Editor’s note: This guest essay is part of Education Lab’s Student Voices program. Read more columns by local students here.
I’m a college sophomore and I haven’t read a print book since eighth grade.
From age 14 onward, I’ve had trouble reading text. I’ve had to reread sentences multiple times to process their meaning. Sometimes I feel humiliated when my teachers and friends talk about how it should only take one minute to read a page of a novel when it takes me 10.
I thought I was just a perfectionist. After high school, however, I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). People with ADHD often struggle with reading comprehension due to difficulties with concentration. If I’d known I had ADHD earlier, I would have been able to request disability accommodations to help me keep up with schoolwork in high school. But ADHD diagnoses are often deeply biased, and many schools aren’t keeping up with alternative reading and learning formats — so I’ve had to rely on finding my own solutions.
Until we fully address and correct the systemic barriers to diagnosing disabilities, we cannot pretend that only helping students privileged enough to know they have a disability is “accessibility.” All students should be tested and properly diagnosed for learning disabilities, and schools and teachers need to provide a variety of learning materials to all students — not just those who request them — to better guarantee equal access to education and prevent more kids from falling through the cracks like I did.
I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until I was 19 because medical professionals tend to diagnose (or miss the diagnosis) based on gender. ADHD presents itself differently: Boys generally display more hyperactive symptoms and girls show more inattentive symptoms. Because most parents, teachers and even doctors pay more attention to the hyperactive symptoms than the inattentive symptoms, boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Meanwhile, many women, such as myself, aren’t diagnosed until adulthood.
Learning disabilities are underdiagnosed based on race as well. ADHD is underdiagnosed in black and Latinx children relative to white children, and dyslexia in nonnative English speakers also tends to go unnoticed.
Audiobooks were and still are a godsend. I focus on text better when I’m listening to someone read it out loud while reading it myself, and doubling up ensures that I don’t miss out on any content.
But even if I’d qualified for additional support for my learning disability, my school didn’t provide alternative reading formats. My school lent us free print copies of assigned readings, but e-books or audiobooks were never an option. I kept up with the rest of the class when I could find an audiobook version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on YouTube, but I had to fake my way through “The Great Gatsby.” (Sorry, Mrs. Miller).
And print textbooks — with no alternative formats available — were completely inaccessible for me. After countless 12-hour sessions trying to read just one chapter for a history class, I eventually resorted to taking notes from short YouTube video lectures that summarized similar material. While I had an easier time learning this way, there are still gaps in my knowledge because I couldn’t learn from the same standardized source material that everybody else could.
Computers help, too — typing this essay on a computer was fairly easy for me because tools like zoom, scroll and highlight make it easier for me to focus on text.
People with ADHD aren’t the only ones who struggle with reading difficulties: dyslexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and visual impairments can also cause people to need additional resources. So what’s the solution?
Education experts are trying to solve issues of learning differences on a broad scale with Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL is an educational framework based on cognitive neuroscience that strives to help as many students as possible by addressing diverse needs for learning.
UDL’s expansive guidelines outline what options students should have regarding how information is represented to best fit their learning needs. This includes options for font sizes and text, text-to-speech software, and language translation for non-English speakers. But providing all these options isn’t possible solely with print-bound books.
Natalie Rand is an intended double major in geography and community, environment and planning (CEP) at the UW. Straying from her family’s traditional career path in health care, she wants to go into urban planning to help contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future. When she’s not writing for UW’s The Daily, she’s collecting CDs, playing with her dog, or attempting to play piano.