Meet Ben Foss -- inventor of the Intel Reader, new executive director of the Disability Rights Associates legal center, RFB&D alumnus, and wildly dyslexic graduate of Stanford Law School. For your enjoyment, we offer a few extracts from Ben's keynote speech at Learning Ally's Washington DC Gala, held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts on May 13, 2011.
"I am thrilled to be here, and thrilled to be representing Learning Ally. I knew the organization years ago as Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic, and it’s been instrumental in my independence.
"I like to define education as the path to self-determination. I think that’s what education should be. Too often education is about teaching people to do what they’re told as opposed to do what they want to do most."
On the experience of being diagnosed with dyslexia:
"So I go into this meeting and there’s this woman in a lab coat, she’s got a clip board and she’s looking nervous. She looks at me and she won’t make eye contact, I’m thinking 'Oh God, here it goes.' I sit down and she’s like 'Well, I don’t know how to tell you this but you’re really dyslexic.'
People will talk in conventional language and say, 'He accepted his disability.' No, I integrated it."
"I said 'Really? That’s excellent news!' She said, 'Why? You’re in the bottom one percentile in your ability to identify a letter when you see it.'
"I go, 'All right!!' I’m basically wanting to give a hi-five to the lady. That moment was important to me, it was a crossover from treating this as something I was unhappy about to something that was part of me. People will talk in conventional language and they will say, 'He accepted his disability.' No, I integrated it. This is not cancer; this is dyslexia. I am from New Hampshire. That’s
not something I was diagnosed with, right? In the same way, I think of myself as being 'from dyslexia.' ”
On the name change from RFB&D to Learning Ally:
"I believe that Andrew Friedman and the organization around Learning Ally has done an outstanding job by testing this. . .by thinking carefully about the name, talking to volunteers, doing a deep listening tour and bringing it forward. There’ll be all kinds of things said about it, but I’ll tell you it describes what the organization does extremely well, which is the first quality of a good name, and it gives people a handle into their own experience. It allows them to have access to information, access to hope and access to self-respect. I think that’s the core of the disability experience.
Now the phrase 'learning disability' I have an issue with. Because I don’t have a problem learning -- I’ve learned a lot of things in my life."
"I think this organization challenges that expectation of how the world works. It tells people, you don’t get to decide that someone’s lazy or infirm because they don’t perform the way you think they will. Learning Ally allows them to be who they are going to be. It gives access to information, and for me it was critical when I was at Stanford being able to read a textbook and have access.
"I’ll tell you a story: I remember actually being angry the first time I fully read an RFB&D book. Up until that time, I didn’t really understand that everyone else got all of this information before
they went into class. It hadn’t occurred to me that you can just have everything in the book in your head before you got cold- called on! Up to that point, I had learned to adapt, I learned to respond and that’s a skill I use now -- and it’s a part of me that I would never give up -- but I was angry over the fact that I had been left out.
On labels and language:
"I understand that many people are nervous about the term disability
. They hear it as a negative and I can’t defend it on a language basis necessarily, but I can tell you that is the term that people in wheelchairs and people who are blind have said a lot. I believe that it is our duty to stand with them and hold that term as well. So I prefer the term 'disability.'
"Now the phrase learning disability
I have an issue with. Because I don’t have a problem learning -- I’ve learned a lot of things in my life. I do have a reading disability; I have a print disability. You have to frame it in the right context.
"The person who lives here is not broken. Stairs are broken. The person in a wheelchair needs accommodation, they need a ramp. I need Learning Ally -- that is my ramp into a book. And when you provide those ramps you continue to allow people to achieve self-determination."
Above: Ben Foss with Andrew Friedman, President and CEO of Learning Ally