A Corkman who has been named among Forbes key young software engineers after being advised to drop out of school as a teenager has warned that children with learning difficulties are falling through the cracks.
Robert James Gabriel had undiagnosed dyslexia when he was advised to drop out of school at the age of 15.
At the time, his parents fought to get him the educational supports he needed and now his online education support service, Helperbird, is used by 400,000 people every week.
On Newstalk Breakfast this morning, he said he is offering the platform to Irish users free of charge to support others facing the same difficulties he did.
“When I was 15 and right up to that point, I struggled with school quite a bit,” he said.
“I got disinterested in my homework; I wasn’t doing it or I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the support.
“It wasn’t until I was about to do my Junior Cert that my parents were told I should consider dropping out because I would struggle in life and it was better to end the suffering then.
“Once my parents heard that, they turned into grizzly bears as I would like to describe it, very protective of me, and kind of shouted and roared until I was able to get the testing which the school at the time couldn’t afford but they pressurised them to get it done.
“Once I got the testing and got the support I needed, my school work started improving dramatically, I discovered computers and, this is the kicker, about four months later, I won the school €8,000 which I was very happy to say I could give back and they were able to test more kids.
“Before I was diagnosed, I was struggling through school and hated it and afterwards my confidence improved and my schoolwork also improved.”
He said his schoolteachers at the time were “wonderful” – but the funding just wasn’t available for a student of his age to access dyslexia supports.
He said he is concerned that a decade later children in Ireland are still falling through the cracks because the educational supports they need are not available.
“Recently, a family-friend asked me to ring their friend who told me a story about how his son does not have a place in school because of funding because he is on the autistic spectrum,” he said.
“Ten years later it is the same thing where people with special needs are being left behind here and that is why I wanted to give Helperbird to anyone who needed it in Ireland.”
Mr Gabriel said he designed the first version of Helperbird while on an internship in his third year of a computer science degree.
“At the time, it just changed the font on any website to a dyslexia-friendly font and six months later it had 2,000 users,” he said.
“Three years later, it has 400,000 users; helping people with all different types of disabilities and difficulties in 171 countries around the world.”
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