Disclaimer: As this piece is about Dyslexia, and I am a dyslexic writer, I have decided not to get it proof read. That is to say, I most certainly have proof read it, about
five, seven, nine ten times, but I’m leaving it there. Not noticing spelling mistakes (and sentences so lacking in structure and grammatical correctness that they look like they fell out of a Scrabble bag) is a classic sign of dyslexia that I haven’t managed to come up with a good enough coping mechanism for, and as a result I am often ‘found out.’ To celebrate this, I have left any yet unspotted spelling mistakes, repetitions and sentence structure disasters in – for you to spot (like a literary Where’s Wally.)
I want to start by saying that dyslexia isn’t a disability. It’s a learning difficulty. Dyslexics learn differently to the way that the national curriculum says we need to learn, and we process and store information differently to 90% of the population. The education system values people who can follow orders and remember facts, but dyslexic people don’t do well in that area. Generally, facts need to fit into some form of context, and we need to understand why we’re doing something in order for it to make sense for us. We need to do all the hard work first. We need to understand why tying our shoelaces makes sense, by figuring it out for ourselves, whereas a person without dyslexia might follow directions and learn to tie their shoelaces first, and allow the logic of it to sink in afterwards.
I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 21. No one had noticed up until then, not really. In my day to day life, the only constant effects of dyslexia that I feel are how much more tired I am after doing specific tasks that aren’t structured to fit the way my brain works. I have coping mechanisms that work well, but there are rare moments when I slip up – when whatever mechanism I’m using can’t cope and I come across as incapable, unintelligent or lazy.
When I was at school I was in the top set for everything. I got great grades and did a varied and absurdly time consuming amount of extra curricular activities. I was even the token girl on the team for what I can only describe as the Sussex’s less good version of Mathletes, yet I was seldom seen as so.
I feel that the dyslexia is still very misunderstood.
The NHS Describes Dyslexia as follows:
Dyslexia is a common learning difficulty that can cause problems with reading, writing and spelling. It’s a specific learning difficulty, which means it causes problems with certain abilities. It’s estimated up to 1 in every 10 people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. Unlike a learning disability intelligence isn’t affected.
This is a really vague and unhelpful description of a much more complicated thing. Dyslexia looks different on every person, and every person with Dyslexia has their own set of struggles, anxieties and fears of being found out.
It’s thought that between 8% and 17% of the population is affected by a learning difficulty to some degree. This includes difficulties such as dyspraxia (movement and planning difficulties), dyscalculia (difficulties with maths and numbers), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and slow processing speeds. Each person with a learning difficulty has their own set of hurdles to jump over on a day to day basis.
The website dyslexia.com has a list with a broad range of possible signs of dyslexia.
Reading the article as research for this piece has been quite cathartic. It’s made me realise how much of my identity is formed by dyslexia: from stuttering and failing to put thoughts into words when under pressure, to having a high tolerance for pain and an idealistic sense of judgement.
Most dyslexics will read the above list and strongly agree/disagree with a good many points in equal measure. Most dyslexics develop strong coping mechanisms for many of them, but there will be things that they simply avoid doing – for instance my own personal avoidances include, but are not limited to, spelling and spread sheets. I hold my hands up and I let spell check or someone else do it.
The first time someone suggested that I could be dyslexic was when I demanded that my secondary school teacher explain Pi to me. He then asked me a few questions: how did I learn to tie my shoelaces? Did someone show me or did I have to figure it out for myself? I remarked that I always needed to do the latter, so if he’d be so kind as to explain exactly how Archimedes came up with Pi then I’d happily accept and use it. I heard a lot of whispering between him and another teacher, resulting in ‘she’s fine, I don’t want her to think that…’ and I heard nothing more of it. In hindsight I’m glad. I don’t think he wanted me to think I was stupid, because at 14 that’s exactly what I’d have thought.
I then struggled to read out loud and follow what was being said at the same time during my A-Level philosophy classes. I remember producing a 9 page essay out of my bag and everyone in class apart from my teacher being quite surprised that I’d had any thoughts at all. A friend from class talked to me on my way out and asked if I could be dyslexic, and I got very mad at him because I thought he was calling me stupid. ‘You’re not,’ he said, ‘That’s my point.’
I then found out that one of the smartest girls I knew had been diagnosed with dyspraxia when she got to university. ‘It explains a lot,’ she said, ‘I’ve always had trouble listening and copying things off the board at the same time. I would have to go back over everything I’d written in class when I got home every night to try and make sense of it.’ I remember the penny dropping when I realised all the extra work she’d had to put in without even noticing it herself.
When I got to drama school they told us that there would be a few of us who had probably gone undiagnosed, and it was worth taking the test. I famously went into the test thinking I was dyspraxic and came out dyslexic (I was a bit clumsy back then). ‘You’ve developed really good coping mechanisms,’ said the accessor, ‘that’s why no one noticed.’ She proved this to me when I started to explain how numbers, weeks, days and months, years and various other data heavy systems were logged in my brain under visual representations. A normal person just thinks of these things, but someone with dyslexic traits will often create maps in their heads in order to do the same work. So when I’m counting I’ll have to navigate my way around a map, which is a lot of extra work that my brain has to do. My maps are very colourful by the way, like a snakes and ladders board. Usually once you go past a certain point it’s paler and starts to fade, because I don’t need to go up there very often. When I started learning more about Celtic and Tudor Britain, those parts of the timeline became greener, whereas before they had been a vague beige colour with not much going for them. When it comes to certain tasks my brain works harder, because it’s taking the scenic route.
A person with a learning difficulty is likely to get impacted by other people’s perceptions of them on a daily basis. This sort of shaming, though subtle and usually unconscious, grates on a person, picks holes in their self-esteem that are harder to fill than the praise that comes in equal measure with excelling at something else. Generally if someone is lacking in confidence, the more unsure they feel, the more the panic sets in, and the more they panic the worse they get at the thing they’re panicking about. It’s a vicious cycle and though not a symptom of dyslexia, it is often the result of it.
When people tell me dyslexia isn’t a thing, or that it’s on a sliding scale and people just use it as an excuse for their limitations, it makes me angry. When people tell me I can’t be that dyslexic, and talk about someone else they know who is outwardly struggling more than I ever seemingly have done, it makes me sad. Lots of dyslexics go unnoticed, but that’s because they were lucky enough to develop coping mechanisms that work well for them, and they’re working harder than you, and they’re being noticed for all the wrong things.
People with learning difficulties are no less intelligent that anyone else. The school system and much of the workforce is structured to fit a non-dyslexic, non dyspraxic brain, and the funding and support provided is not a solution to the problem, it’s a bandage. It’s also a lot more fluid than you might think: there is no normal. We struggle because of the system we’re in, and the shaming that comes with it from people who think they understand but don’t. I’m not saying that we should use the dyslexic card at any given opportunity, but if a person is saying that this or that thing is hard for them, it’s because they feel it. That feeling is the equivalent of getting a headache when you’re dehydrated: the coping mechanism has failed and the damage is already done. What you’re now observing is an emotional response that we’ve had time and time again: a mixture of frustration, shame and fear of being misunderstood.
I often teach Shakespeare to students visiting London. Before handing out a piece of script for them to read I have started telling them that I’m dyslexic, and talking to them about learning difficulties. I assure them that we’re not here to be impressive, or to sight read perfectly, just to explore the words and the story at our own pace. The other day a teacher came up to me halfway through a session to thank me, because 5 of her girls were dyslexic, and they were now immersed in the work and inspired to learn more. It was one of the proudest moments I’ve had teaching.
Despite the difficulties we experience, dyslexia is also beautiful thing. We are perfectionists and often highly skilled at very specific things. We have a thirst for understanding, not just knowledge. We’re emotionally intelligent, artistic and have a strong sense of morality and justice. We’re creative problem solvers, storytellers, birds-eye-viewers and though our short term memory often fails us, when we’ve learnt something, we’ve really bloody learnt it.
The best advice I ever got was from a movement director who I worked with a few years ago. She seemed a little frustrated with me, and told me she couldn’t figure me out – and I worried she’d think I wasn’t working hard enough. Half way through the project I told her I was dyslexic. ‘I know what it is now,’ she said, ‘You have this moment of panic right before doing something, I can see it. You get anxious and it ruins whatever you’re about to do before you’ve done it.’ She looked me dead in the eye, and with a grin said, ‘If you need to take an extra three seconds to process something then ask for it. If anyone tells you you can’t have it, well,’ she pulls out her middle finger and waves it around in the air, ‘Tell them to stick this up their bum and swivel.’
I never looked back.
Words by Kate-Lois Elliott
Edited by No One