The Other Side of Dyslexia

Siena Geren 

The Charter Features 


      In a typical classroom of 30 students there are on average three dyslexics reports, reports APM. Although there is no class at ACA as large as this, the proportions of students affected by dyslexia in a typical ACA classroom would be one to two. 

      According to Learning Disabilities, as many as 43.5 million Americans may have dyslexia and people from all economic and ethnic backgrounds suffer from this disorder. Some people don’t even know that they have dyslexia until much later in life, or they go through life never knowing.  

      Someone with dyslexia sees words differently than people without it do. People with dyslexia see words out of order, the letters backwards, or cut up, and they might even move around the page or not look like letters at all. 

Examples of what someone with dyslexia might see when they look at text

      There is a wide spectrum of dyslexia. What one person might experience is not what another would. But dyslexics are more than just bad spellers, and slow readers. In many cases the skills a dyslexic develops allow them to see the world in a different way. 

      As Ros McCarthy put it “I always loved working with people who were dyslexic because I thought [that while] their literacy might be not so good as people who aren’t dyslexic, they had a wonderful ability to think outside the box, to see the whole picture, to see things differently…” McCarthy is a learning disability specialist who has worked with dyslexics in England and around the world. 

      The Oxford dictionary defines dyslexia as “a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.” In other words having dyslexia makes a person struggle with basic academic skills that to someone without dyslexia sees as second nature. Given that so much of school is based on reading and writing this can be a significant challenge. 

      In written language each letter has a sound or sounds associated with it but to someone who has dyslexia that connection is not clear and can be impossible to associate a letter with a sound even with lots of practice. The problem is that they can remember how each letter looks, and they can know the sounds but putting the letter and the sound together is challenging. This leads to pronunciation that does not match or spelling that is incorrect.  

      Sequencing of ideas is another big area of difficulty. Being able to plan out a paper or trying to get A, B, and C done might turn into B,C and A. Dyslexics tend to constantly return to the bigger picture, and even if they have a detailed plan, they struggle to carry out each individual step of that plan.

      While dyslexia has many challenges it also has benefits that might not be considered as academic as reading or writing, but are still beneficial to the individual and may even create a unique and valuable skill set.

      In the late 1990’s Dr. Beverley Steffart conducted a study of students at the Central St. Martin’s College of Art and Design in London. Students there had an unusually high rate of dyslexia at 75%. Steffart concluded that dyslexia represented a “trade-off between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.”When looked at in this light these art students do well because of their dyslexia rather than having to work against it.

     The world of business, and in particular the area of entrepreneurs, provides another example of the benefits of dyslexic skills. James Bannister, CEO of FXecosystem, a global money exchange service provider, said Dyslexia’s “strengths are ones which are particularly useful in building a strong company – problem solving abilities, strong reasoning, and being able to picture how circumstances will evolve. Dyslexia doesn’t impede my ability to see and analyze things – I may simply see them differently from other people.”

      All the teachers that were interviewed acknowledged that having dyslexia presents some challenges for learning. They also all had positive things to say about having dyslexia or working with kids who have it.   

      According to Chris Stilwell, a special education teacher here at ACA, one of the most important things for helping control dyslexia is tackling it early in life. In his work as a teacher, he has learned that he needs to treat students as individuals because they have all developed different skills to deal with their dyslexia. What he has noticed however in a lot of his students is that they are “quite hard working, do an amazing job of working with it or working around it.” 

      Mr. Stilwell also shared the most important piece of advice he would give his students: “Don’t be defined by dyslexia, don’t, let it define you.”       

      Mark Geren [the reporter’s dad] has the perspective of being a teacher with dyslexia. You might think that teaching would be a hard job for someone who has dyslexia, but Mr. Geren has had to deal with that first hand, and has been able to see the positives of it and also been able to work around the difficulties, both for himself and for his students. 

      “It has been a big positive to be able to share with my dyslexic students that I am also dyslexic,” Mr. Geren said. “Many of them see that it is not such a huge limitation. Not that all of them want to grow up to be science teachers but I think they see that they can lead a normal life where they are expected to read, write, spell, etc.”

      As far as how dyslexia has affected his life positively he expresses “by reading more slowly I think I retain the information better than if I was a fast reader. It has required me to develop other ways of seeing ideas. I use simple pictures and drawing a lot. While it has not made me a great artist it has helped me develop other ways of understanding the things that I read,” Mr. Geren said.

      While dyslexia has many challenges it also has benefits that might not be considered as academic as reading and writing, but are still beneficial to the individual. In the area of the arts the ability to see three-dimensionally better than a non-dyslexic or in the area business the ability to view problems more holistically both can be seen as overall benefits. 

      Ros McCarthy, learning disability specialist, has in her 30-plus years of working with dyslexics had some very positive impressions of this so-called “disorder.” 

      “These are absolutely brilliant people,” Mrs. McCarthy said, pointing out that she knows many who have gone on to be event managers, engineers and helicopter pilots. When talking about assessing dyslexic students for the first time she made it very clear that this is a disorder that is often misunderstood. 

      “What I love is when I assess someone and they say to me ‘Wow that’s amazing, I’m not as stupid as I thought I was.’ I find it very upsetting that these incredibly capable people think they are stupid just because their spelling is inventive. It’s very satisfying and it makes me very glad when I can tell them that they are not stupid,” says McCarthy. For this reason it is important to understand the  other side of dyslexia.



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