Strivven Media’s Director of Learning Solutions, Steven Dahl, recently talked with LeDerick Horne, Poet, Speaker, and Advocate, who uses his gift for spoken-word poetry as the gateway to larger discussions on equal opportunity, pride, self-determination and hope for people with disabilities.
Labeled with a learning disability himself in the third grade, LeDerick defies any and all labels and inspires others to do the same.
SD: LeDerick, your story is so important to share with our VirtualJobShadow.com audience. Tell us a little about yourself and why you have decided to share your journey with others.
LH: My story is similar to many people with a learning disability. After struggling for several years to learn to read and spell, I received a diagnosis when I was in the third grade. I was placed in a self-contained special education classroom and I remained in special education until I graduated from high school. I was so uncertain about what the adult world held for me, but I decided that I wanted to go to college. I was very fortunate that my IEP team connected me with a learning disability support program at a local county college. I took full advantage of the disability support program at school - I started using accommodations for the first time, the staff gave me a meaningful understanding of what it meant to be a person with a learning disability, and I began to thrive as a college student.
I come from a family of storytellers, educators, and civil rights activist who were deeply committed to making the world a better place. When I was in college, I started sharing my story with young people in high school that were in special education. Once I began to see the impact that my story had on those young people, I decided that this was the way I wanted to give back to the world. Now I spend a lot of my time working with educators, students, and policymakers from all over the United States to improve the outcomes of people with disabilities.
SD: You have a hidden disability, and wrote a book called, “Empower Students with Hidden Disabilities: A Path to Pride and Success.” For those that might not know, what is a hidden disability and how has it shaped your personal and professional lives?
LH: Hidden disabilities present themselves in a way that often does not fit our cultural understanding of disability. People with learning disabilities and ADHD make up the largest number of people with hidden disabilities. People with autism, mild hearing and vision disabilities, emotional disabilities, and some people with intellectual disabilities are also sometimes included.
As a young person, I had to come to terms with the reality that I experience the world in a way that is different from many people who are neurotypical. My hidden disability informs how I read, how I think through problems, and how I express what I know. In many circumstances, it gives me an advantage over the vast majority of people that I interact with professionally, but in circumstances - like having to read out loud in a meeting or do math without a calculator - it can definitely feel like a disadvantage. In both my personal and professional life, I have learned to let everyone around me know what task I find challenging due to my disability. I cannot expect people to look at me and know that I need help. Empowering everybody in my life with that information makes it easier for me to do the task that I know I’m good at, avoid the task that I find extremely difficult, and ask for help when I need support.
SD: Having a learning and attention disability can be challenging for any student. It can be especially challenging for African-American male students and shows up in “disproportionality” data. How do you connect your lived experience to the conversation around disproportionality at the systemic level?
LD: It is important for all of us to acknowledge that our larger society, and by extension our schools, were not initially created to include people with disabilities or to support racial integration. We have all inherited the cultural norms, policies, and beliefs systems that continue to perpetuate discrimination.
Although I come from a household of college-educated parents who were able to provide me a solid middle-class upbringing, neither one of them had the support they needed in order to help me navigate through the education system. My mother was my primary advocate, and after I had been diagnosed, she basically trusted my school to do what was best for me - When the school told her the best thing was to place me within a segregated classroom, she didn’t understand the long-term negative repercussions that restricted placement would have on my development.
In my special education classes, there were always an extremely large number of African-American boys. I know that many of my classmates came from homes with fewer resources than mine. And their parents were probably devoting most of their energy to ensuring their basic needs were met. The support of any child, and particularly a child with a disability, requires access to resources. Those resources have systematically been withheld, or at times withdrawn, from communities of color through practices like red-lining and decades of underinvestment. Many of the agencies and organizations which are in place to support families who have children with disabilities have also done a poor job of reaching out to communities of color. And even the larger culture - which has been pushing to include more people with disabilities on TV and in movies - has often decided to craft a narrative of disability which primarily features white characters.
Part of the work that I am engaging in now involves supporting communities of color so that we can have a better understanding of our rights and receive culturally responsive supports. And it is my hope that sharing my own story, and my poetry, will cut through the fear and misconceptions that many of our educators and policymakers have about young people of color with disabilities.
SD: What advice would you give to educators reading this and wondering what they can do to help their students with hidden disabilities reach their goals and dreams?
LD: Educators need to maintain their high expectations for students with hidden disabilities. Many of these students are going to get frustrated with how much difficulty they experience just trying to get through the school day. It’s important to look past a student’s short-term struggle to help them live into their long-term potential. I’m also a supporter of inclusive education, so I recommend educators seeking out professional development opportunities to learn how to collaborate and diversify the way they present information. I currently serve on the board of the New Jersey Coalition for Inclusive Education (NJCIE.org) and we provide outstanding supports for school leaders, and direct coaching to educators, to help them build more inclusive schools. Currently, we at NJCIE work within the state of New Jersey and are planning to expand our work across the United States.
Additionally, I encourage educators to create Self-Advocacy Clubs for their high schools and middle schools with disabilities. These clubs function as a school space where students with disabilities can learn about disability history, prepare to direct their IEP meetings, and develop transition plans for life after high school. More than anything, students with disabilities can benefit from having a safe space within their school which is all about helping them to grow - These clubs are a great way to give students that space.
SD: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures free and appropriate public education is available to children with disabilities. When you were young, did you know about these resources and if so, what difference did they make in your learning?
LH: I was an eighteen-year-old college student when I learned that I had civil rights as a person with a disability. And knowing about laws like the ADA (Americans with Disability Act) and IDEA made it much easier for me to advocate for myself as a student. One of the things research tells us about students with strong self-advocacy skills is that they need to know their rights and be able to communicate those rights to other people. Every student with a disability should know about the major laws that will protect them, and provide them access, in school, in their communities, and in the world of work.
SD: We know that work really is for everyone and inclusive work environments are essential for those with hidden disabilities. What principles and practices help to create an inclusive workplace?
LH: Employers must be open to experiment and innovate. One of the great gifts that come with having a diverse workforce is that people from different backgrounds, and with different ability levels, approach work in different ways. If the employer is open to that difference, it can lead to innovative solutions to problems and a much more productive work environment for all employees.
An open line of communication is critical in creating an inclusive workplace. That means that the employer needs to be open to suggestions about how to optimize the performance of a person with a disability. And the person with a disability has to be empowered to talk openly with their employer about the supports they need in order to perform a job. Now more than ever, customers are looking to spend their money with businesses that value diversity. And employers need to be proactive in creating an environment that is inclusive for all their employees.
SD: Poetry is an important part of your journey. How has it benefitted you personally, and how can others, maybe some who have never written poetry, use it to express themselves?
LH: Poetry, and particularly spoken word, has helped me connect with people and form community. At the start of my career, I decided that I wanted my art to be at the core of my advocacy. I grew up listening to poetry and I have always been drawn to artists who use their work to support larger movements for social change. Poetry has also given me an extremely effective way to communicate with the people at my talks and workshops. Professional development days tend to be very boring for most educators. And even youth conferences can be filled with hours of people talking to power points. Bringing poetry into those spaces tends to wake people up and help them connect to the emotional energy we all need.
We should all find a poet whose voice represents us. Living or dead - A literary poet or your favorite songwriter. All of us should look for ways to bring poetry into our professional lives and into our everyday exchanges. And if you write poetry, I encourage you to share it openly and honestly with the people in your life. The world needs more poets - especially now.
SD: There are many “labels” put on young people with disabilities. How can we all help address and break those stereotypes?
LH: Words have power. The disability rights lawyer Andy Imparato has helped me to understand that there is nothing wrong with giving young people a disability-related label as long as they are also given a history, a connection to the community, and a deep understanding of that community’s contribution to the world. We all need to share the stories of awesome people with disabilities in our communities, and within the collective human family, who helped make this world a better place. I created a video series called “Celebrating Black History and People with Disabilities.” The series is on my YouTube channel and it is designed to help educators and families highlight the contributions of people with disabilities. My hope is that other artists, educators, and activists will create similar series to celebrate the way disability appears within their communities.
SD: Thank you again for your time and for sharing your inspirational story. Any final words you’d like to share?
LH: Thank you for asking me to do this interview. And thank you for the work you do to expose more young people to the employment opportunities that are available to them. I would just encourage your readers to reach out to me via social media or my website (www.lederick.com).