Tag Archives: journalism

Dyslexia Awareness Week

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.

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The Rules of this Sociologist’s Method

Last month saw the start of a new school year. All over the country there were transitions occurring, there were children commencing their primary school education, some were moving from primary to secondary school and others from school to college or university.

The last two decades have seen the increasing commodification of the education system. Newspaper articles are now full of comments about parental choice, school league tables and problems related to catchment areas. There have even been stories in the media about parents moving and converting to a particular religion, in order to obtain a place for their children in the school of their choice.

This was a far cry from my family’s experience with me. A few years ago I had an attack of curiosity about my early life, my diagnosis and how it had shaped the person I had become; I ordered a copy of my medical notes from birth to 5 years of age, I have to say that it made very interesting reading. I opened up the folder and discovered what read like an episode of Casualty, and yes, they really do write things like, ‘Crash called.’ I was quite surprised to discover that I had had an entire day with no breathing problems at all and that the crashes only started on my second day of life.

I was resuscitated a scary number of times, to that end I am amazed that I am only this brain damaged. Almost 2 years later I was eventually diagnosed with cerebral palsy, coming after a ridiculous battery of tests, the paediatrican insisted on ruling out other conditions, metabolic in nature. This fascinates me as Theodore Woodward, Professor at the Maryland School of Medicine in the 1940s once said , ‘If you hear hoof-beats, think horses not zebras.’ and cerebral palsy is most definitely the horse associated with premature birth and oxygen starvation.

A little over 12 months after my diagnosis my parents were told that it would be best for me to attend the local special school. There was no particular discussion about any other options and obeying medical advice meant you were perceived as a good parent wanting the best for your child. I have friends whose parents questioned advice, or who didn’t follow it and they were talked to as if they were failing in some way. It seemed aspirations had to be kept realistic. My mum once told me about a conversation she had with my then headmaster, he related a story about a pupil who had expressed a desire to become a professional footballer when he was older. The headmaster thought that to collude in such a dream was to be ultimately cruel. However, I can’t help but think that this was a very black and white view, after all there are many children who express desires to become astronauts, nurses, train drivers, etc and who never ultimately become these. These childhood dreams are a way that we explore possibilities and parts of our personalities. To rob a child of this was I think equally as cruel.

When I became an undergraduate sociologist and began learning about Emile Durkheim, I was struck by his idea of using deviance as a form of social measurement. The use of ‘deviance’ to construct ‘the good parent’ was a prominent feature when I was younger; names of parents who did not conform with medical advice would be “hinted” at in conversations between staff, both teaching and medical. The progress of us children would be compared. I for example had a heel strike, this seemed to be a comparatively rare, but desirable phenomenon, most of my fellows walked up on their toes due to tight hamstrings. I can remember my walking being described as beautiful in this regard. The heel strike was apparently an indicator of my parent’s compliance with my physiotherapy regime.

Actually, I have admiration for my toe walking contemporaries, as for the last three months of my walking life, I became one of them; stiff and sore, every step was truly agonising. A lifelong friend with CP, herself a confirmed toe- walker however, tells me that your feet get acclimatised to an extent when you have done this from a young age. Yes, there is soreness but somehow she keeps going. At the age of 15 she was offered an operation to flatten her feet and turned it down, because in her mind she wasn’t broken and did not need fixing. For me it was different, I was always in pursuit of “normal” it obsessed me in many ways and when my grip on it faltered, I confess to throwing every intervention and drug at my body to make me better, or at to least arrest my decline. This is something that I regret in many ways as I often feel like I have become so defined by what might have been, that everyone seems to have missed what was.

I think a lot about my early life and the way my parents were almost manipulated into making choices for me to retain the good opinion of medical professionals, even if this meant going against their own parental instinct. Physiotherapy was the be all and end all of my early years and mainstream education was off my agenda because of this, despite mum and dad thinking integration was a good idea.

My parents frequently say I could have been a doctor had I not had cerebral palsy. This is due to my ability to recognise certain medical conditions easily and understand the treatment and monitoring of them. My dad commented on this recently, when I was discussing some of mum’s medical tests and cancer treatment, to which I responded, ‘I think I would rather have been a journalist than a doctor, and I am only good at medicine because I have been around it so much.’ Sometimes it is like being in the shadow of a ghost or an older sibling; it can feel like you are spending your entire life trying to emulate or outrun them and put your own mark on the world. One of the big problems I have found is the scarcity of people like me. Growing up I had few role models and nobody I could particularly relate to, the only successful disabled people I remember from my childhood were paralympians, whilst I was a keen rider and swimmer and competed in both arenas I never saw myself as sporty, nor did I want to be like them.

In my last term at school, a physiotherapist asked me what I planned to do when I left school. I responded, “I think I’ll be a writer Miss”. She must have been very sceptical. It is the one dream I clung to through everything. Today I am a writer, journalist and sociologist although, not the foreign correspondent, flying off to troubled regions that I might have been. I have to think that on reflection I am, as the late Christopher Reeve said, still me!