By Alice Doyel
Part One of a Four-Part Series on Dyslexia
When Schools Make Dyslexia Diagnoses Difficult, Expensive, and Time-Consuming, Many Students’ Lives are Destroyed, and the World Loses a Wealth of Bright, Talented People
These BBC World Services podcasts interview students and adults with dyslexia from around the world regarding their education and life experiences. The podcasts were conducted by people with dyslexia. I edited the speakers’ words with moderation.
Dyslexia literally means a difficulty with words. It is a condition that affects one in five of us worldwide.
Words are at the core of communication. They are used as a measure of intelligence. Every test, every entrance exam, every job application relies on that. We dyslexics can easily fail.
Across the world, dyslexia assessment, and support is a select privilege. It is one of the only disabilities that you have to pay to have diagnosed. And your access to help is entirely dependent on where you live and your financial resources.
For boys, compensating in school might mean being the class clown or using disruptive classroom behavior. It could mean getting into fights, preferring going to the principal’s office rather than being asked to read in class. For girls, covering up is more covert, often becoming shy and withdrawn. Since girls did not disrupt the classroom, they were even less likely than boys to be seen as needing help.
Both boys and girls were embarrassed and ashamed in school, with teachers considering them stupid and lazy, classmates harassing and bullying them. It was not seen how hard they tried to learn to read.
Out of school, both boys and girls were constantly making up lies to cover up their reading inabilities, continuously lowering their self-esteem.
Many young people with more severe dyslexia and no support check out of education without the basic literacy skills they need for working life. The shame soon makes things very complicated for them.
The consequences of failure to screen for undiagnosed dyslexia are extremely high: Self-harm, taking drugs, and other destructive behaviors. UK and US research reveals that 50% of the prison population has dyslexia.
- Jackie: “When I got around the third grade, I knew that something was wrong. Then I knew it because we had a spelling test. And so I could never spell the words. And I was embarrassed, I was ashamed. But I knew something was wrong because I started skipping school every Friday, avoiding the spelling test. And when I got into the sixth grade, a teacher first in my English class called me up to read, and she had me up there for about 15 minutes. I didn’t know not one word. I was sweating profusely, people were laughing. And I knew that day I was going to be a drug dealer.”
- Amir was in and out of prison until he was given a longer sentence: “So four years flat in prison, I had to do four years flat. That was when I said to myself, in these four years, I am going to learn to read. I wrote every word down that I didn’t know, over and over and over to spell them. So I learned to spell a little bit. I got into a GED class once I got to the penitentiary, and there was a teacher there. He loved teaching and he told me, ‘I noticed your writing and see you can’t spell well. Your brothers and sisters are like that?’ No. My brothers and sisters went to college. So he had a lady come in and had me tested for dyslexia. And in about two weeks this lady came back and they told me that I was dyslexic. I didn’t know what that was. He told me that it was a reading disability people had. So that’s when I really feel good about myself.”
- Gideon is a youth support worker who’s chosen his own experiences as a teenager to help other young people. Without a diagnosis of dyslexia, Gideon became involved in a criminal gang in his area: “People join the wrong crowds to be valued, to have that community.”
Dyslexia Can Feel Like a Superpower
The world needs diversity across every single area. It needs cognitive diversity, it needs diversity in the way that people think. And instead of thinking that one way is the right way, and the way that we test is the right way, we need to really flip that and see that there are other people who think in a way that is hugely important for the world.
Some employers actively seek neurodiverse workers, because these workers find unusual solutions. Studies have shown a correlation between high cognitive diversity and high performance in groups trying to solve difficult problems, such as cracking codes.
Sally Shaywitz, MD, is a professor at Yale University and author of the influential book, Overcoming Dyslexia. Sally says you can have this weakness, but it’s surrounded by a sea of strengths in higher-level big picture thinking, strength such as vocabulary, problem-solving, empathy, general knowledge, comprehension, and concept formation. And that’s very important because it establishes that as a dyslexic, you can be very bright, and yet, read slowly.
GCHQ is the UK government intelligence agency which includes MI5 and MI6. It actively recruits dyslexic employees. Al, a Senior GCHQ Director with dyslexia, explains why.
Al: “We tend to be able to think about things differently, to be able to join different pieces of information together. I’m quite good at joining pieces of information that I might have picked up sometimes over the years, and suddenly they sort of explode in my head into something that makes a lot more sense than it did. But we’re not all the same. Dyslexic people bring different strengths and different problems as well.”
Louise: “I’m an intelligence analyst at a 24-7 Operation Center here at GCHQ. I use my skills to combat the threats that the UK has. There’s so much data constantly coming in, and that always needs to be analyzed, no matter what time of the day it is. The strengths I have involve seeing the bigger picture so I can often spot patterns that my colleagues can’t always see. So it feels sometimes like a superpower.”
Robin: “I am an anchor for CNN International. And before that, I was CNN’s Africa correspondent. I was really considered the dumbest kid in the class. Teachers decided to tell my mother that I wouldn’t amount to very much. ‘She’ll make someone a good wife and mother one day.’ I think that fire of like, ‘I am not just going to be a housewife,’ was something that burned in me, you know, I was determined to prove them wrong.”
Many dyslexic adults will tell you that they are who they are today because of their dyslexia and not despite it. “I don’t miss the classroom, the spelling tests, the exams, but if we survive school, having learned to read and write, we can find those things we’re really good at. Dyslexia means we have to work harder, but it makes us more resilient.”
More Enlightening Quotes from Students and Adults with Dyslexia
Moderator: I grew up in the UK speaking English, but I just couldn’t figure it out. There are so many things which just don’t make sense. How on earth was like through thought trough and throw or be spelled So similarly, and yet sounds so different.
Amir, after being diagnosed in prison, now campaigns for dyslexia screening for kids from low-income backgrounds: “I said to myself, oh, God, if somebody had done this for me when I was in third or fourth or fifth grade, I would have never gone to prison.”
Alice: “Nobody knew I had dyslexia until I went to university and I was diagnosed at age 25. So I had a pretty horrific time in Ghana. I was beaten every day, couldn’t do math, couldn’t tell time. I guess in the 70s, no one really knew about dyslexia. So it was pretty tough for me.”
Alex: “Japanese is my first language. I spoke Japanese outside the house. My parents are English speakers, and we spoke English inside the house. So I had a completely split world.” Alex is dyslexic in English, but he excels in Japanese.
Olivia: “I’m 15 years old. I have like severe dyslexia. When I was just starting to learn how to read, my mother asked me to read this paragraph. And I just remember seeing the words just like fall off the pages.”
Stella: “At the age of seven, I began to fall behind at school. I would do anything I could to avoid having to spell or read aloud in class. My parents took me for a test with a specialist who told them that I had something called dyslexia. It was a real blow. But at least we knew what we were dealing with and found help and support. Many don’t.”
Leah: “I live in Israel. When I was a little girl, they said I was simply lazy. ‘She has difficulties, no point to make too much effort. She can go and study at the lowest level.’ Nobody believed that I have abilities, except, fortunately, a few. They saw my abilities, saw my talents, they realized that I am simply dyslexic.”
Anonymous: “We think both my mum and dad are dyslexic. Although they’ve never been diagnosed. My mum Laura Ford is now a respected artist. But as a girl growing up in the 60s, her teachers didn’t think she would amount to very much at all. I’ve come to see her in her studio. It’s a total mess. You know, often a sign of dyslexia.”
Anonymous: “There’s a kid who’s perfectly intelligent. But she’s just being really naughty. And she’s being really stubborn, and she won’t do her work. So we will humiliate her. So they used to take me down to my sister’s class, which were three years below, and show my books to the class and compare them with my sister’s who wasn’t dyslexic. And by that stage, I think I was kind of slightly immune to the humiliation. And I think part of you just cut off and you think, Oh, well, none of this is accessible to me. So I’ll just give up.”
Jason Fernandez, from Goa, India: “I think it’s impossible for me to separate what may be quirks of my personality, and what has been attributed to dyslexia. There’s a lack of discernible organization in our living or workspaces, and that can justifiably irritate parents and partners. But I really think it’s just a physical reflection of our minds. The best way to describe how my mind works is if you’ve ever seen a Jackson Pollock painting, imagine that happening in three dimensions, in real-time, and all on the inside of my brain. In other words, I’m dealing with something that is clearly not designed to be orderly.”
Robin: “I think the interesting thing about being dyslexic is that you become extremely adept at finding alternative ways to survive. You work harder, I think, than most people, you find another plan, you’re quite sneaky, you know that sometimes you know where your trigger points are. So you either prepare ahead, or you find ways to deal with it on your own. So you become extremely resilient. And you also become a bit of a street fighter. And I think you’ve managed to get through all of those years of school, not only are you a street fighter, you’re pretty well prepared for life because you’ve had to elbow your way through everything.”