At the dedication and symposium for the USC Kortschak Center for Learning and Creativity on Nov. 9, a standing-room-only audience of Trojans learned that dyslexics share their learning difference with good company, including author John Irving and entrepreneur Charles Schwab.
“Students [with learning differences] are among the most creative minds on a university campus,” said Walter Kortschak, who along with his wife Marcia and children Andrew and Sarah, made a more than $10 million gift to found the center. “They number perhaps 20 percent of the student body at almost every major university in this country. We need these students to excel, problem solve, invent, and they can with the proper learning supports and assistive technologies and the confidence to believe that they can accomplish their dreams.”
The Kortschak Center will help these students achieve success through innovative services that include assistive technologies, learning strategy sessions and tutoring.
Under the direction of Edward Roth, current director of Disability Services and Programs, and the supervision of Pat Tobey, the associate dean of students responsible for academic support, the center also provides access to educational psychologists, occupational therapists, neuropsychologists and other learning specialists.
“From the very beginning, the Kortschaks understood the potential of a center such as this, and they knew a generous commitment paired with a well-conceived plan would produce significant results,” said USC President C. L. Max Nikias. “In fact, early in our discussions, Walter asked, ‘I wonder if we are thinking big enough.’ We love you, Walter!”
Michael Jackson, vice president for Student Affairs, shared these sentiments and called the Kortschak Center, which is the first of its kind, a “great new adventure.”
After a symbolic ribbon cutting, Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, co-directors of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, took the stage.
Sally Shaywitz explained that dyslexia, which affects one in five individuals and accounts for 80 to 90 percent of all learning differences, is “an unexpected difficulty in reading — unexpected in relation to the individual’s intelligence, motivation, education and professional status.”
She outlined signs of dyslexia: confusing similar sounding words; problems with word retrieval; spelling and pronunciation difficulties; poor handwriting; and slow and choppy reading.
Her husband, Bennett Shaywitz, showed pictures of dyslexic brains, which have been observed using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
“Typical readers activate systems in the front and back of the brain, whereas dyslexic readers have an inefficient functioning in those systems in the left side of the back of the brain,” he said. “That phenomenon is termed a neural signature for dyslexia. What is so nice about this is that for the first time, we’ve taken a hidden disability and made it visible.”
Sally Shaywitz emphasized the importance of accommodations such as allocating extra time on tests, which allow dyslexics to access their academic strengths without being hindered by their slow reading skills.
“Dyslexics are leaders, often disproportionately so, in science, medicine, the arts, cinema, business, entrepreneurship, poetry and writing,” she said. “So dyslexia — we shouldn’t think of it as a reading problem. It’s a way of thinking and a damn good one.”
As the founder of Kinko’s, Paul Orfalea ’71 serves as an example. He listed “his four very good qualities”: being a horrible reader, lacking mechanical ability, suffering from restlessness and an inability to sit still, and having great parents.
“My mother was very nurturing about school,” recalled Orfalea, who is dyslexic. “She would always say, ‘All five fingers are different for a reason. Honey, school wants to make you all the same.'”
Ben Foss, director of access technology at the Intel Corp., credited his mother with inspiring the invention of the Intel Reader, a device that assists dyslexics, vision-impaired people and others by photographing and reading text aloud.
“When I was a kid, I used to have my mom read out loud to me,” Foss said. “When I was in college, I would fax my term papers home to her in New Hampshire, and she would read them to me over the phone so that I could find mistakes. Over time, I grew an interest in developing other ways of reading that didn’t involve calling mom every time I had to read a menu or a textbook or something like that.”
After their presentations, the four speakers sat down for a panel discussion moderated by Judy Muller, associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.
The conversation touched on everything from the Educational Testing Service to dyslexic CEOs, but the most impassioned discussion surrounded the use of the word “disability.”
“It’s the worst word,” Orfalea said. “I have a learning distinction.”
“You have a disability,” Foss countered. “The term ‘disability’ to me is important, because it stands for a legal principle: that we have a right to accommodation.”
Terminology aside, the new center ensures that this right will be afforded to all of the future John Irvings and Charles Schwabs currently at USC.
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