Tuesday, September 25, 2007

National Center for Learning Disabilities

L. to r.: Allegra Ford, Kathy Rayburn, Anne Ford, and Stephanie Ingram at NCLD's s 30th Anniversary Benefit Dinner, 2007; Allegra Ford, Anne Ford, Dana Buchman, and Charlotte Farber at NCLD's 29th Annual Benefit Dinner, 2006.
By Nancy A. Ruhling

It was in nursery school that Allegra Ford’s sunny, smiley-faced world suddenly turned upside down. She was only 5 years old, and was having a great deal of trouble keeping up with her peers. Her teachers suspected that it might be something more than a simple attention problem and thought there there might be something terribly wrong with this beautiful little girl with the halo of curly reddish-brown hair.

Her mother, Anne Ford, followed their advice and had her tested even though as far as she was concerned, Allegra was perfect and perfectly normal.

Allegra and Anne Ford.
“The first doctor I took her to said that she was severely retarded and would have to be institutionalized for the rest of her life,” Anne remembers. “And of course that was a devastating shock.

After a series of specialists, psychiatrists and a pediatric neurologist, the real diagnosis came to light. Allegra was born with severe learning disabilities. That means she has problems with reading, writing and math, but it goes beyond that to include difficulties in processing even the most simple information.”

Anne, a single mother raising Allegra and her older brother single-handedly, began the journey that led her daughter to an independent life and that also changed the course of her own. “I devoted my life to taking care of Allegra,” she says. “There were many special schools, tutors and endless doctors’ appointments.

Learning disabilities have a terrible impact on social skills, too, and because of this nobody would play with her, so we spent all of our time together. Because there were no schools in New York City with the appropriate programs for her, I had to send her on to boarding school when she was 15. That left me with a huge, empty place in my heart.”

Anne Ford and Allegra Ford with Callie at American Cancer Society's Mother of the Year luncheon honoring Anne and Charlotte Ford, 2004.
She joined the board of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, a nonprofit that works to ensure that America’s 15 million children, adolescents and adults with this illness have every opportunity to succeed in school, work and life. “Most of my life, I had been in denial about Allegra’s learning disabilities,” Anne says. “I kept saying that she would outgrow it, and I kept believing that. Once I joined NCLD, I learned a lot and my eyes were opened. I went from being an advocate for my own child to being an advocate for every child.”

Anne continued her crusade as chairman of the organization from 1989 to 2001. “Parents need to know many things, and NCLD keeps them informed,” she says. “My advice is to find the best doctors, get a few opinions and always be on top of the rules and regulations that affect people with learning disabilities. NCLD is the best learning disabilities organization because it’s not a grass-roots, membership-based movement: It can maneuver quickly, and that means it gets things done.”

In her efforts to continue her advocacy efforts, Anne wrote two books with John-Richard Thompson. “Laughing Allegra” is a memoir of her experiences raising Allegra, and “On Their Own” is a guide for parents of adults with learning disabilities. She says that the books are helpful to parents whose children have any disability, not only learning disabilities.

Anne and Charlotte Ford.
Today, Anne continues to champion the National Center for Learning Disabilities as a member of the executive committee. Allegra, now 35, is getting ready to start a new career by setting up a mentoring program for other children with learning disabilities.

“It’s important for parents to know that this diagnosis doesn’t mean the end of the world,” Anne says. “You have to have faith and know that your adult child, like mine, will be fine.”

For more information on the National Center for Learning Disabilities, see LD.org. On April 20, 2008, its annual fund-raiser will honor Ted Turner who has been very public about his own learning disability. For more information on the books “Laughing Allegra” and “On Their Own” by Anne Ford and John-Richard Thompson, go to LaughingAllegra.com.

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