main goal as developing a cadre of young leaders who, by speaking out about their learning differences, will change classroom practices, policies and cultural perceptions. With Becca and Stephanie, Eye to Eye has achieved this goal. Both have gone on to share their experiences in meaningful ways – Becca through the STEPP programme at ECU and Stephanie through Roadtrip Nation. Oak supported both these organisations in 2015 – read on to find out more!


East Carolina University

The STEPP programme at ECU provides young adults who have identified learning disabilities with the support they need to access college. This helps them transition into and progress through college to graduation.


To ensure the programme serves its participants well, STEPP engages students to improve its programme and to share their stories across campus and beyond. Every STEPP participant provides feedback through surveys and interviews each year. Other opportunities to contribute students’ voices include serving on committees and panels as well as planning events and blogging about experiences on the university’s website. When asked which of these opportunities were most meaningful, the students found value in active engagement (e.g., planning an event), where they could see the real impact of their work on others. One student valued these opportunities to speak up and said “Any time I let my story be heard it may help inspire or guide someone who is stuck.”


“In STEPP, I met people with learning disabilities who had strong voices. Their friendship and confidence gave me the confidence to speak up, too.”

– Becca O’Hea


In fact, Becca and her friends got so used to sharing their experiences that they arranged to speak with future teachers in the ECU school of education. Through their stories of being misunderstood or demeaned, as well as the transformative experience of having teachers who understood them, they hoped these educators would not develop negative mindsets about those who learn differently. Speaking up gave Becca hope. “A lot of students with learning disabilities have had teachers who were not always open to hearing about learning differences: they often seemed defensive.


So when I saw how open these future teachers were to hearing our stories, it was really inspiring. Hopefully they will remember what we shared when they have a student like me in their classroom,” she said. Becca’s experience at STEPP has allowed her to grow more knowledgeable about the way she learns and to become more confident in sharing her story. “My learning disability has even shaped my career plans,” she said, “I am going into school psychology, so I can help others who learn like me.”


YouthBuild Inc.

YouthBuild Inc. is an international organisation that provides opportunities for young adults who are not connected to school or work to complete their education, gain the skills they need for employment and become leaders in their communities. A core piece of this process is helping these young people reclaim their voices. “Many young leaders have said that they sometimes experience inauthentic efforts from organisations, schools, and adults who ask them to share their stories. Young leaders quickly and deeply recognize when their voices and opinions are truly heard,” said Scott Emerick, Senior Vice President of Education, Career and Service Pathways at YouthBuild Inc.


“We have learned that we need to help these young adults realise that they are the ones who have changed their lives for the better – not YouthBuild or any other programme – and that this gives them the expertise to be an asset to their community or on a committee.”
– Scott Emerick, YouthBuild


Lashon Amado, a Programme Associate, and a YouthBuild Inc. graduate, has led several youth leadership programmes at YouthBuild Inc. He agrees that youth should be authentically included in shaping programmes that serve them and advises organisations that are trying to engage youth voices to avoid just having them share their stories. “Adult allies need to help develop young leaders, so that they are even more prepared to engage fully in the process and to help them see that they are bringing more than just their story to the table,” he says.


For instance, YouthBuild Inc. engages young adults’ voices in a variety of ways to shape the organisation’s programming and influence the broader youth development field. With Oak support, YouthBuild Inc. is refining its postsecondary and career guidance platform, called MyBestBets, to ensure that it works well for all learners. To this end, YouthBuild Inc., with its partner Jobs For the Future, is developing an advisory committee of young people with learning differences to provide user feedback and other input on the design and function of this important resource.


National Center for Learning Disabilities
Unfortunately, not all schools or organisations seek input from students who learn differently in the way that Eye to Eye, Project STEPP and YouthBuild do. Students with learning differences are often not asked directly for their insights or opinions and many programmes and resources are designed for them and not by or with them. This limits how effective these programmes can be in helping students with learning differences.


To begin to fill this gap, Oak supported the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) in 2013 to survey 1,200 young adults. More than twothirds of respondents had identified or unidentified learning differences. This survey revealed insights into the impact of living with a learning difference not only on academic performance, but also in terms of social emotional development, self-confidence and connections to peers and community. For example, while some young adults who learn differently are thriving, many are struggling to continue their education, find a job or become more independent. The survey revealed that these struggling young adults did not usually have the three key experiences earlier in life that are drivers of a successful transition into adulthood. These drivers include having supportive parents who understand their learning differences, developing real connections to their peers and community, and finding ways to build self-confidence – through sports, mentoring or leadership, for example.


This year, NCLD made the data publically available to inform programme design and resource development across the globe. NCLD is using this invaluable survey data to shape its own strategic planning process and programmes for young adults. This helps ensure that the young people who shared their voices through the survey make an impact.


Roadtrip Nation
Stephanie, the Eye to Eye mentor from San Francisco, was facing a big, blank space ahead of her as college graduation approached. She had many years of experience figuring out how to be a student, but now needed to learn how to be successful in a career. “It was a scary time,” she said. The same week of her graduation, she was given the opportunity of a lifetime when she was chosen as one of three young adults to be on the Being Understood Roadtrip through the organisation Roadtrip Nation. Stephanie and two other young adults who have learning differences – Noah and Nicole – drove across the US to interview two dozen people with learning differences who have aligned their careers with their passions. Before the trip, Stephanie was worried that she might not be able to find a job she loved because she learned differently.


"Interviewing these people who found great careers helped me realise that it wasn't about me fitting into a career, but about finding a career that fits me," she said.


Although Stephanie began the trip feeling like she could see the positive aspects of her learning differences, she still never felt fully comfortable with having a learning difference. “Twentytwo years was a long time not to feel okay about something that is an integral part of me,” she said. But the Being Understood Roadtrip allowed her to see the country, learn about herself and meet some inspiring people which “was one of those moments in life when you get the chance to feel like everything is going to be OK,” she said. “As a post-college graduation adult, that is a huge, huge blessing.”


“I knew from working with Eye to Eye that there were incredible people who learned like me. But I had no idea how many were so incredible because of their learning differences! I want more people to know about that!”

- Stephanie, Eye to Eye mentor


 Stephanie’s experience shows the transformative impact of community. Meeting others who had learning differences and who could share their advice helped her feel like she could move forward in life with confidence. Roadtrip Nation will share Stephanie, Noah and Nicole’s experiences by creating a documentary of the trip that will air on public television. In addition, the interviews will be included in an online archive for people seeking advice on how to turn their interests into careers. Stephanie is thrilled these will be broadly shared. As these Oak-supported projects show, empowering youth and young adults to share their voices can improve programme design, strengthen education systems, change cultural perceptions of those who learn differently and ultimately, help young people change how they see themselves and interact with the world.


The photographs in the LDP section of this report have been provided by LDP grantees and illustrate diverse teaching practices and learning environments around the world. /  © Elliot Haney/City Year


Source: Oak Foundation Annual Report




Year of publication: 2015


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