National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) recognizes the important role people with disabilities play in a diverse and inclusive American workforce. In recognition of NDEAM, we asked IES predoctoral fellow, Rachelle Johnson, how having a learning disability impacts her career development as a researcher. Rachelle, a PhD student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, researches the role various factors play in the reading development of students with learning disabilities, with a focus on socioemotional and environmental factors.
What inspired you to become an education researcher?
Being dyslexic, I grew up in special education and in pull-out reading intervention groups. Because dyslexic students were often in the same classes and pull-out groups, we formed an informal community of understanding and acceptance. But as I progressed through school, I noticed the makeup of my classmates changed. My dyslexic classmates had spread out—a couple were in advanced placement, many were in regular classes, others still in mainly special education classes, and many in a mix of class types. And many of us came back together for inclusion English class. Among us we had vastly different goals for the future. I was in some advanced placement classes and was looking at going to university, while many of my dyslexic friends were just trying not to drop out of high school. In noticing these wide individual differences among my learning disabled (LD) peers, I wanted to know what differentiated us. Why had some of us gone onto high achievement and some didn’t when we all started out in that same reading intervention pull-out room?
To figure out these answers, I started to read what I could on dyslexia and began attending local conferences on learning disabilities. In doing so, I became frustrated because the people I saw talking about dyslexia were not LD themselves and often I was the only “out” LD person in the room. Even though I was still in high school, I decided I wanted to be the one to find the undiscovered answers to my questions about the factors involved in creating differentiated outcomes among learning disabled people. And I wanted to write about and tell people what I found and have that information help my LD community. What I was trying to find the word for was research, but I didn’t know that was a career option.
When I described my questions about learning disabilities to the PI whose lab I started working in as a research assistant my first semester in college, she encouraged me to pursue a career as a LD researcher. She showed me that answering questions was what researchers do and that being a researcher was a career option for me. Today, I continue to research the same overarching research question that I had in early high school: what factors play into the individual differences in academic outcomes among LD students?
What have been some challenges you have faced as a learning disabled person in academia?
A big challenge I often came up against in my early career was how “out” I was going to be about being disabled. I was told that if people knew I was disabled I would never get hired, no one would take me as a PhD student, and that I was just setting myself up for discrimination. However, part of why I started pursuing research was because I didn’t see LD people being represented and given a voice in conversations on LD. I decided to go against the advice of those around me and disclose my disability. I knew I would not be able to hide my disabilities well and that if I was going to thrive in an environment I would need to disclose. Also, my disabilities are central to my identity, and I didn’t want to hide that important part of myself. It is important to me to be the representation I desperately wanted.
Another challenge is that there is pressure to “be disabled but not too disabled.” When people first meet me, they often talk about my dyslexia in the past tense, like it is something that I overcame in elementary school. However, I did not overcome my dyslexia. Dyslexia is a lifelong disability and one that is very much still a part of my daily life. Reading is still an issue for me and will always be. I rely heavily on assistive technology such as text-to-speech to read academic articles.
What supports have been the most helpful to you in your academic career?
I have had many great mentors, both current mentors at Florida State University and past mentors in and out of research. My mentors never expected anything less from me due to my disability and were also willing to talk with me through different barriers and find solutions together without lowering the expectations.
As a person with a learning disability, what advice would you give education researchers who focus on students with learning disabilities?
Be sure to actively involve LD people in your research. A small proportion of people researching LD are LD themselves. Help by mentoring the next generation of LD researchers by taking on LD mentees.
What advice would you give students with learning disabilities who wish to pursue a career in education research?
Sometimes, it can be scary thinking about going into a field such as education research, especially if you are not expected to do well. I have actively sought a career that relies on skills that I have disabilities in. However, even if the field of education research was not structured with disabled people in mind from the beginning, that does not mean that the LD and otherwise disabled community do not belong there. Imposter syndrome happens, but you do belong in those spaces.
Community is so important inside and outside academia and inside and outside disability. I have had many mentors who have supported me. My learning-disabled community outside of academia has always been there for me and that is a cherished part of my support system. Whether that be just friends or someone to help problem solve when my assistive technology is malfunctioning. But it is also important to be involved in disability community as a whole, not just limited to LD. And the level of disclosure and outness of disability is a personal choice for everyone. But I have found that in being out as disabled at least I am not also hiding a big part of my identity and it helps in finding other disability community members to make connections.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.
Rachelle Johnson is a proud dyslexic with ADHD. She has been in learning disabled spaces all her life and is actively involved in learning disability research, outreach, and activism. Rachelle is currently a developmental psychology Ph.D. student and FIREFLIES fellow at Florida State University, where she researches reading development and learning disabilities within the Florida Center for Reading Research. She is also a member of the Board of Directors and the Young Adult Leadership Council of the National Center for Learning Disabilities. The goal of both her research and activism is to create a world where learning disabled people are understood, supported, and reach their potential in life.
This blog post was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), NCER program officer and co-chair of the IES Diversity Council.