Poet and disability advocate LeDerick Horne talks about his journey to finding success in post-school life and the support students with disabilities need to do the same.
“I dare you to judge yourselves by a different standard” implores LeDerick Horne in his poem “Dare to Dream.” Horne knows a thing or two about what it means to do just that. A spoken word poet, playwright, motivational speaker, entrepreneur, and disability advocate, Horne has exceeded any boxes that could have restricted him when he was diagnosed with a learning disability at a young age. From local school boards to the White House, he has spent his career speaking passionately across the country about how learners and leaders can empower students to not be limited by their disabilities. Horne currently serves on the board of Eye to Eye, which provides mentoring programs for students labeled LD/ADHD. He spoke with ONEder about influencing lasting change in the self-perception of students with disabilities, as well as his own path to disability pride through advocacy and the arts.
How did being labeled as “neurologically impaired” in the third grade influence your subsequent life?
I think it had a huge influence. I was speaking at a national conference a few weeks ago and there were a handful of people from New Jersey there and when I mentioned [the phrase] “neurologically impaired,” everyone from New Jersey kind of giggled because I think that was a fairly common diagnosis given out in my generation. In later years, I got a specific learning disability as a label, profiling very much like someone who is dyslexic.
The first result of that diagnosis was that I was placed in a resource room and it was my first time experiencing some of the differences between special education and sort of regular education. My resource room was almost like a closet; it was this storage space with a desk in the middle of the room and it felt very different from the environment of just being in a standard classroom. The next thing was that I was placed into a self-contained special education classroom.
It’s really important that I emphasize the quality of education that I received. The teacher and teacher’s aid that I had in that classroom were excellent. My parents talked about just seeing the jump in my literacy, my ability to spell, my overall academic performance. But the culture and structure of that self-contained class and how it fit within the overall school dynamic left me with the social and emotional scars, which I think contributed to some of the depression and other issues that I wrestled with as I got older. At the same time, there was a lot of love in that space. I had a great teacher that encouraged me to draw and was constantly pushing my limits.
Did you discover poetry in the special education classroom as well or did that come later?
I’d been exposed to poetry at home. My mother used to play albums of spoken word poetry and the one that really stands out to me is The Last Poets.
That’s funny you mention that.
You know them?
I do, I love them, I was thinking when I was listening to some of your tracks off Rhyme, Reason and Song, some of it reminded me of The Last Poets and early Gil Scott-Heron as well.
Oh my God, mission accomplished, yes! [laughter]. The first track I recorded on that, I actually had the producer add the crackling of a record as my homage to the influence that Abiodun and the other Last Poets had on me. My mother used to play that first record for me with the blue and yellow cover, and my father had a great record collection—he was a fan of singer-songwriters. There was poetry there.
At the same time, this is going to sound a little funny, but the first sort of classical poem I remember was in the first season of The Simpsons. At the end of their Halloween special, it was James Earl Jones narrating The Raven with Homer as the guy in the study and then Bart as the raven. I remember sitting there watching and listening and being just like “What was that? What did I just experience?” I went back to Mrs. Yeats’ class, back to this classroom at the end of the hall with these kids who I’d been segregated with for I don’t know how many years and I explained to her what I just experienced. She marched me down to the library and got me a collection of Poe’s work. My literacy skills were very low then, but I remember sitting and wrestling with the text.
So Poe’s work and then being a black male surrounded by other black males who were all in special education, particular during the era I went to school in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, everybody wanted to be a rapper, everybody wanted to be an MC. A lot of my friends were big on writing, but my fear of not being able to spell always got in my way. I didn’t really start writing until I got to college when I got to a disability support program and they taught me just sort of the mechanics of writing and I went through a remedial writing class, which really taught me how to use a comma, a conjunction, things like that. But the really freeing thing that allowed me to be a poet was that my counselor in college just told me to stop worrying about spelling and just write, and that gave me the license to just let the words flow out of me.
In addition to your poetry, you also co-authored Empowering Students with Hidden Disability. What lead to that collaboration with Margo Izzo?
My co-author and I saw that there was a need within the continuum of support for folks with disability. There’s a focus on the unique challenges that come with having a disability that don’t meet our sort of larger social definition of what disability is. If you don’t use a wheelchair, if you don’t have an impaired gait, if you don’t have some sort of visual cue to let the rest of the world know that you have a disability, what ends up happening for most of us is that I think it puts the onus on us being comfortable identifying and self-disclosing and not taking the sort of easier route of trying to pass for normal.
The book has two focuses. One is on transition. It’s about helping educators and family to have the tools and the most recent research and resources around supporting a student’s transition. Not only out of high school, higher education, or into the world of work, but also focusing on families and building relationships.
The other focus is around disability identity development. We developed a framework called the “path to disability pride,” which looks at some key stages that we heard from both Margo and I looking at our own lives, and a number of young adults with disabilities who all reached a point where they felt like they were proud of how their bodies and their minds worked. It’s really about helping people who provide support for youth and young adults with hidden disabilities to see some of the key stages that are important in developing someone who is just proud about who they are.
Going beyond just self-advocacy, one of the stages that kept coming up was the importance of connecting with [the] community. Being able to have mentoring, to share our common experiences with other people with disabilities. Sometimes it’s just a one-on-one connection that can make a huge difference helping you feel good about who you are, but sometimes it’s a larger connection to the sort of global disability community. To all of us throughout history who have contributed to the progression of the human race. That’s what the book is, and it’s been nice to see the impact that it’s had.
You’re a founding board member of Eye to Eye; what lead to your involvement and support of that organization?
Eye to Eye began as a project at Brown University, but after it left Brown, the founders wanted to create a nonprofit based in New York. David Flink, the founder and current CEO, gave me a call and described what the organization was. There were three things that really stood out for me.
One was that it had a focus on helping students with learning and attention issues. The bulk of my work is in special education, it’s disability very broadly defined, but I noticed there was a need for an organization that targeted higher incidents disability, which is also the category that I live with. The other thing that really stood out to me was that it was about supporting and building a culture and a groundswell around youth empowerment and LD/ADHD culture and pride. And then the last piece which really appealed to me was that all of this work, this mentoring, was done through the arts. My first artistic expressions were through the visual arts when I was a kid and the writing came later, so being able to build community and create safe spaces with art just seemed ideal to me.
Being their first board chair was a little intimidating. I’m like this dude from Jersey sitting at the head of the table with a bunch of Manhattanites, and I was the youngest person on the board. I was the only African-American male on the board at the time, but it’s been one of the proudest relationships that I’ve had; one of the proudest opportunities to be of service that I’ve had. It’s been really awesome to see how the organization has grown to be a truly national nonprofit, providing great leadership and empowering opportunities for young people across the country.
What is one piece of advice you would offer to teachers helping students with disabilities transition into a successful post-school life?
For educators, it’s about helping young people practice self-disclosure. Being able to talk to somebody else, not only about what your disability is, because it’s not enough to just know what your challenges are but being able to say “Here are the supports that I’ll need, here are the things that I need in order to be able to perform at my absolute best,” whether that be on a job site, in education, or interacting with someone on a personal level. Helping students roleplay and just get comfortable sharing with others that they have a disability and what it is that they need in order to be successful. That’s my number-one piece of advice.
Written by Hassen Javed