Ben Cooper likes speaking in front of big groups of people. “I’d love to speak every day,” the eighth grader says enthusiastically. And his favorite topic is dyslexia.
“I like to talk from what I feel,” says Ben, who has dyslexia himself. And he feels strongly about getting the word out that kids with dyslexia are smart and capable.
Ben’s mother Robbi Cooper says he’s a natural advocate: “Ben has a very strong voice and is able to carry on a very good dialogue with people. And he wants to use that to speak out in public and change people’s perceptions about dyslexia.”
Ben has been doing just that for several years. In March, he spoke for about an hour at a session on dyslexia at SXSWedu. The annual conference, held in Austin, Texas, focuses on both old and new approaches to education.
His session was so powerful that Ben, who’s from Austin, was invited to speak at the Student Voice Summit there, too. He delivered a 10-minute talk about equal test access. He urged schools to let kids with dyslexia use audio readers for tests.
By not allowing it, schools send the message: “‘We’re not going to allow you to have the information, and these tests are going to define who you are and where you are going,’” Ben told the audience. “That shouldn’t be what’s going on in this day.”
At yet another SXSW event, he talked about what it’s like to have a learning difference. And he spoke about the need for schools to have high expectations and give students the supports they need.
Ben’s own experiences may feed into his passion. Robbi says that despite his being diagnosed with dyslexia, she struggled to get Ben the services he needed in grade school. And when he applied to advanced academic magnet middle schools in Austin, he was rejected. His math scores were high but his reading scores were low.
So for seventh grade, Robbi enrolled Ben a private boarding school in New York for kids with dyslexia. Now he’s back in Austin and attending one of the magnet schools. But he doesn’t want others to go through the same struggles.
“I’ve had some bad experiences in school,” Ben says. “It changed my whole view on school for a while. I don’t want a student to have the potential to be great and to let that potential go to waste because of something that happened in school.”
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Geri Coleman Tucker is a freelance writer and editor and a former deputy managing editor for