Throughout his government career, Gejdenson dedicated himself to helping those less fortunate than himself. A tireless advocate for democracy and human rights, he co-authored the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which put America on the front lines of fighting forced labor, slavery, and prostitution, and co-authored the Intercountry Adoption Act, to protect children and their adoptive families. He shares his expertise with the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, the National Democratic Institute, Women’s Health Research at Yale University, and the Yale Child Study Center, which is working with Israeli and Palestinian doctors to help children traumatized by conflicts in their homelands.
Sam Gejdenson, the son of Holocaust survivors, was born in 1948 in a UN displaced persons camp in Germany and grew up on a dairy farm in Connecticut. While his parents never talked about their wartime experiences, he learned at an early age that government could be “a very powerful tool for good and a very powerful tool for evil. Without doubt,” he said recently, “seeing the great evil that government under the Nazis did and the great good that the United States did was a central factor in my becoming politically active.” As the senior Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, he campaigned on behalf of women, children, and seniors and wrote legislation to help U.S. companies access foreign markets and boost American exports. Working with Presidents Reagan and Clinton and Middle Eastern leaders, he was also a point person in Congress on issues relating to that region.
But success was not always a part of his DNA. Although Gejdenson did not realize it until he was in his thirties, he is dyslexic. Like most people who have the disability, he had trouble reading, particularly reading aloud. When he was younger, it took so much energy for him to read that he would be exhausted after about ten minutes. An ophthalmologist later prescribed glasses to relieve eye strain, but they were useless. “Dyslexia has been a blessing and a curse,” he says. “In school, the first thing was that I was labeled an underachiever because I scored very well on IQ tests but not on other tests. So if you tried hard and failed, they’d conclude you were stupid. I got through school by listening to my teachers and cramming for exams.”
Gejdenson finished high school with poor grades and never applied to college. He went to work at a factory and attended night school, eventually completing his associate’s degree at Mitchell College and his bachelor’s at the University of Connecticut, which he describes as “a good school and a good value.” Looking back on his student days, Gejdenson said that school would have been much more enjoyable if he had been able to read effectively.
Advances in technology eventually came to the rescue in the form of a computer program called Speedreader, which improved his reading skills but not his ability to read aloud. During political campaigns and his tenure in Congress, when Gejdenson had to make frequent speeches, he found that by knowing his facts and jotting down a few words as memory aids, he could be an effective extemporaneous speaker and avoid having to read from a prepared text. “That’s a big advantage dyslexia gave me,” he said.
Another advantage, which he describes as his “savior,” is the Kindle electronic reader. When traveling the globe for business, Gejdenson downloads books to his Kindle, which has a computerized program that reads to him while he follows the words on the screen. The device has dramatically increased the number of books Gejdenson completes. “I used to read about a book a month, but now I read four to five books a month and dozens during the course of a year,” he said.