Why Dyslexia scared me, and how I got over my fear.

A while back, a dear friend of mine said “Hey! You’re a tutor. I know a gal who runs a business tutoring dyslexic kids. That would be right up your alley.”

My immediate reaction was surprise. Not only do I have no special education experience, but I’d only been tutoring for three months. How was I supposed to help a kid with Dyslexia?

Then, my follow-up reaction was fear.

What I knew of dyslexia was a murky mix of hearsay and anecdotes about brilliant college dropouts. I’d known people throughout my life who had trouble reading, but being an excellent and intuitive reader myself, I found their struggle incomprehensible. I figured, if you put in the practice, you’d become a good reader, no problem.

In other words, I basically didn’t know anything about Dyslexia. At all.

Part of me didn’t want to know. I was between a fear of the unknown and afraid that once I did know, I’d be powerless to do anything about it.

Well, the financial beast reared its head, and I needed more income. So, I took a leap of faith and applied for the job. My fears were almost immediately laid to rest. I was given a very broad but satisfying training and receive lots of ongoing support.

I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned and explain how it’s dispelled my fears.

1) People with Dyslexia CAN and DO learn to read…eventually.

One way or another most dyslexic people will receive remediation or they’ll remediate themselves. That is to say, they will find ways to read when they absolutely have to, and can become highly accurate, if slow, readers. I’ve talked to many dyslexic men and women who came up with all kinds of coping strategies, such as: counting the number of people ahead of them in the class reading group then counting down to the paragraph he/she is expected to read and prereading it several times before it gets to his/her turn. Others listened to audiobooks while reading along, memorizing a very specific vocabulary, such as for their particular job or interest. I know one dyslexic, in particular, who has trouble pronouncing and remembering the simplest of street names, but knows the names of hundreds of car parts, makes, models, and years.

It can be a long, hard slog, but it reading can happen for people who have it. I see it happening before my very eyes with my students. It’s incredible.

2) Dyslexia is a thing.

It’s not laziness and it’s not lack of motivation or effort. Dyslexia arises from a difference in brain wiring that disrupts the gradual processing of words from manual decoding to automatic recognition. For them, without specialized training, the process never becomes automatic. Awesome! I can totally let go of all that anger and frustration I had toward kids who didn’t understand after I’d tried so hard to teach them. It wasn’t because they were spiting me. It was because I wasn’t teaching them in the way that they learn. Guess what? I can change the way I teach:) That means there’s hope!

3) You don’t have to lower the standard for a person who has Dyslexia.

Based on my denial of No. 2 above, I figured people with Dyslexia were really just lazy and didn’t want to put in the effort to learn. They just wanted a pass for underachieving. Do I sound like a bigoted jerk yet? Trust me. I’m repenting. The total opposite is true. People with Dyslexia often have high IQs, and represent some of the hardest-working people I know. They offer a vital contribution to any kind of big picture problem. The people I know who have Dyslexia are invariably quick to the solution of complex problems involving many players. It might just be me, but I also kinda think they’re more fun to be around. I think I’ll do an informal study on that at some point.

4) The real mark of education and success is how well you live in the world and make it a better place.

That typically has absolutely nothing to do with how well you read and write. In other words, I don’t feel hopeless anymore about how many people have Dyslexia — estimates place the number at 1-in-5 Americans. There are people with Dyslexia in every field of work, and, just like the rest of us, their performance is all over the spectrum. Maybe they don’t read well or fluently, but I bet a lot of the rest of us get so stuck in the details of a problem that we never get to a solution. If you think about it, that’s a kind of disability, too. I’m relieved and glad that there are so many people out there who are naturally excellent problem solvers. When they build on that talent, boy do they achieve wonders.

5) Dyslexia is a bonified disability, though.

By that I mean that it can profoundly disrupt normal, everyday existence. Consider this. You wake up tomorrow morning and inexplicably cannot quickly decode words any longer. Reading the instructions on the back of the prescription bottle is suddenly a gargantuan task. So many medical terms! The waitress at your favorite restaurant hands you a menu and the letters may as well be swimming across the page, so you just say “I’ll have what he’s having.” even though  you hate what he’s having! Better a gross burger than the embarrassment of taking all day to read the menu. You get to work and have to face the Internet. Oh, the Internet. If not for YouTube it may as well be a useless rabbit warren of text starting with the keyboard. Need to turn in a resume? Nightmare. You can never be quite sure if you got all the spellings right. Don’t even get me started on punctuation. I hope the boss can see through it to my sparkling personality and high skills. College entrance exams are the worst. They’re timed. Yeah. Disability. Here, I just want to make it clear that, in a literate society (which we have), people with Dyslexia are entitled to accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

6) Dyslexia isn’t a childhood problem that you grow out of.

IMG_1197Dyslexia ranges from mild to profound, but if you have it, you have it for life. Like I said earlier, many adults with Dyslexia have found ways to remediate themselves, and can become highly accurate readers. The problem is, they usually remain slow readers, and take twice as long, if not longer, to read as other adults. That means for every hour you spend at your job reading, your dyslexic counterpart spends two. Over a lifetime, that’s a lot of lost time. Beyond that, Dyslexia isn’t who you are. It’s just something that you have. It’s not a disease, but it is highly heritable. A person with Dyslexia has a high probability of passing it on to his or her children. So, does that mean people with Dyslexia shouldn’t have kids? I surely hope no dyslexic person ever thinks that or has it preached to him. My students have such full, amazing lives, Dyslexia notwithstanding. I know terrific parents who have Dyslexia. Their kids are lucky to have them.

I’ll add more posts on this later. For now, though, I’ll just put it out there that learning about Dyslexia humbled me deeply. I had a lot of erroneous notions about how learning works, when it happens, and for whom. Some of those I held long and passionately. That was part of my fear, letting go. The funny thing is, I feel very free as I’ve let those notions go. I feel a deep compassion for the kids I tutor, and for the adults that have always been around me without my knowledge. Dyslexia has made their lives really really hard, though they’d never admit it because they’re usually hard-working and humble. I have so much admiration and respect for them, because they do what the rest of us do, except it’s so much more difficult for them. In fact, I have been gently mentored and provided so much warmth and love during my tough times by people with Dyslexia I feel like I just need to shut up and quit complaining about the little things that bug me in life. I should be the one offering them solace given how difficult “simple” tasks are for them. It must be a dyslexic thing. Maybe they just understand pain better than other people because they’re so closely-acquainted with it from being unable to read well in our literate society. It seems to make them especially good at recognizing pain in others and offering the balm of friendship and support. Maybe I’m going too far now and applying labels too generally, but my experience really has been that people with Dyslexia tend to be very warm and caring. They’re emotionally literate.