For 20 years, Martha Langston and her son, Rob, were a team on a mission to help Rob succeed in school, in spite of his severe dyslexia. But it didn’t always feel like a very well organized campaign. Martha often felt like she was just taking things one step at a time, making it up as she went along, running into unforeseen obstacles, and occasionally reaching the point of despair.

Today, at age 36, Rob is a motivational speaker and author who specializes in helping people overcome internal obstacles to reach their goals. He graduated from a four-year college with a degree in art and graphic design. In recent years, he has formed his own company, written a book, worked as an artist, and spoken to as many as 20,000 school children, college students, and business executives annually. The story of how his family helped him cope with his disability and overcome the terrible isolation he felt as a child with dyslexia is now part of the message of hope he brings to others.

A 6-year-old “under cover”

“When I speak at school assembly programs,” Rob says, “I think it’s crucial to tell kids to ‘tell on themselves’ if they’re having problems learning. I didn’t start getting help until second grade because I hid the problem so well.” Like many kids with learning disabilities (LD), Rob had found creative ways to hide his dyslexia, such as making trips to the restroom during read-aloud time, memorizing the readers used in class, and cultivating playground friends who would let him copy their tests.

Martha stumbled onto Rob’s secret one day at the end of first grade when she asked him to read aloud — just for practice — the 40 words on the first-grade mastery list his teacher had given them. After an entire year in the advanced reading group, Rob could decode exactly two of the words: “a” and “I.” Martha readily admits that she panicked. “I thought, My gosh, this child has been in first grade all year, and he hasn’t learned anything.”

In the style that would characterize the next 20 years of advocacy on behalf of her son, Martha immediately went to friends and family for support. “I relied strongly on friends,” Martha says, “like when we moved to Conyers [Georgia], Rob ran around with a group of kids in the neighborhood, and I played bridge and socialized with the mothers. Because he was so smart, the friends he gravitated toward were all in the accelerated classes. I told all the mothers about Rob’s dyslexia; that, even though he couldn’t read, he wasn’t dumb. So, by the time Rob told his friends about it, I’m sure they already knew from their mothers.

“I was so consumed with all of it,” Martha adds, laughing, “that I talked about it whether I wanted to or not.”

Soon after Rob’s reading problems were discovered, Martha learned from her mother-in-law that Rob’s father, Smoot, had also had trouble learning to read and had been labeled “mirror eyed” in fourth grade. Shortly after that revelation, Martha’s mother called to tell her that she’d heard two doctors discussing dyslexia on The Phil Donahue Show and that the symptoms they were describing sounded very familiar. Martha sent for transcripts of the program, and the family finally had a label for what they were dealing with.

Mom on a mission

All of Rob’s immediate family supported him in various ways to cope with his learning disability. Martha would later discover that Rob’s older brother, Lon, was also dyslexic, though less severely so. Although Rob’s father and brother chose not to make their reading problems public, Rob was inspired by knowing that both had overcome these difficulties to become successful businessmen. Rob’s younger sister, Natalie, read his textbooks aloud to him all through his schooling and defended him from teasing.

The first tutor Martha hired to teach Rob to read, during the summer before second grade, gave up after a few months, saying he’d run out of strategies. The teachers she approached at school were more than willing to make accommodations for Rob, but were not able to help him learn to read. He was pulled out of English daily during elementary school for reading instruction, received tutoring at the county education office weekly, tried several special schools, traveled out of state to work with LD experts, walked on balance beams, read text on colored paper, did eye exercises, and was privately tutored every summer from first to eighth grade. At the end of middle school, Rob was still reading at a third-grade level.

“Rob has managed to get past the pain of that time,” Martha says. “Somehow, he’s been able to turn it around. But all I remember is the pain. We were driving home from middle school one day, and he told me he’d failed a test. He started crying and said to me, ‘All I ever wanted to be was smart.’ Well, here I am bawling, and he’s bawling. And I said to him, ‘Rob, we’re going to get through this. Some way, we’re going to get through this. When you get out of school, nobody will ever ask you what kind of grades you made. If you have friends and learn to do something [to earn a living], you’re going to be fine. But you’ve got to get through school.’

“A girlfriend of mine once told me that I should never let Rob see me cry,” Martha adds, “that I should be strong for him. But I thought, he doesn’t need me to be strong, he needs me to understand.” In Rob’s estimation, Martha achieved both. “She’ll tell people she just operated on instinct, but she got it 99% right. She was unequivocally on my side,” he says, “whether I was right or wrong, and she always worked it through to get to the solution.”

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.”