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The Sky is the Limit for Madison Saunders

Madison Saunders wants to make air travel safer for everyone. An honors student at Southeastern Oklahoma State University studying aviation management-safety, she aspires to become an aviation crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board. She credits a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston at five years old, and many trips to space camp with support from her tribe (Chickasaw), with inspiring and feeding this passion for space and flight. She settled on an aerospace forensics major as it allows her to bring together her passion for space and flying, as well as her interest in engineering and problem solving.

Problem solver is definitely the right word to describe Madison. To pursue this major, Madison takes a combination of core business and management classes, and some courses specific to aviation. A self-described “proud dyslexic and dysgraphic student,” she uses books in accessible formats to study. Listening to her books as audio, she can increase the speed to a rate that many would find unintelligible and still maintain comprehension.

From Avoiding Accommodations to Embracing Exceptionality

Madison had difficulty with writing and spelling from a young age. Although she was overall a very academically motivated student, she could not demonstrate that knowledge in tests, which was incredibly demoralizing. Finally, in fifth grade, she was diagnosed with dysgraphia and dyslexic characteristics due to processing. Throughout middle school and early high school, she would hide her disability from friends and teachers. She worried that using her accommodations would prove that she was not capable of being in the advanced classes that she was taking. When other students were swapping schedules to see if they had the same teachers, she hid hers so that others could not see that she had a dyslexia support class scheduled on hers.

In high school, she began to embrace her identity as a learning-disabled student. She recognized that her accommodations enabled her to demonstrate her knowledge and capabilities, taking a rigorous course load of AP classes and dual enrollment college courses.

“People ask how can somebody so smart be learning disabled? It’s called twice exceptionality, and it’s my story.” –Madison Saunders

Finding Her College Match

When it came time to look at colleges, ensuring that she could attend a college that would meet her learning needs and continue to provide the appropriate accommodations was imperative. “I started out googling ‘best colleges for students with learning disabilities.’” Focusing on those accommodations alone, however, did not work for Madison, as she had a very specific career path that she wanted to pursue: aviation crash investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

She was unwilling to compromise on this career vision. “I always say I’ve got my head stuck up in the clouds and stars,” says Madison. When she did not see her desired major among the lists of top colleges for students with learning disabilities, she decided to take the opposite approach, searching for the top schools in her desired field, and then evaluating them to see if any would be a good fit.

She found the perfect combination in Southeastern Oklahoma State. “The disability services office is amazing.” Unlike many colleges, they did not require a re-diagnosis in order to get her accommodations. Commonly known as the three-to-five-year rule, this re-diagnosis requirement can be costly, stressful, and time consuming for many students and their families. Southeastern Oklahoma State simply required that Madison share her current documentation, and then the disability services coordinator, Tiffany Tate, worked with Madison to get her accommodations set up by day one.

During the process, Tate recognized that Madison could benefit from accessing her textbooks in audio format. After a test run using the Optical Character Recognition tool, Microsoft Lens, Tiffany added Madison to the university’s Bookshare roster, and she is now an avid user.

Madison prefers to read her Bookshare books using Immersive Reader in Microsoft Word 2019. She adjusts the settings to use black background with white text, focusing on one line at a time, and sets the font to open dyslexic or comic sans. Lately, she listens to audiobooks during her commute to her summer job at the university’s technology office.

Advocate for Disabled Learners

Madison openly shares her story so that she can be a role model for other students with learning disabilities, especially her younger brother, who is also dyslexic. She hopes that he will receive better accommodations and support than she did in elementary school since he was diagnosed early. “I’m very much the person who believes that there should not be a reason we cannot teach a person,” says Madison. It is simply a matter of finding the right accommodations.

Madison Saunders is an honors student studying Aviation Management – Safety at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and a member of the National Center for Learning Disabilities Young Adult Leadership Council. A native Texan from McKinney, she is a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, has worked on high-power model rockets, and has a love for academic events.

This article first appeared in the Benetech blog.

One Comment

  1. Nancy Hendricks

    Go, Madison!! I love your story, and I love that you are sharing it in order to benefit others.

    I’ve heard digital and audio reading referred to as ‘ear reading’, to show that ‘eye reading’ is not the only way to access information.

    Thanks for inspiring me as I work with middle grade students, some of whom have dyslexia.

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