Last weekend I started reading Footfalls in Memory, a book written by Terry Waite. Waite travelled to the Lebanon in 1987 as a Church of England representative in an attempt to secure the freedom of four hostages, one of whom was the journalist John McCarthy.
In the opening paragraphs he discusses the things he most missed while in captivity; outside the obvious human comforts top of his list was reading and a good supply of books. In his 1,760 days in captivity he longed for, dreamt of, begged and prayed for books. He relished the few that were brought to him by his captors and dredged his brain to relive the books of his youth. One night he was dreaming particularly vividly of his study and bookshelf within it when he was pulled from his dream by the shackles on his legs.
His recounting of this experience struck a cord with me. Like Terry Waite I too have a lifelong love of books but have known what it is to live with the deprivation of them. I was not of course a captive in the same sense, I was a prisoner of my own neurology. Dyslexia was my jailer, in addition to cerebral palsy. Dyslexia and significant neurological visual processing problems were the biggest cause of my distress. People could grasp my physical limitations well, because of course there were some very obvious visual clues. Believe me, I could never have blended into the background in any room, my movements resembled a Thunderbird puppet after an impressive night on the tiles, this helped people accommodate my difficulties. The hidden disability is, I have discovered, a entirely different ball game. It brings with it embarrassment and the constant need for justification.
Dyslexia is a condition that is subject to much misconception. It has spent many years on the margins of educational discourse. From the outset, it has not been taken seriously as an issue, with those affected suffering educationally as a result. Dyslexic people have often failed to achieve their full potential, with little interest taken in their condition. Dyslexia is often overlooked and mislabelled as: nobody is expected to be good at everything; laziness; stupidity on the part of the individual.
There has however, in recent years, been a surge of interest in the condition. There is growing awareness in schools of the problems faced by dyslexic children in the classroom environment and of the different ways by which people learn and process information.The problems caused by dyslexia are all too often situated and discussed only in the context of academic learning, as something that is only relevant to childhood and a problem that disappears with the end of one’s compulsory education.
So, what is it like to be dyslexic? In what ways does it impact on the individual? It is, I think, a different experience for each person. Every dyslexic I have met has had slightly different problems, seemingly all related to reading, writing and spelling but manifesting themselves in slightly different ways. Each person has different strengths and weaknesses.
For me, to have dyslexia has, for much of the time, felt like living in my own world. Text feels almost like a second language and led to me spending years feeling out of my depth in the school dominated world of childhood. For a dyslexic, the classroom is often a place where you can feel left behind, particularly if the problem remains undiagnosed and unaddressed.
In school, teaching is structured to suit the majority of children, who are not dyslexic. This can create a situation whereby children lose interest in the learning process, which can ultimately impact upon the rest of their lives.
Some have described dyslexia as a “gift”. I have, in my life met some extremely talented dyslexic people, many of whom tell me they would not be without it. They think it has made them more creative, it is truly a part of the people they have become.
I struggle to think of my own dyslexia as a “gift”; being a writer, I resent its presence. Maybe my dyslexia has given me something to strive against. Often I have thought my existence is proof that God has a spectacular sense of irony or a good sense of humour; dyslexia has helped me develop both of these traits. Like a lot of dyslexics I know, I am told I am a good lateral thinker. Unlike many of my dyslexic counterparts, I am not a good kinaesthetic learner; this may be because my dyslexia is complicated by cerebral palsy. I have searched hard to find the “gift” my dyslexia has created, but have yet to find it.
I love to write and to read, neither of which I achieved in an entirely conventional way. I still remember fondly the arrival of my first Talking Book player aged 7 or 8, a metal box with a lever control for play and rewind, track change, tone and volume. It was heaven help you if you fell asleep as to relocate your lost place would take a long time as they were all on tape; you would have to listen to the oral tape markers that contained letters and numbers to try to find it again. Sometimes now when I can’t drift off to sleep I catch myself counting N10, N9, N8, way more effective than sheep for sleep. The first player I had looked like a cross between a reel to reel player and a Dalek from Dr Who. I still remember the twinge of excitement I felt when the old tape cartridges dropped through the letter box. If I could manage it I would sneak off to my room for a quick five minute listen, the taste of which could keep me going through the darkest of school days. A true comfort and the best of all my friends. I firmly believe that access to Talking Books saved my life. They reminded me I could learn and were the beginnings of my true education.
Technology has moved on and although I would not be without my computer, I am still reliant on the help of other people, who work hard to ensure articles I write conform to the laws of the English language; helping others to understand precisely what it is I am trying to say. I access support from the Dyslexia Association of Staffordshire. Although I am able to read text, it is easier for me to retain the information I hear, so I prefer audio books of which thankfully, there is an ever increasing selection. The advent of Mp3 players and Podcasts, have also helped me to access information in a way that works for me.
I often think about how my life would have been different, had I benefited from early diagnosis of dyslexia and appropriate teaching. When you are diagnosed as an adult or in late adolescence as I was, it is a struggle. You carry with you a lot of negativity about intelligence and your ability to learn and achieve. I was lucky in the end, after leaving special education for a mainstream placement my problems were re-evaluated and addressed. I was surrounded by teachers who did not perceive dyslexia as a dead end problem. It was never allowed to be a barrier to achievement or a negative label; it was something to be worked on and around.
Dyslexia, with the right help, does not have to define who you are. Whether you are diagnosed as a child or as an adult, improvements can be made at any age. For this to happen, dyslexia has to be considered as something that affects people across the board. It is not just an issue for educators but a fact of life.