- Jennarae Nunley
Using Your Struggle as Your Strength
Updated: Dec 3, 2022
With 1.3 million followers on TikTok, Jordan Toma has made a career out of encouraging students struggling with learning disabilities.
“I would always repeatedly say to myself, I'm the dumbest kid in the class nobody wants me, and even now at thirty-two, I will never forget how I was the last kid to be picked every Friday in math class,” says Jordan Toma, now a motivational speaker who travels all over the country sharing his story about growing up with an IEP. It was around age seven or eight that Toma started feeling lost in class. “I started realizing that these other kids were flying past me,” he says. “I remember thinking to myself that I wasn't enough and that I just could not keep up.”
With Toma’s clear and outspoken words, often clearing his throat as he speaks, you would never know that he had ever struggled with obtaining knowledge. The doubt that he had in himself and his learning abilities became a cycle that festered into a resentment towards learning. These feelings made school feel like an unsafe environment for him. It was the last place he wanted to be, and he would do anything to be able to avoid it.
“I caused a lot of trouble, and I chose that because I wanted to get suspended so I wouldn't have to go to school,” he says. “I caused a lot of stress for my family because they were always worried about me because I hated myself for how I felt and performed in school.” According to the Learning Disabilities Association of America, a school's failure to properly accommodate kids with disabilities and provide appropriate academic support and services increases the chance that the student will become involved with alcohol, drugs, aggressive and antisocial behaviors, and teen pregnancy (“Mental Health”). In fact, in 2017, The Journal reported National Center for Learning Disabilities statistics that students with learning disabilities are three times more likely to either fail out of school or drop out entirely (Ravipati).
“I failed out of my private high school—I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted to be able to go into school and be confident that I understood what was going on in the class,” Toma says. Eventually, he realized that what he was dealing with was just a major barrier that had been holding him back his whole life. He explains, “I was eighteen years old, and I did the first assignment I had ever done in my entire life by myself, and when I did it I got the grade back and I realized I could do it and that I had been selling myself short my whole life by believing that I couldn't do it.”
Jordan was able to overcome his trials and he attended Century College and graduated in 2012. He found his worth in himself and now he is working to be that person for kids across America that he needed when he was in high school dealing with IEPs. An Individualized Education Plan in the public school setting, an IEP identifies remediation goals, academic supports, and accommodations for a student with a learning disability.
“I am so happy that I had to struggle because that same struggle was my strength, and it's going to take you where you need to go,” Toma says. “I’ve learned later in life that it shouldn't even be called a learning disability. It's really an advantage if you have a hard time in school that is preparing you to be able to work for what you want.”
Today Toma has 1.3 million followers on TikTok and 434,000 followers on Facebook. Many of his videos champion the support he received from his mom when he was young, admitting that at the time he didn’t appreciate the attention and encouragement she had to offer. He realizes that if he’d had a mentor who also struggled with learning disabilities, it could have made a significant impact. “In high school, I didn't have anyone. If I had someone like myself to listen to in high school that would have given me so much hope and it would have made me want to work harder and prove to myself that I could do it and that's life-changing.”
Toma actively travels to different schools to speak to kids and oftentimes these kids express to him that without his kind, encouraging words, they would not have been able to keep going. He says, “These kids’ self-esteem takes a huge hit when they realize that they are different, and a lot of times they are angry about it, and I am here to help them know that it's ok to be angry but we cannot let that hold us back from success.”
Toma recently came out with a new book, I’m Just a Kid with an IEP, that goes into detail about his story and is a guide to help students as well as parents to use his tools to succeed. “I use it all to be an avenue to produce self-belief in these kids. I just want to help everyone because I know they want to make it and they can.” Even through his videos you can feel the empathy that he has for his listeners through his soft voice and how he is encouraged to help kids so that they never have to feel hopeless when learning like he felt.
It’s important that we use Jordan as an example of how to make it a priority to help others who are dealing with the same problems we are. Research shows that “despite significant learning difficulties, [many] have managed to overcome the risk factors in their lives. Research in the fields of social psychology and learning disabilities has begun to examine and identify these characteristics of success” (“Overcoming the Odds”). We see that even in the midst of the struggle, it can be overcome with different styles of learning that work for different people in different ways . This is what Toma has in mind for everyone who hears his story, and it's encouraging to see him make an effort to make a change in our world.
“Mental Health and Learning Disabilities: Why a Higher Risk?” Learning Disabilities Association of America, https://ldaamerica.org/info/mental-health-and-learning-disabilities-why-a-higher-risk/.
“Overcoming the Odds: Adults with LDS.” LDAO, 5 July 2015, https://www.ldao.ca/introduction-to-ldsadhd/articles/about-lds/overcoming-the-odds-adults-with-lds/.
Ravipati, Sri. “Report: Students with Learning and Attention Issues Three Times More Likely to Drop Out.” THE Journal, 05/17/17, https://thejournal.com/articles/2017/05/17/students-with-learning-and-attention-issues-three-times-more-likely-to-drop-out.aspx