Raising Awareness

ILR student advocating for people with disabilities honored
Monday, September 21, 2015

Disability advocate Brian Meersma ’18 was honored at the White House today for expanding the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The landmark civil rights legislation that promises equal access and equal opportunity – regardless of ability – was made law 25 years ago on July 26. Fifty-six million Americans live with disabilities.

At the event celebrating the law’s success and the contributions of Meersma and eight others, the ILR sophomore underscored the value of reaching out to others who also have disabilities.

“It can be very easy to think you’re the only one. Having connections is really helpful,” he said.

“It can be hard to raise awareness” about disabilities, he said, noting that having a united voice in order to be heard by policymakers helps, along with educating people to think beyond traditional forms of learning.

Until his dyslexia was diagnosed, Meersma said he “struggled to read and struggled to be understood.”

It is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “a learning disorder characterized by difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words.”

Instead of reading with just his eyes, Meersma uses audio and text-to-speech technologies to learn through listening.

Meersma provides information to others with learning disabilities through his assistive technology blog by reviewing text recognition and communication applications, and computer programs.

He also demonstrates use of assistive technology, and advocates at the state and national levels for improving support of students with disabilities.

Meersma’s impact on others was affirmed in a note last week from a woman who wrote, “I have a very dyslexic 7th grade daughter who has a hard time, but I have learned so much from you that she will have the tools she needs to be confident and succeed … Keep up the good work. You explain everything so well that you make it easy for us to learn how to use the apps and the new features. Keep it going. Our dyslexia community loves you.”  

Cornell’s Student Disability Services provides Meersma with accessible digital copies of textbooks, “so I’m able to listen to books or course material and understand that way. I've been impressed with Student Disability Services, they're always on top of things."

“For written exams, professors give me a PDF copy of the exam, and I borrow a computer from disability services with special software on it that reads the questions to me. I can fill out the prelim or quiz with the software and have it read back my answers so that I edit my work and make sure I used the words I intended.”

This spring, he explained in an article how he uses assistive technology as an ILR student.

Meersma is interning this summer in Washington, D.C., at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where he supports disability inclusive emergency management.

He attended the event with his parents, Kathy Stratton A&S ’83 and Steve Meersma, and 22-year-old sister, Kim Meersma.

A video of today’s event is slated to be archived at www.whitehouse.gov/videos.