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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Childhood struggle leads to lifelong mission for Yoder


It took David Yoder a while to figure out what possessed his mother to show his 8-year-old daughter, Lisa, and 6-year-old son, Eric, his report cards from the first and second grade.

By then, he was an accomplished speech and language pathologist, with a master’s degree in speech-language pathology from Northwestern University, seven years working as a speech therapist in Delaware and a doctorate in communication sciences and disorders from the University of Kansas.

But those report cards stood as evidence of an early failure: his inability to learn to read.

“I will never forget the evening Mother hauled out those report cards and I was putting my son to bed,” Yoder said. “I still get choked up about it. He said, ‘Dad, what was it like for you when you couldn’t read?’ He couldn’t imagine it.”

That inability to read filled him with shame and left him crying himself to sleep at night. It left his teachers wondering what might be wrong and what to do. He was dyslexic; they suspected he might be mentally retarded, Yoder said.

His Aunt Kate was a first-grade teacher and was determined her nephew would read. She spent hours going through phonics drills with him and reading stories aloud. But it was not until the middle of third grade that something just clicked.

He still does not know for sure why his mother showed those report cards to his children, but he understands that it was not to embarrass him, but to let his children see what he had to overcome at their age.

“I know in my soul that what I have done with my life didn’t happen by happenstance,” Yoder said. “I was drawn to work with cognitively disadvantaged children, and later, to get into the whole literacy field because I never forgot what it felt like to not be able to read in a room where everyone around you can.”

A change of course

Yoder caught up quickly.

In 1950, he graduated from high school in rural Indiana as president of his class of 13. That fall, he set off for Goshen College to major in speech communication and theater.

By Yoder’s sophomore year, Herbie, his 2-year-old cousin, took Yoder on the detour that would lead him to find his true calling.

Soon after he was born, Herbie developed jaundice, which was caused by an Rh blood incompatibility and resulted for him in cerebral palsy, which left him unable to learn to talk.

Yoder began reading about speech therapy and enrolled one summer in speech therapy courses at the University of Minnesota. The next summer, he volunteered as a counselor at the Los Angeles County Crippled Children’s Camp in the San Bernardino Mountains.

There, Yoder helped boys with polio get out of their leg braces so they could swim in the pool. At night, he listened for boys with muscular dystrophy crying out to be turned in their beds.

“Those experiences convinced me that I had made the right decision for a profession to pursue,” he said.

In August 1954, he married his college sweetheart, Dee Stump, and they moved to Evanston, Ill., where he completed his master’s degree a year later.

‘I am not done.’

Yoder went on to have a distinguished career and served as president of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association and as the first president of the United States Augmentative and Alternative Communication Association.

In 2000, the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences established a symposium in his name when Yoder retired as professor and chair of the Department of Allied Health Sciences.

Almost immediately afterward, he accepted a position as the first executive director of the Council for Allied Health in North Carolina before “retiring” for a second time in 2005.

Now approaching 80, Yoder has slowed down enough to take time to look back on his 55 years of teaching, research and providing therapy to children and adults with severe speech, language and literacy challenges. But he is not ready to stop.

“I am not done,” Yoder said. “I keep saying as long as I can walk and I still have my wits, which some people may question, I want to stay with it.”

Yoder continues to give some guest lectures at workshops and conferences across the country, and serves on various committees and boards at Carolina and in the Chapel Hill community.

His arrival in Chapel Hill in 1986, Yoder said, marked a shift into new territory: literacy for the disabled – a shift set in motion a few years before while he was affiliated with the Communication Aids and Systems Clinic at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

One treatment group was for young adults in the community who had severe speech impairments related to cerebral palsy.

“Their range of literacy skills was very limited to non-existent,” Yoder said, “and I will never forget the young lady who, in her best dysarthric speech, came up to me and asked, ‘Teach me to read.’”

For days afterward, he was haunted by her request, and by the knowledge that despite his expertise, he felt helpless to respond to her plea for help.

But Yoder brought that “teach me to read” mindset to Chapel Hill when he joined the Department of Allied Health Sciences in the School of Medicine.

Two years later it led him to partner with School of Education doctoral student David Koppenhaver to establish the Center for Literacy and Disabilities Studies.

Over the years, the center has taught literacy to people with Down syndrome, Rett syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorders, deafness and blindness, cognitive impairments and cerebral palsy, Yoder said.

In one sense, the center and its mission represent not only the culmination of a life’s work, but also the completion of a circle that began with a child struggling to read.

It stands as a testament to the basic idea that Yoder’s son had grasped so many years ago – for anyone not to be able to read should be unimaginable.