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This interview took place between Julia Frost, LDA Adult Topics Committee Co-Chair, and Marcus Soutra on March 29, 2019.

Julia:  Marcus, it was a pleasure to honor you with the Harrison Sylvester Award at the LDA annual conference last month!  As you know, Harrison Sylvester was an adult with a learning disability, so this award is presented to an adult with a learning disability.  Tell us about your learning disability – when it was diagnosed and how your disability affected you as a child.

Marcus:  I say that I was identified, not diagnosed.  That’s an important distinction.  I was born dyslexic and ADHD.  I didn’t catch it from a lab partner, and it won’t go away.  In 3rd grade I was identified with dyslexia, a classic time to be identified.  School went from learning to read and write to reading and writing to learn.  I was really struggling with reading, spelling, processing, and sitting still.  Initially my father noticed it.  I have a vivid memory of reading Treasure Island with my dad and reading the same words incorrectly over and over.  With classic dyslexia characteristics and attention challenges, I still needed to sit through school six hours a day.  That was really a struggle.  I was given a negative label.  Being pulled out into a special ed classroom was stigmatizing.  The message was that I was a kid who didn’t have the potential of his peers.  A lot of kids with LD struggle with this more than their struggles with spelling and reading.  Feeling that you don’t have potential is much scarier than a bad grade on a spelling test.

Julia:  Was there one particular person or experience that motivated you to continue to strive to succeed academically even when things were really tough?

Marcus:  Yea, sure.  I won the parent lottery.  I was blessed with a father who was an educator and who valued education and learning.  My mom was very creative and supportive.  That was the key.  There was not just one teacher who made a difference, but a lot of people who came along at specific times and encouraged me to run for Student Council or do other things that helped me to gain specific leadership skills.  Scouting was important, too.  My best friend growing up was John Clark, who was also dyslexic.  It was important to me to have someone I could talk to who was going through what I was.  I could see him doing well, and I thought I could do well, too.  He did the same with me.  It is especially important to have a friend like this when you have an invisible disability.  Teachers were pushing me to do better, and my parents were telling me I wasn’t stupid.  It took a safe space and a supportive environment in order to survive.  You are talking about your job – going to school – and someone has told you that you are fundamentally broken at your job.  The idea that you will ever talk about that in public is foreign to most people who have lived this experience.

Julia:  You are a successful college graduate.  What type of accommodations did you receive in college?

Marcus:  I was very reluctant to embrace accommodations.  I thought that if I did, I was admitting I had a problem or  I was beating the system.  There was some sort of pride in not using them.  It was embarrassing to me at first to use books on tape.  I did get extra time on essay tests, but not multiple choice because with more time I would just change my answers.  Notetakers and books on tape became the most valuable accommodations.  I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up with the lecture.  I learned well by listening in class.  I set up some nontraditional type accommodations like hitting the gym every day to help me focus.  I also found a little home in the library and set library hours every day for myself.  I needed a very quiet, focused environment to be successful and didn’t get much homework done in the dorm.

Julia:  My understanding is that you became a teacher after college.  What led you to that career, and how did it go?

Marcus:  I had always been a great camp counselor and Eagle Scout working with young people.  I had a passion for learning and school that was fostered by my family experience.  I realized in going through training to be an educator that LD would be an asset.  In my teacher training classes no one knew about LD.  There were not a lot of courses being taught on the subject unless you were going into special ed.  I knew that those of us who were going to be general education teachers would have these kids in our classrooms.  My experiences gave me empathy for kids who struggle, which was a great asset for me in the classroom.  My perspective really informed my pedagogy in the classroom.  First I was going to be the “secret LD teacher,” then the best thing I did was being open about it, and that made a positive impact on the students.

Julia:  The second, and possibly the most important criteria for this award is that the individual “has shown a strong dedication and commitment to advancing the issues of adults with learning disabilities.” You have definitely done this in your work with Eye to Eye.  What led you to Eye to Eye initially?

Marcus:  One thing was my experience in the classroom.  I saw how talking about my LD could affect the culture of the classroom.  David Flink and I began thinking about how we could organize young people to have pride in their LD.  We wanted something that would benefit middle school students and give them a voice as well as a face for them to look up to in this experience.  As a kid, the only representation I ever had of anyone who might be like me was one episode of the Cosby Show and Tom Cruise who mentioned it once.  No one else talked about it.  The idea that you could organize young people with pride around how they learned and give a face and a voice to it was a new way to think about cognitive diversity and what a benefit it is to our society.  We know that now, but we aren’t allowing those experiences to shape how we educate people.  Our students are not only messengers of hope.  They also represent the positive role that cognitive diversity can play in our society.

Julia:  Describe Eye to Eye for our audience.

Marcus:  Eye to Eye is a national non-profit run by and for people with LD.  We are trying to improve the life outcomes of people with LD through direct service mentoring programs.  There are three tiers to our work.  The first is direct service through our mentoring program.  We are currently in 170 schools in 24 states.  This year our members will provide 100,000 hours of community service.  The second tier is outreach and community engagement.  We provide events and resources.  We have been involved in documentary films for kids who don’t have our program in their schools.  The third tier is culture change initiatives.  In this tier we represent people with LD in PSAs or on Capitol Hill.  We work to break the stigma and encourage role models for people with LD.  On Time Square during Disability Awareness month we had a series of billboards representing people with LD and bringing awareness to the issue.  Jewell Loyd, the 2015 WNBA #1 draft pick, was our celebrity dyslexic.  We also utilize our students who have lived the experience, making them the face of the issue.  Students get involved and start as mentors, then they want to do more, so we encourage them to be keynote speakers and even to go to the White House.  We partner with NCLD and advocate for policies.  Once you organize the students they not only want to mentor, they want to do more.  They will advocate for people all over the country.

Julia:  In your current position as president of Eye to Eye, what are some of your proudest accomplishments?

Marcus:  I am very proud that Eye to Eye has grown from one school to over 100 and from one state to almost half the states.  I am proud of the influence Eye to Eye has had over the years.    People with LD have more youth programming.  There are now documentary films with more people with LD.  I am proud of the influence that Eye to Eye has had on the field of LD and general education.  Sometimes we see people doing versions of Eye to Eye in their community.  We don’t worry about them copying us.  We are just glad about the influence we have had.  I am so glad the organization has grown and that we have had the impact that we have.  It is great to see the broad influence Eye to Eye can have as well as the direct impact on individuals.

Julia:  Are there people in this field who have served as role models for you?  Tell us about them.

Marcus:  LeDerick Horne is one of them.  He is one of the first people I met in this field twelve to fifteen years ago.  He told me I had to tell my story more.  David Flink and I have been mentor and mentee back and forth to each other for twelve years.  However, those that motivate me and do it every day are the students in our program and the alumni in our work.  They are doing amazing things.  Those are the role models that I am so glad that I have.  There are countless numbers of others – professors and my wife, of course – but the students and alumni keep giving me inspiration and are role models for me.

Julia:  Have you found new or different reasons for doing this work other than those that led you to it in the first place?

Marcus: Yeah.  When I started it was very much about representation – having a voice and a face.  Now as we have been doing it for many years we begin to see the research that we have done.  The value of social and emotional health is obvious.  We are teaching students how they can learn and solve problems.  We are giving them advocacy skills so they can advocate for themselves.  Our students need not just role models, but also the skills to navigate the current school system.  Now with the idea of social emotional learning, we think about the whole child experience rather than just teaching them to advocate for themselves.  This has informed our curriculum.  It can’t just be about the stories of hope and change.  We have to give them tips to find success as well.

Julia:  Tell us about a young person that you have met in your career, either as a teacher or at Eye to Eye, whose story is especially meaningful to you.

Marcus:  There are so many.  One that I recently mentioned in a speech I gave is Vanessa Montgomery.  She will be featured as Eye to Eye’s hero of the year.  She lives in California and had started in Eye to Eye as a volunteer, then became a diplomat, and went on to be a teacher.  It was her experience at Eye to Eye that led her to become a teacher.  She tells her personal story to her students.  Her experience with her LD has informed her as a teacher.  She is hosting her own conference in San Diego to support the teachers at her school in their work with students with LD.  She is working with local colleges to get speakers.  Vanessa almost didn’t make it herself, but is now spending her entire career making a difference.  She will now have a lifetime of supporting students and being a role model.

Julia:  Is there anything else that you would like to share with the LDA audience?

Marcus:  Just to say that whether you are a teacher, parent, or school administrator, don’t undervalue the role of the school’s culture and how important it is to students with LD.  Be conscience of language we use and what we value.  Be conscious of the stigmatizing experience that a student with LD is having.  If you celebrate community around learning, your students will have the right place to embrace accommodations and succeed.  A culture and sense of community can’t be undervalued.  I had all the accommodations I needed, but the culture was such that if you get help you are not as intelligent.  Raise the bar for students with LD.  Think about the culture of your school, the language you use, how your students access accommodations, how students are stigmatized who are different.  The community plays such an important role in the life of the students.  The culture of our schools will reflect the culture we have in our society.  If we embrace differences in our schools, we will have that in our societies – whatever the differences are.  We need to expect greatness out of these kids.  Insure that your school or classroom is an LD friendly school/zone that embraces kids who learn differently.

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