Dyslexics Learn to Believe, First, Then to Overcome

The New York Times: Campus Life
Sunday, November 11, 1990

Dyslexics Learn to Believe, First, Then to Overcome


The roster of winners at last month’s Curry College alumni awards dinner was impressive: lawyer, clinical psychologist, commercial real-estate developer, interpreter, special-education teacher, film stunt coordinator, prep school alumni relations director, prison chief.

All are successes. All, too, are learning-disabled adults whose reading difficulties might have doomed them to low-level jobs. Instead, they stood before a crowd of 150 fellow alumni, faculty member and students as testaments to a program unusual in its day: Curry College’s Program for the Advancement of Learning, which in 1970 became a model college-level program for the learning-disabled.

The program “has given me many gifts,” said Nancy M. Marchetti, a 1983 Curry graduate who is now a lawyer in Washington. “The ability to distinguish between my strengths and weaknesses, the ability to compensate for those weaknesses, but most importantly, the ability to believe in myself and to achieve the goals I set for myself.”

William S. Baldwin, an award winner from the class of 1984, said, “I can’t tell you how nurturing it is to be in an environment where people are all striving for the same thing. It makes all the difference in the world.”

“It’s about learning how to learn,” said Dr. Gertrude M. Webb, who started the program after training teachers of learning-disabled elementary and high school students.

Since its founding, more than 1,400 students have earned Curry degrees. Many more learning-disabled students have graduated from other colleges that took their cue from Curry, a small liberal arts institution in this suburb south of Boston.

Curry’s is “one of the finest programs” of its kind, said Virginia S. Powell, administrative director of Powell Associates, a psychological and educational consulting agency in Cambridge, Mass., that helps more than 100 families a year pick colleges.

Many of the Curry students have severe dyslexia, a brain impairment of unknown origin that makes it hard for them to recognize the words they are reading. Some have other difficulties reading or writing. Many are of above-average intelligence--all of them have to pass an entrance exam that tests their ability to handle abstract ideas.

At Curry, Dr. Webb said, they learn compensatory techniques while being given study and test-taking options that don’t turn learning difficulties into implacable barriers: they can tape lectures rather than write notes, take untimed exams and listen to homework assignments on audio cassettes while following along in textbooks.

“My ears taught my eyes how to read,” said Christopher P. Menton, one of the first students, who is now an administrator in the Massachusetts Department of Correction. After a history of failures in high school and at Boston State College, Mr. Menton came to Curry in 1972 reading at a second-grade level. A year later, he was on the dean’s list.

Michael J. Asher, a clinical psychologist and a 1980 Curry graduate honored last month, said his reputation as a troublemaker preceded him from grade to grade in elementary school. “The teacher would have a negative view already, and I would walk in and be successful at playing that role,” he said.

Now Dr. Asher trains teachers of the learning disabled at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey.

“For many years, frustration, desperation and shame were my traveling companions,” said Deborah J. Souter, a class of 1979 award winner who teaches special education in Ontario. “Everyone in the community at Curry recognized the fact that students had learning disabilities, and they were willing to work with us and give us support.”

Curry’s student-government president, Gill Andrew Cochran, was diagnosed as having dyslexia five years ago. Not only has he raised his academic standing since high school, but he has also increased his self-confidence.

His mother, Carole C. Cochran, remembers her son as “shy, noncompetitive and frustrated,” and said she has been amazed “to see him evolve into the kind of person who says ‘Hi, I’m Drew Cochran. I’m running for president and I’d like your vote.’”