Hill Climbers: She’s a Champion for the Disabled

Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:08pm

On July 26, Laura Schifter watched Rep. James Langevin (D-R.I.), who is in a wheelchair, use special lifts to ascend to the Speaker’s rostrum. The historic moment not only commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act but also marked the first time that a disabled Member has presided over a resolution in the House.

“To see both Democrats and Republicans come together to honor the disability community is remarkable,” Schifter said. “I am so lucky to be able to witness this event with the leaders of that movement.”

Schifter was hired in May as a disability and education adviser for the House Education and Labor Committee. And thumbing through the 29-year-old’s résumé, it’s easy to see why; Schifter culls her experience everywhere from Harvard University to the office of Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.). But for Schifter, her interest in disabilities runs deeper than her professional and educational roots.

“I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 7,” Schifter said. “Learning how to read was probably the hardest part. I didn’t want anyone to know that I needed extra help.

“My mom spent a lot of time explaining to me what it meant, but I didn’t accept it as a part of my identity until I was in high school. After I accepted it, I learned how to advocate for myself, got the support I needed and became a much better student.”

The D.C. native took up her cause and formed a club in high school to spread awareness about learning disabilities. Schifter went on to earn an American studies degree from Amherst College and was an elementary teacher in San Francisco from 2003 to 2006. She drew on her experience with dyslexia to speak to parents, aid teachers in coordinating programs and help students who struggled with math.

“I wanted to be a teacher my whole life. Gosh, I don’t really know how I ended up here!” Schifter said with a laugh. “My grandfather pushed me and said, ‘Why don’t you try policy?'”

Schifter eventually left California to enter a yearlong master’s degree program at Harvard, where she studied the mind, brain and education. What she learned was fascinating: Neuroscience dictates that all children are capable of learning, but it’s up to the teachers and learning environments to coax it out of them.

“My master’s program really opened my eyes to see all the different aspects of education and the many different ways you can make change,” Schifter said. “I always thought of the field of education as just the classroom.”

Before entering her doctoral program at Harvard — where she is currently enrolled and working on her dissertation — Schifter took a break from school and landed a job with Dodd’s office. She worked as an education fellow for the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, specializing in policy issues, service learning and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

“It might not be as direct of an impact as a teacher to a student, but it’s a more diminished effect on a lot of children,” Schifter said. “I still don’t know which one I ultimately want to do. I want to see how far I can take this policy direction.”

Schifter continued to pursue the policy track and began work with the House Education and Labor Committee three months ago. She covers disability issues and, specifically, the reauthorization of the ESEA.

“Special education is a pretty new field, and I think we are still in the experimental phase of figuring things out,” Schifter said. “With ESEA reauthorization, we are really looking at providing more support for teachers and thinking about issues from the start as opposed to trying to retrofit everything later.”

She said support from her family and teachers has remained a driving force in her life. Looking back on her own battle with dyslexia has made Schifter even more appreciative of the ADA’s 20th anniversary, which will remain a defining moment in her career.

“When the president was speaking, you heard people yelling and getting invigorated and really celebrating all that has been accomplished in the past 20 years,” Schifter said. “You know, you look in the crowd and you see many people with disabilities — visible and not visible — and everyone coming together under the same ideals. Just taking it all in was amazing. It was the coolest day of my life.”

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