Abby Ladd

Eighteen-year-old Abby Ladd has never enjoyed reading.

Still, the assiduous student remembers feeling perturbed in second grade as she watched her peers sail into the advanced vocabulary groups while she sat firmly below average, despite her best efforts to move up.

The feeling came again when she was given supplemental fluency instruction and extra vision exams, and again when she repeatedly failed comprehension tests in middle school, despite spending months poring over the pages of a single novel. That teacher began grading on completion instead.

Ladd dreaded humanities courses so terribly, she said, stomach pains would surface during nearly every class.

“It was kind of odd for me,” Ladd said. “I didn’t want to be there.”

She knew something was wrong, but she faced an unusual obstacle when searching for an answer: Her grades remained stellar.

At one point, Ladd said she was actually encouraged to purposely lower her scholastic marks, a move that could have triggered district-sponsored testing. Her parents refused that option and opted to pay for an evaluation out of pocket.

The summer before her freshman year, Ladd sat for an eight-hour test in the Stern Center for Language and Learning in Williston, after which she learned she had dyslexia.

“It was just a huge relief to know that it wasn’t my fault,” Ladd said. “I wasn’t dumb or stupid or [not] trying hard enough. I just had this neurological shift.”

With a diagnosis in hand, Ladd obtained a 504 plan, an individualized program that provides accommodations for students with a disability at their places of learning.

For Ladd, that meant extended testing time, taking five-minute breaks during class periods and having someone read written tests and passages aloud to her. She counts supportive parents and teachers among her most valuable learning assets.

The changes made all the difference.

Last Saturday, Ladd graduated with 32 high school credits and 17 college credits. After participating in the Burlington Technical Center’s medical and sports sciences program, she’s heading to Colby-Sawyer College in the fall to study nursing.

Though she first worried about the implications of being a “kid with a plan,” she said ultimately found no shame in receiving academic assistance and talked about it whenever she could.

Through high school, Ladd began studying dyslexia and integrated the subject into biology and poetry assignments alike. She read the textbook-style piece “The Dyslexic Advantage,” shortly after her test results came in, and her final senior seminar project focused exclusively on the disorder.

“I just tried to make it not awkward to talk about. I was really open about it and honest,” Ladd said. “It’s just like having a different hair color or something. Just embracing it was the best thing for me.”

She found solace, too, in a required guided study hall for kids with learning disabilities, where she bonded with a collection of students also on 504 plans for a variety of reasons.

“We kind of stuck together as a group,” Ladd said. “We had this in-school little family of people who get it.”

A common theme stressed in each of her scholastic presentations on dyslexia was early diagnosis, a facet of the disability she felt the effects of firsthand as a young student in the district, wondering what was going wrong.

“I wouldn’t have had to deal with it in high school if it had been implemented in elementary school,” she said. “Someone shouldn’t have to be failing to get help.”

Ladd said she still faces near-daily obstacles related to dyslexia. She types whenever she can, but often finds herself swapping letters like “b” and “d,” when handwriting assignments. She continues to consider herself a horrible speller, she noted with a laugh.

“It’s almost like muscle memory,” Ladd said of the letter swaps. “I see myself doing it, and I’m like, ‘No, that’s not right Abby!’ But it’s just a habit.”

Her high school accommodations will transfer over to college, she said, though she expects she’ll need to self-advocate even more strongly than she is already used to, contacting individual professors directly to convey the type of assistance she’ll need to be academically successful.

Ladd has already set her sights on graduate school and hopes to eventually become a nurse practitioner in orthopedics. The interest in medicine comes from her parents, Ladd said, who first met as members of the Colchester Rescue squad.

Ladd will balance her future college workload with a goalie position on the college’s field hockey team, too, a time-management juggle she’s managed to pull off since fifth grade.

In that way, she said, her learning disability has served her well.

“I think [dyslexia] makes me unique, in a way,” Ladd said. “I work really, really hard.”