Ben Foss has a way with words. In fact, as a graduate student, Foss won the World Debating Championship, just two years after becoming the first American to win the British Isles Debating Championship.
Foss’s facility with the spoken word belies the mountain of difficulties he has with the written word. That’s been his greatest challenge since early elementary school, when he was diagnosed with dyslexia.
It’s also been the impetus for his entrepreneurial success. In 2003 he founded Headstrong Nation, an organization that provides information about dyslexia, self-advocacy, and new technology for those that struggle with the written word.
Putting assistive technology (link to AT: An Overview) in the hands of children with learning differences is something Foss knows more than a little about. In addition to his work as an activist for the dyslexic community—a group he claims is the largest disability group in the world—Foss is also the inventor of the Intel Reader, a mobile device that allows text to be read aloud.
The Road to Success
Foss’s path to success is not dissimilar to many others who have achieved greatness in spite of—or because of—their early learning challenges. Following his dyslexia diagnosis, Foss was placed in special classes, where his gifts became evident. He scored at the 12th-grade level on a picture-based intelligence test before he was in middle school. And like many smart kids with LD, he discovered talents that went beyond those recognized in the traditional educational model.
Also like many kids with dyslexia, he found himself mainstreamed after sixth grade and struggled thereafter without accommodations. “I spent a lot of years trying to deny my dyslexia,” says Foss.
It wasn’t until he went to college that he openly admitted he had a learning disability. “It is a reality,” he remembers thinking. Armed with that acknowledgment, he finally sought the resources he was entitled to.
“I relied heavily on the writing workshop to help me proofread what I was required to write, and teachers’ assistants to point me toward the important material I needed to cover,” he says.
Rising to the Challenges
With this acceptance came confidence, and he moved through the “gauntlet that is LD” to complete college, win a Truman and a Marshall Scholarship and study in the UK before returning to Stanford University, where he earned both a law degree and an MBA.
“One of the most important things is choosing the right domain for yourself,” says Foss. “I got into debate. The key is to play to your strengths. If you’re good at metalwork, become a sculptor, not an accountant.”
Ultimately, Foss maintains the real difficulty is emotional. “First you must come to terms with your disability; accept it, and embrace it. Then you must deal with a world that sees, and often doesn’t know how to respond to your disability.”
“We need to educate others,” he stresses. For Foss, that’s become his life’s work. His most recent effort is his new book for parents, The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning. In this eye-opening book Foss seeks nothing less than to change the discourse on dyslexia.
As with many prejudices, he notes, people often view LD as an intelligence issue or consign those with LD to the same limited category. “LD comes in a million different flavors, and everyone, with or without LD, has their own individual strengths and talents.” His clearly are plentiful.
Personal Experiences • Success Stories • Dyslexia