Inspiring people turn dyslexia from disability into a strength

Kendrick Meek and Francesca Yabraian are two fighters in a vast army that has been waging war against a common foe for what seems like forever.

They don’t know each other — he is a Florida congressman now running for a Senate seat; she is a researcher and a computer expert. But they shared a common struggle to learn and accomplish, because they are among the millions of Americans who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, a learning disability that makes it difficult to process letters and words.

Dyslexia has been known to lead others to misjudge an individual’s true intelligence and ability to learn and accomplish. Indeed, Meek and Yabraian have spoken separately to Florida audiences about their battles, telling stories that are heartbreakingly poignant and strikingly similar.

Meek, an African-American Democrat from Miami, tells his story these days as a way of introducing himself as the Democratic candidate for Senate.

Because of his severe dyslexia, Meek doesn’t read his speeches or even use notes. He memorizes his speeches. He is proud of having been a Florida state trooper, but he recently told an interviewer that he almost flunked out of the trooper academy when, due to his dyslexia, he mixed up the numbers on a math exam. He said he finally passed because, after lights out at the academy, he sat in a bathroom stall for hours, memorizing numbers for a math test.

“That was the first time in my life that I was really faced with a wall and saying, regardless of what the reality may be, I’ve got to figure out how to knock through this thing,” Meek told the Washington Post. His voice broke and tears filled his eyes as he spoke, the Post reported.

Francesca Yabraian learned early how school can be a time of heartbreak to students with learning disabilities. Kids can be cruel — and, it turns out, sometimes so can teachers. After a bicycle accident at age four, Yabraian suffered from seizures and dyslexia.

“When I was six, my teacher told me that I would never make it past the eighth grade,” she told an audience in 2007. “In eighth grade, my teacher presented me with an award, in front of the entire class, for being ‘The Most Brainless.’”

What made her statement especially impressive was where she made it — at her graduation from the University of Tampa, where she was chosen as the speaker representing her Class of 2007, having become a member of the Honors Society and earned a double major in government and world affairs as well as communications.

Dyslexia has many forms. While Meek has an aide who reads the newspapers and briefs him on the news, Yabraian has become an avid reader of newspapers and books on international affairs and politics.

Her graduation-day message was that sooner or later everyone will encounter an obstacle that must be overcome — if not a disability, then a barrier or just a bad bit of luck. The act of overcoming the obstacle can prove energizing and empowering.

Meanwhile, Meek is working at making his dyslexia obstacle into the Great American Virtue.

“As someone who was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age, I know what it’s like to work hard without complaining to overcome a disability,” Meek said on the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. “My fight is the fight of so many everyday Americans. I celebrate today’s anniversary based on personal experience.”

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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