Jonathan Mooney didn't learn to read until he was 12.

Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, he was labeled as dumb, lazy and at-risk. He left school during his sixth grade year because of anxiety and depression and had a plan to commit suicide. He hid in the bathroom in high school to avoid reading out loud.

While his dad gave him a 50/50 chance of graduating high school and a counselor predicted he would end up in prison, he graduated not just from high school but also an Ivy League college. He earned a literary degree from Brown University and wrote two books.

"I transcended those low expectations," he said. "What ultimately holds kids like me back is the negative self concept. Building a more positive self concept, that's what saved my life."

Poudre School District teacher Taia Dolva is reflected in a mirror as she performs a dyslexia related exercise during a Struggling Readers Symposium at the
Poudre School District teacher Taia Dolva is reflected in a mirror as she performs a dyslexia related exercise during a Struggling Readers Symposium at the Leeds School of Business on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. For more photos, go to dailycamera.com. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

Mooney, a speaker and advocate for kids with learning differences, told his story at a Struggling Readers Symposium held Sunday at the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business.

He acknowledged that there are real neurological challenges that come with his brain, including the attention span of a gnat and spelling at a third grade level. But the challenges are offset by advantages that include creativity, innovation and a flair for entrepreneurship.

"We as a society are losing a tremendous amount of talent," he said. "If a kid feels broken, that's not a path to someone being successful. We need to spend less time trying to fix kids and more modifying the classroom."


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He wants schools and society to move beyond the narrow view of a good kid as one who's compliant and sits still and of a smart kid as one who reads early and fast.

"The reality is there's not one way to be smart," he said. "It's not the person who's broken, it's the way the person is treated."

BVKID, or Boulder Valley Kids Identified with Dyslexia, organized Sunday's symposium, which also included a dyslexia simulation and an opportunity to talk with 20 or so experts about the language processing learning disability.

Matt Ferdinand and his step-daughter, 9-year-old McKinley Thorpe, perform a dyslexia related exercise during a Struggling Readers Symposium at the Leeds
Matt Ferdinand and his step-daughter, 9-year-old McKinley Thorpe, perform a dyslexia related exercise during a Struggling Readers Symposium at the Leeds School of Business on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. For more photos, go to dailycamera.com. (Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer)

Sunday's simulation was the second hosted by the parent advocacy group, which has lobbied the Boulder Valley School District to provide more support to students with dyslexia.

Nathalie Moyen, a BVKID member and CU finance professor, said she felt like a "ball in a pinball machine" trying to find the right resources after her child was diagnosed with dyslexia.

"If we can help other parents on that journey, it's worthwhile," she said.

For the sold-out simulation, about 75 participants went through six different stations that required tasks that included writing using their non-dominant hand, filling out a work sheet while listening to several people talk over each other, and reading a story out loud with "words" written using symbols.

Those in attendance, mainly parents and teachers, described the simulation as exhausting and frustrating. One teacher said the hour-long session felt more like two hours.

Jennifer Schwarz, parent of an eighth-grader with dyslexia, said trying to write using the reflection of words in a mirror made her feel paralyzed.

"I couldn't make my hand go," she said.

Along with wanting to better understand what their students experience in school, several parents said, they wanted to connect with other parents who have already navigated the system.

"We can talk to other parents about their experiences," said Terry Gates, whose second-grader recently was diagnosed with dyslexia. "We want to learn more and learn what other resources are available."

Amy Bounds: 303-473-1341, boundsa@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/boundsa