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True grit: Student overcomes, owns invisible disability to become mentor

| LeBrenda Street

Maddy Mahoney will never forget the moment one of her high school teachers told her she would not amount to much. Maddy remembers it as her "true grit" moment. 

“This teacher thought I was lazy and didn’t think I would get very far with my educational career,” Maddy said. “I was being told ‘I can’t’ for the millionth time and I was getting sick of people thinking so little of me.”

For Maddy, that moment helped define her path to success. And it has not been an easy road.

Diagnosed in the third grade with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and later in high school with a learning disability, Maddy’s formative years in school were shaped by adversity and obstacles at every turn. When a high school teacher told Maddy she was abusing the system by lying to teachers and would therefore not be allowed to use her accommodations, Maddy decided to write her own history rather than let someone else determine her fate.

“They told me I should go to the tech, but there was no way I was going there, I was going somewhere I could get a degree to be a special education teacher and be better than the ones I had because I think it is hard for people to understand a disability they can’t see,” Maddy said.

The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire was just the welcoming environment Maddy Mahoney needed to spread her wings and fly.

Maddy is now a sophomore at UW-Eau Claire, pursuing her dream of becoming a special education teacher. When she registered for school her freshman year, Maddy also registered with the Services for Students with Disabilities office so she could get the accommodations she needs for her classes as well as coaching to help her make the transition from high school to college. Students with learning and attention issues may need to learn material differently than other students. Accommodations like readers, scribes, tutors and coaches are designed to give students ways to learn and demonstrate knowledge of a subject.

Shortly after the semester started, Maddy got an email from the SSD office about a student service opportunity with the Eye to Eye program. Eye to Eye is a national mentoring movement that focuses on elementary and middle-school students with ADHD and learning differences. The program pairs these students with high school and college students who have similar disabilities.

In elementary school, Maddy didn’t have many friends and was known as the “weird kid.” Girls teased and bullied her often, and she remembers being shoved off a 12-foot-high playground platform and spraining her ankle. She remembers hating school after that. She began to get into trouble and remembers blaming her ADHD; after all, that was what was expected of kids with ADHD. Thinking that her ADHD made her weird, Maddy entered middle school determined to fade into the background.  She tried to suppress her outspokenness, silliness, impulsiveness and creativity — all good characteristics of her ADHD — in fear of being labeled strange.

“I remember wishing I had a secret power to be able to see other people who were like me, to know I wasn’t the only one,” Maddy said.

She thought joining Eye to Eye would be a good way to get involved and help students who struggle with some of the same things she did. She joined right away, and after a semester she fell in love with the program.
The moment Maddy knew Eye to Eye would become her passion was the day her mentee confided to her she was ashamed of her learning disability and extremely discouraged. Maddy remembered feeling the exact same way and not having a supportive mentor.

“The thing about Eye to Eye is that it is like a secret society for kids," Maddy said. "It creates a safe space for kids to embrace their differences until they enter high school. I am in a position to change the way these students feel about themselves, to make sure they don’t feel the same way I did when I was in high school.”

Every week, Maddy and a team of five UW-Eau Claire students go to the Altoona schools to meet with their mentees for the Eye to Eye program. This year, Maddy is a student coordinator as well as a mentor. As a coordinator she does the planning for the week, recruiting and checking in with the national program coordinator.

The program uses an art-based curriculum, with goals to help students understand how they learn, to assist them in building self-advocacy skills and to empower them to be proud of their learning differences. These are skills Maddy had to learn on her own as she forged her way through high school.

During her freshman year in high school, Maddy was diagnosed with hydrocephalus caused by an arachnoid cyst. Hydrocephalus occurs when excess fluid collects on the brain and creates harmful pressure. Maddy’s brain was being squeezed into a corner of her skull. It was then she got accommodations that helped her to understand how she learned.
During her sophomore year, Maddy was diagnosed with a visual processing disorder. Her brain struggles to link words and their meanings, which can make reading comprehension a real challenge.

“When I reached high school things got increasingly harder," Maddy said. "I ended up needing to talk about it (ADHD and learning differences) more and speak up for myself so I could get the help I needed. From that experience I learned that not all people understand, especially when it comes to a disability you can’t see.”

Maddy recently took the next step toward shining the light on ADHD and learning differences by becoming an Eye to Eye Diplomat. In the fall of 2015, Maddy traveled to the Eye to Eye national office in New York City for training with 14 other college students from around the nation. Maddy is the first Diplomat to represent UW-Eau Claire since the program started 12 years ago.

As an Eye to Eye Diplomat, Maddy goes into schools and talks to students, teachers and parents, and she speaks at community forums.

“As a Diplomat my role is to be informative about these learning differences that I have, and to talk about the experiences that I went through in hopes that I can impact my audience to be more open minded to people with LDs or to be accepting of their own.”