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Memories are bittersweet for advocate mom

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By Martha Langston , Rob Langston

Empathy leads to advocacy

Martha slowly began to realize, as she helped Rob cope with school, that her unwavering empathy for his learning difficulties came partly out of her own learning struggles. "I told Rob recently that the reason I was probably a good mother for him was because I really understood his problems," she says. "I remember in fifth or sixth grade trying to memorize things like the state capitals. I absolutely could not learn them. My mother would say, 'You're a smart girl, and you can do this.' And, of course, I would never talk back to my mother, but I knew I couldn't do it. So when Rob said he couldn't learn something, I believed him."

Martha's empathy carried over to her son. As a high school student with a learning disability, who was also a popular jock, Rob operated in two very separate worlds. His outgoing personality and athletic skills allowed him to hang out with popular kids, in spite of the stigma generally attached to LD. But his special education classes, located in a converted janitor's closet, served kids with a very different social standing. "I had friends from the janitor's closet who didn't have LD," Rob recalls. "Some of us had ADD, some of us had parole officers, and some of us had physical disabilities. I remember one girl in a wheelchair who had problems with motor skills and speech skills. Everybody was congenial to her, but no one took a second to actually know her. I became friends with her, and I talked to her in the halls. In a small way, I could kind of help her survive in the social ladder by doing that.

"It was a gift for me to learn empathy for the whole spectrum of kids," Rob adds, "I was never scared of the scariest people in high school, because I was in the janitor's closet with them. And I realized in most cases they were more scared than anybody else."

Meanwhile, "behind the scenes," Martha, who describes herself as extremely shy, was going to individual education program (IEP) meetings; working with each of Rob's high school teachers to help them understand his learning strengths and needs, and reading his textbooks aloud to him in the evenings. Although she recalls being scared to death and spending a lot of time crying in those IEP meetings, she also took a strong stand when necessary. When Rob was in ninth grade and the special education teacher proposed yet another reading remediation program for Rob, Martha put her foot down.

"I had not planned to say this," Martha recalls, "but I just knew we couldn't go through this any more. I told them, 'I want you to teach him as if he were blind and just bypass his eyes.'" Citing the fact that he'd been taken out of English classes every year, missed important instruction, and hadn't improved his reading, she refused to sign the remediation plan. After initially refusing her request, the district worked with her on a plan, which included having Rob take his tests orally.

Courage and persistence prevail over fears

"Rob gives me far more credit in his book [For the Children: Redefining Success in School and Success in Life, 2002] than I deserve," she says modestly, "because I was often just flapping in the breeze, scared all the time, not knowing what I was going to say in meetings, or what direction things were going to go." What Martha sometimes lacked in confidence, she made up for in stubbornness and persistence, providing Rob some support even in college.

When Rob entered the State University of West Georgia in 1986, he became the first college student with a learning disability ever to receive support services there. "Mom and Ann Phillips [Ph.D., campus Student Disabilities Coordinator] and I all kind of trial-and-errored out the program," Rob recalls. "Ann was on the phone all the time with Mom, getting her advice on what might be helpful [in the college setting]." Today more than 200 students with LD receive services at West Georgia, and the program Ann, Martha, and Rob shaped became a model for other Georgia college campuses.

Rob's not sure exactly where his career path will take him, but he is certain about why he has the confidence to pursue his dreams. "Family and teachers make the difference in whether a child with LD survives or not," he says. "To make a difference in a young person's life, you have to be there for a lot of it. So, I think the biggest factor in my success is my mom and dad being there for me — all the time."

Now a seasoned veteran of LD campaigns, Martha is focusing her attention on her grandchildren's generation, especially on the need for early identification of learning disabilities. "Young children want to please you," she comments, "so when they're not pleasing you with reading and learning, you need to look into it right away. If we could do that, I think we'd curb a lot of later problems."

Asked if she has any words of wisdom to pass along to other parents of children with learning disabilities, Martha describes the principles that guided her: "Don't let your child go out there alone; always be out there advocating for them. And don't be afraid to go to teachers. I never had but one that wouldn't bend over backwards to help Rob if I asked them to."

Comments from readers

"This is an amazing story. It warms my heart to know that we have such people in our midst."