For Mark Brugger, earning the title of valedictorian at Bexley High School in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, meant untold hours of work, far more than the norm even for today’s competitive teenagers.
The work was overwhelming and left him with little time for socializing. His parents just figured he was “an overachiever” and never had him tested for learning disabilities, although he did have speech lessons for years.
“I was really struggling with things that should have been easier,” he says. “I didn’t read—I sort of picked out words.”
Brugger didn’t know it at the time, by he later learned that he suffers from dyslexia and apraxia, an auditory processing disorder.
Brugger, a West Windsor resident, was the recipient of the Harrison Sylvester Award during the 55th Annual International Learning Disabilities of America Conference held in February in Atlanta, Georgia.
The award goes to “a person with learning disabilities who has shown a significant commitment and dedication to adults with learning disabilities and their issues.”
In high school he developed strategies to work around his learning issues. After he “did terrible in the pre-SATs,” Brugger put his excellent memory to work to prepare for the SATs.
“I just memorized 10 words a day for nine months,” he says. Combining a dictionary’s worth of vocabulary words with his gift for logic, he was able to get through the reading section of the SAT, but, he notes, “it’s a very awkward way of reading.” He also did a lot of math prep.
In college, he carefully chose his major—philosophy—because it didn’t require a lot of reading. But, he says, “I got to a point where I was working so hard, I knew something was terribly wrong.” The only other possibility, he thought then, was “I’m not smart enough.”
It was the University of Virginia’s requirement that he pass four classes in French that was the final straw—after studying French for years he was still at level 1.
His concern that he would never pass led him to an evaluation and diagnosis at age 20, by Eleanor Westhead, then a faculty member at the Curry School of Education, a board member of what is now the Learning Disabilities Association of America, and part of UVA’s Learning Needs and Evaluation Center in its Office of Disabilities.
Brugger says dyslexia ‘is the largest single disability’ and ‘part of the reason why so many of our kids are not reading at grade level.’
Brugger was diagnosed with apraxia and dyslexia, and he was able to get the help and accommodations he needed to get through the last two years of college. And Westhead became a mentor to him.
“It was very important to have a mentor who knew about this stuff who could help me in my life,” he says.
Today, he has become a mentor and activist in the learning disabilities community.
Brugger’s accomplishments in this realm are many. First, he made the Orton-Gillingham Literacy Training available online.
Orton-Gillingham is the standard for reading remediation since the 1940s, and it trains educators and parents in a methodology for teaching dyslexics to read, write and spell. (It is currently available at whizzimo.com.)
Having this training available online is critical for places without strong special education. Although we are lucky in New Jersey to have “LD schools like Newgrange,” he says, “there are places in the country where there is nowhere to send your kids and nobody trained.”
Brugger also developed an online version of Spotlight on Dyslexia, inspired by the in-person conference created by dyslexic high school student Will Marsh. The online version, which ran for three years, drew a national audience to the latest information on learning disabilities, presented by nationally recognized speakers.
Brugger has created and presented a program for teachers, parents and older students titled Dyslexia/Learning Disabilities: Making it Personal to help people understand dyslexia and other learning disabilities through simulation, presentation of facts, and sharing his personal story of struggle and success.
Having offered this program throughout New Jersey and the New York metro area as well as at conferences nationwide, Brugger says, “I have parents who sometimes come and start to cry because they realize what I was taking about was them. They didn’t know what was different about them.”
Brugger also volunteers with ProjectSearch.us, an internship program for students with disabilities who plan to transition directly to the workforce after high school; and he cofounded SKIT, a special kids improvisational theater that seeks to improve the social and communications skills of middle and high school students with disabilities.
Because one of Brugger’s sons is autistic, he has gotten involved in other activities in the broader special education community.
His son, he says, is of “average intelligence,” but is “severely language compromised” and attends the Center School in Manville. “He’s turning 17, and I’m scared to death,” Brugger says, adding that his younger son is at the Hun School in Princeton.
Brugger expresses special appreciation for the transition programs offered by the Learning Disabilities Association of New Jersey, in particular its High School Transition Conference and Resource Expo, June 3, at The College of New Jersey.
“Parents don’t have a lot of guidance in what to do in applying for colleges and figuring out careers,” Brugger says. “They are showing kids [that] there is not just the college option. The worst thing is going to college and not getting support.”
Brugger has also gotten trained in advocacy through the National Special Education Advocacy Institute and has become a volunteer community advocate for youth with disabilities. He is also treasurer of the Special Education Parent Student Teacher Association in West Windsor-Plainsboro.
Brugger grew up in Columbus, Ohio, and Pittsburgh. His father was an engineer and his mother he describes as a “homemaker turned entrepreneur,” with a home business doing wedding invitations. After his parents divorced, she worked as a sales rep for various manufacturers.
In high school Brugger did find one extracurricular where he excelled, turning what he calls “a natural weakness” into a strength and becoming a Pennsylvania state champion in forensics. He has also done drama and community theater.
The diagnoses he got while at the University of Virginia enabled him to have accommodations at the University of Michigan School of Business, where guidance counselor Jane Lieberthal advocated for him; in addition to extended time on tests, he says, “I was the first person at Michigan to have a note taker.”
But having accommodations wasn’t necessarily a positive experience. “I found the students weren’t always accepting. People think you’re cheating because you get extra time.”
“One reason kids don’t go for help is the peer issue,” he explains. Even in the “highly liberal environment at the University of Michigan,” students would ask him, when he was taking the test elsewhere with extra time, “Why are you disappearing when we are taking the test?”
“It’s hard to be different,” he says. Quoting Kermit the Frog, he adds, “It’s difficult being green.”
After graduate school, Brugger’s gift in logic and study of symbolic logic at college got him into an “extremely competitive” program at Price Waterhouse that taught liberal arts majors how to program. “I can’t deal with a lot of words and a lot of code,” he says, but “I can write elegantly and short.”
Following his stint at Price Waterhouse Brugger worked for over 15 years in telecommunications, first at Rochester Telephone, where he started Visions Long Distance, and at Teleport Communications Group in Staten Island, where he won a president’s award for various projects, including one partnering with AT&T.
Brugger worked in product management and marketing for several other companies, some of them focused on education: Netilla Networks, a networking startup in Somerset; Teachers Support Network in Princeton, which recruits teachers for large inner city and rural schools; Shunra; Panviva; Arbinet; Nelnet; and then almost six years at Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind. He is currently doing marketing and product management consulting.
Dyslexia, Brugger says “is the largest single disability” and “part of the reason why so many of our kids are not reading at grade level.”
He expresses concern that general education teachers are not trained sufficiently about learning disabilities, although The College of New Jersey does require such training.
Some New Jersey families have taken responsibility into their own hands by starting Decoding Dyslexia – NJ to raise awareness about dyslexia, empower families to support their children and inform policymakers on best practices.
“It takes a village,” Brugger says. “There are a lot of these parents who inspire me who have dedicated themselves to make sure their children get help and try to change the system.”
Even today Brugger mostly reads newspapers, magazines and short books, because he still finds that “reading is physically tiring.”
He is trying to train himself to listen to audio books, but says, “It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and the auditory processing order gets in the way. If I had had better training, I think would have been more adept at listening.”
Looking back on his own experience as an individual with serious learning disabilities, Brugger says, “I knew was headed toward a bad situation at school, and I had to save myself.”
He emphasizes that his own resilience and that of others “is not because you’re learning disabled; it’s because of other factors. Other kids who are shutdown learners end up in the school-to-prison pipeline, and the dropout rate in high school is twice as high for kids with disabilities.”
Brugger himself has started to focus on the strengths of people with dyslexia, especially after attending a Dyslexic Advantage conference.
“Steven Spielberg thinks in pictures, not words,” he says. “People who see patterns in things, like me, will see things that other people don’t in terms of interpreting things and putting things together.”
“I always tell people you make a life out of your strengths, not your weaknesses, and we have to tell our kids this,” Brugger says. “It’s about finding what your kids are good it, what they like and enjoy, how you get a happy life. It’s not just about fixing and accommodating the weaknesses, it’s about the strengths too.”