by Elizabeth Nadler-Nir

Dispelling dyslexia

Dyslexics are often thought to be lazy

Some dyslexics can become succesful

Some dyslexics are simply allergic to school. Years of unsuccessful interaction with educational institutions scar their self-esteem and can result in a lifetime of avoidance of all things 'academic'. At the same time, other dyslexics may go on to become successful entrepreneurs, and some may complete their tertiary education with high academic success. 

Irrespective of the life achievements of dyslexics, however, the disorder never really goes away, even in adulthood. Adults who work successfully in their fields of expertise have assisted in shedding light on dyslexia in adulthood. Arthur, Belinda and Corinne are three 'real experts' who agreed to be interviewed about their journey with dyslexia. 

“I failed up to Standard 5,” says Arthur, a successful graphic designer. “I think Standard 5 was the first year I passed and then I failed Standard 6”. After grade 12, Arthur enrolled at a technical college – and things changed markedly. “I started ... scoring in the 80s, 90s,” he says, adding that probably the teacher at tech “had a lot of these people going through ... So I think (the lecturer) probably put a lot more effort in going through (my work) and seeing that I knew what I was doing ... it wasn’t like I was lazy."

Belinda, who is now a director at a non-profit organisation, felt that she was different. “I knew I was different, but I didn’t really know why,” she says. Her parents were told that she no longer could continue with pre-primary “because they couldn’t cater for my needs.” Belinda was enrolled into a remedial school for a few years, was then placed back into mainstream education during senior primary school, and then managed to complete her matric successfully. After school, during her years at university, she said she was on the dean’s list every year, and she was accepted into the Golden Key Society, which is the top 15%.

So, what is this thing called dyslexia?

Dyslexia is not easy to define, in fact, there are over 70 definitions of dyslexia – most of these definitions describe known symptoms and some theories attempt to explain why these symptoms exist. That is, why some normally intelligent and often bright people have such a hard time learning to read and spell.

This is how Arthur describes what the challenge is: “ a dyslexic person,” he says “I’ve got all the words, but all those words are pictures – they’re not words. So when I’m writing, I’m having a problem retrieving (words).” Arthur can write and “do nice sentence structures, but to actually find the word and put it down ... you have good days and bad days. Some days it’s just gibberish ... I can spell one word 10 times differently.” 

Arthur describes what is known as a problem with phonological processing. He has a problem turning sound into print (what we know as spelling) as well as turning print into sound (that is, pronouncing some words correctly when reading.) 

“I won’t even know what the first letter is,” he says. “I think maybe I don’t know its pronunciation ... (I’ve)  got ... short-term memory (difficulties).” For example, he says, when somebody gives him a telephone number, “I have to say to them, just give it to me in twos because the minute I go on to three numbers … (I can’t remember them). “It is the same with spelling – just give it in twos. If somebody asks me (to) stand up and read, I’m going to be floored ... I read well, but not aloud.”

This is a useful definition of dyslexia:

Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty that mainly affects reading and spelling. Dyslexia is characterised by difficulties in processing word-sounds and by weaknesses in short-term verbal memory; its effects may be seen in spoken language as well as written language.  The current evidence suggests that these difficulties arise from inefficiencies in language-processing areas in the left hemisphere of the brain which, in turn, appear to be linked to genetic differences (phonological processing deficit).

Dyslexia is lifelong, but its effects can be minimised by targeted literacy intervention, technological support and adaptations to ways of working and learning. Dyslexia is not related to intelligence, race or social background. Dyslexia varies in severity and often occurs alongside other specific learning difficulties such as dyspraxia or attention deficit disorder, resulting in variation in the degree and nature of individuals’ strengths and weaknesses.

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Issue 58