By: Wolf Shipon

His quick stride and tall posture convey confidence and pride. His mannerisms and wit suggest that he has been through it but is ready for more. Hes Anthony Mercandetti, a senior marketing major at The College of New Jersey, preparing to enter a larger world and representing a life lesson about making motivation the first priority in life. Anthony has broken away from a childhood of questionable diagnoses, low expectations and inadequate schooling to succeed in college and rise above his past.

Anthony is now getting As in college and has had internships at large companies. He uses the Kurzweil 3000 (Kurzweil Educational Systems) scan/read system to read his textbooks, which gives him a self-reported 75 percent reading comprehension rate, compared to his previous 35 to 40 percent. However, while scan/read technology has been instrumental in helping Anthony, he has offered his story about struggling with a learning disability to assert that only those students deeply committed to improving themselves will succeed with technology, no matter how sophisticated the technology becomes.

A Rocky Start

In the primary grades Anthony could not read. Instead of reading along with his parents, he was listening to them read and then reciting the books. "Functionally I did not know how to read until the fourth grade, and even then it was at a first-grade level. One school district attempted to classify me as mentally retarded. Nobody believed that, including my parents. They retested immediately, but it took almost a court battle to get that label off my school records." Eventually he was diagnosed with a perceptual impairment, poor fine motor skills, low mathematical reasoning, and poor spelling ability.

"I had a hard time with peers too," Anthony added. "We (the children in special education) had our own line at lunch. Any one of us doing something bad would get the whole group blamed. I lost all my friends when I went into special ed, after floundering in mainstream classes until the third grade."

In the third grade, Anthony entered a self-contained special education class. "You could tell that the teacher did not have high expectations for any of us," he said. "The thought of me going to college was a pipe-dream. My parents would say it, but teachers would never talk about it. Even in fifth grade, teachers treated us like we were first-graders."

Persistence Pays Off

Yet Anthony became determined to break out of it. The social isolation he experienced being one of "those kids," as people would refer to the students in special education classes, was unacceptable. The nearer Anthony got to high school, the more determined he was not to be treated this way. Between fifth and eighth grade, Anthony struggled to get out of the self-contained special education classes. "For all of my Christmas break in seventh grade, I read two entire reading textbooks and did all the problems in the book to break out of special education. The teacher was upset that I did it and said I was going against the system, and I wasnt ready for normal classes." But he had completed 330 pages of reading and answered the questions correctly to earn all As.

By the start of high school, Anthony had broken into one third-track class, and by his third marking period freshman year, he was in second-track classes. "I worked with some things like handwriting issues," he said. "I would say work-wise I did very well in the sense that I got As and Bs mostly. I struggled with algebra when I was a sophomore and it had to deal primarily with not having learned the material in earlier grades."

Setbacks to Overcome

By the end of junior year, Anthony was working very hard. However, he had two major setbacks. Family problems interfered with his ability to concentrate. The teachers who had observed his incredible progress knew what he was going through and tried to help. By high school, Anthony had won friends and supporters among his peers and his teachers. He was playing football and had made athletic associations that strengthened his social network.

Adding to the distress caused by his family situation, the day before classes began his senior year of high school, Anthony fractured his hand playing football. "I struggled in all my classes, and passed them all but some of them, I should not have. The teachers knew who I was, and that I was going through a lot. The fracture would not heal."

After high school Anthony decided to continue his studies in community college and to pay for it himself. "I got a job to get myself through two years of community college," he said. "I worked every day for 38 days straight delivering bread at night with a fractured hand, in a cast, carrying boxes. And that was the best part of the day. I was sleeping two to three hours a day, drinking pots of coffee instead of cups. I was tired and had no support network, but I knew if I left school I would not go back. I knew my limitations and knew I had to stay in there no matter what."

College Staff Provide Support

While at Ocean County College, Anthony continued to study hard, and he was fortunate to have good teachers and the help of the disability support office (Project Academic Skills Support at Ocean County College see sidebar on page 5 for more information about this and other regional centers in New Jersey that support college students with disabilities). There he began using the Kurzweil 1000 scan/read software (Kurzweil Educational Systems), which OCC had available for students with visual impairments. Textbook pages could be scanned into a computer and then read aloud. He found that it did not scan very fast, and sometimes the words were hard to distinguish. Since it did provide some assistance, he used it anyway. Starting in 1998, Anthony began working on his physical problem the fractured hand that had not healed since September of 1996 by going to physical therapy in New York City. He was in rehabilitation for one year, three days a week, and continued the exercises at home when his insurance ran out.

Scan/Read System Enhances Comprehension

In May 1999, having graduated from OCC and still in a cast, he came to The College of New Jersey where he was introduced to the Adaptive Technology Center for New Jersey Colleges. Here he tried the L & H Kurzweil 3000, the scan/read system designed specifically for students with learning disabilities. The Kurzweil 3000 provides auditory and visual feedback as it highlights and reads text aloud. A built-in dictionary, which provides definitions, synonyms, spelling and word syllabication, offers additional support to students both auditorially and visually. Study skills tools that are part of the program allow students to highlight main ideas and add annotations within the body of the text. Annotations can be text or voice recordings. Highlights and notes can be exported to a separate document to be used as a study outline. Anthony found using the Kurzweil 3000 helped him immensely with his 12-credit course load. "It was beyond my expectations," he said.

"I know it has made a big difference using the Kurzweil," Anthony said. I literally had 700 pages of retail management, 980 pages of market research, 650 pages of consumer behavior, and 2000 pages of econ/stats to read. Reading with the Kurzweil 3000 made it easier for me to digest the information. If I was just normally reading it, I would know just a whole bunch of pieces and it would be difficult. It made a real difference in my comprehension.

"If I were to read a book like Marketing Principles, if I were to persevere through all the reading, it would probably take me 2.5 hours to read one chapter. By the time I finished reading the last page of the chapter I would have forgotten the first part of the chapter and remembered maybe 40 percent of the rest. Using the Kurzweil 3000, it would take me half the time to read the chapter, and Id remember 75 to 80 percent."

Motivation Provides Key to Success

It is important to note that Anthony attributes his success using this software to his level of motivation. He believes his desire to succeed in spite of the odds against him inspired him to use the resources at his disposal in the best way possible. He warns that scanning text can be tedious and a student must be committed to doing it, or find someone else to do it instead. One approach Anthony used was paying a younger cousin to do the scanning for him when he did not have time to do it himself.

Anthony offers practical advice to disability support offices and technology enthusiasts. "You cant just throw technology at someone and expect it to solve their problems. The first step is to make sure accommodations are made for the student. The second step, which most people seem to miss, is motivation. No technology tool is going to work for a student who is not willing to put forth a real effort." Student initiative and persistence are essential for technology tools to fulfill their potential.

Wolf Shipon is a graduate student in the Department of Counselor Education at The College of New Jersey.


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