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Making an App: Meet David Flink, Founder of Eye to Eye

[Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of blog posts about our collaboration with Eye to Eye, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the life of every person with a learning disability (LD). Our goal for the Making an App series is to help spread the word about Eye to Eye’s important work — and offer a behind-the-scenes look at how an idea becomes an app.]

I was introduced to the world of learning disabilities (LD) and ADHD a decade ago when I adopted my first child, Alex, from Eastern Europe. It was apparent from the start that he learned differently than other kids and I thrust myself into the world of special education. While he learned to speak English within 6 months of arriving in the US, he struggled with reading. After seeking out a neuropsychologist to evaluate him, I learned that — in addition to a litany of other diagnoses — he was dyslexic.

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DAVID FLINK
Founder & Chief Empowerment Officer, Eye to Eye

At this point, I immersed myself in all things LD and eventually became president of the local special ed parent-teacher association (PTA). Who knew such things existed?! Turns out, my town, like many others, has a large population of LD kids. One of the programs our PTA group offered was a parent education lecture series. Our education chair found this guy who ran a mentoring program for LD kids and arranged for him to come and speak to our parents.

I have to admit, I wasn’t excited about the speaker. I’d heard many so-called “experts” spout theories, but never heard anything I could put to use in a practical way. The evening arrived, and I met the speaker, David Flink, the founder and chief empowerment officer of Eye to Eye. He was tall, affable, and at the time very young. I remember thinking, “What can this kid teach me?” He also brought along three of the mentors from local chapters of Eye to Eye as his back-up group.

David, an amazing speaker who can engage just about any audience, gave an inspired talk that night. But, what caught my attention was a shy young mentor named Alex (coincidence?) who relayed his personal struggles with LD/ADHD with eloquence and passion. He had come to terms with being labeled and Eye to Eye had taught him how to advocate for the accommodations he needed to be successful. For the very first time in my own journey in the LD world, I had hope for my Alex.

What I learned that night was that Eye to Eye is the only national mentoring movement that pairs kids who have learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (LD / ADHD) with college and high school mentors who have been similarly labeled. Their mentors use an arts-based curriculum to help mentees understand their unique way of learning and thinking, building self-esteem and skills they need to become self-advocates.

The very next day, I contacted the national office of Eye to Eye and set in motion the steps needed to set up a chapter in my town. While these chapters are run by the mentors themselves using the proven Eye to Eye curriculum, there is typically a teacher in the school who oversees the program. When none could be found, I filled in. For four years!

I joined the national board of Eye to Eye in about 2009 and have had the pleasure to get to know David Flink even better over time. I continue to be impressed by his passion, vision, and motivation that has taken this grassroots organization and turned it into a recognized leader in the learning rights movement. And, by the way, Alex did learn to read after receiving appropriate accommodations — thanks Eye to Eye!

I am excited that I was able to help forge this partnership between Eye to Eye and ArcTouch to build what is shaping up to be a transformative app. I was also happy to spend a few minutes recently with David to ask him some questions about his vision for Eye to Eye, and how the mobile app project will help extend his team’s ability to help more of us who learn differently.

How did Eye to Eye get started?

I was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD at a young age and struggled through much of my education feeling hopelessness and left out of education as a whole. Although my parents and teachers frequently told me that I would be able to go to college, I would have found that message more believable if it had come from a person with a learning difference who had finished college.

With that in mind, I co-founded Eye to Eye in 1998 while a student at Brown University. Eye to Eye unlocks greatness in the one in five people who learn differently. That’s our vision, as the only national organization run by and for people with learning disabilities such as dyslexia and ADHD. From one-on-one mentoring and inspiring speakers to large-scale culture change, Eye to Eye’s outcomes focus on the strengthening of essential social-emotional skills, including self-esteem, self-advocacy, and community building.

Can you talk about your own learning difference and the journey to where you are today?

When I was diagnosed with dyslexia in the fifth grade, I had never heard of it. I wondered, “Is it a rash? Do I need an ointment for it?” I’ve learned as someone with dyslexia and ADHD that you need accommodations so that you can learn the way that works best for you. You also need allies – people who will help you through the ups and downs, advocate for you, and teach you to advocate for yourself. Finally, you need to wear your story with pride. I’m proud of my gifts and my flaws. And I want you to be proud of yours, too. Own your difference. Wear it. Get out there in the world and do something you’re passionate about.

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David Flink works with Eye to Eye mentors at a recent Organizing Institute event.

Eye to Eye has an unofficial slogan of “LD and Proud To Be.” How did that come about?

Every summer, Eye to Eye holds its Young Leaders Organizing Institute at Brown University, where it all started. It has become tradition to take a group photo to document who was there each year as a symbol of “ownership.” Most people say something like “cheese” when taking a picture, but that wasn’t good enough for our group. One of the students yelled out, “LD and Proud to Be,” and it immediately turned into a group chant. The pictures were terrible, but a real movement started that day. Having an LD or ADHD had been a stigma for a lot of these students. But suddenly, it turned into a part of their identity and a source of real pride. For the first time, they “owned” their label.

If you could identify the most important thing that Eye to Eye teaches LD/ADHD kids, what would it be and why?

I think it would be to be seen, heard, and valued. Using the self-advocacy skills that Eye to Eye teaches, our students develop a sense of self-worth. A large part of what we do is to provide a community for our mentees so that they can see that they are not alone. This helps them feel connected and valued in life.

What are some devices or other technology that you find particularly helpful for LD people?

First, I need to thank Apple and my friend Darren Haas for helping to invent Siri. Siri quite literally runs my life. For decades, Apple has helped to simplify technology, empower educators, and inspire students and I depend on them daily.

But, most of the technology I use is probably considered “old school” by today’s students. Things like spell check, read back, dictation tools, and calendar reminders are my go-to tools to get through my daily life.

So, you have a highly successful mentoring program that helps LD/ADHD kids ask for the help they need in order to be successful. Why a mobile app?

So much of the work we do is high-touch and personal it was hard to envision how the idea could work. It’s not all about the app but the fact that we will be mobile. Because ultimately, it’s all about connections and enabling our mentees to feel connected in their most vulnerable moments. Anywhere, anytime.

How do you think the one-on-one mentoring model translates to a digital experience?

There is no question it will be different. For one thing, it will force students to own their LD immediately rather than in the safe physical space we provide in our Chapter model. But, it will be a source for community building where we don’t have a physical presence today. I expect to see a real spike in views of our videos on YouTube and I hope it will drive students to the end result of self-advocacy.

Is this app part of a broader strategic plan for Eye to Eye?

It is. Our plan is to triple our reach by 2020 and the app is a high-impact tool to help us reach that goal.

What have you learned through working with ArcTouch on the app?

First and foremost, ArcTouch has said, “We’re going to create an app together” and we’re doing that. Many well-intentioned people commit and don’t follow through. Secondly, the two-day discovery workshop was the most thought-provoking experience we have encountered. We mapped out the requirements for the app, and the ArcTouch team was totally immersed into our world, and engaged and empathetic even though they probably had not given any thought to LD previously.

What do you hope ArcTouch has learned about delivering a digital experience to people who learn differently?

I hope that they will think about useful tools (such as speech to text) that the 1 in 5 learning disabled people could use in any app. And, I would encourage them to incorporate universal design principles in all the apps that they produce to make them more accessible to everyone.

About Ross Ross Buffington is chief of staff for ArcTouch and has served on the boards of several organizations serving special needs kids.