Sunday, May 26, 2013

On being a little bit dyslexic

This isn't describing just me, but people in your workplace, in the stores you shop at, your friends and online acquaintances.

For dyslexics, somedays everything goes fine, words get spelt right, sentences are formed logically, right and left behave themselves and comply with the accepted norms, numbers get written in the correct order and everything appears to go smoothly.

Nonetheless, I'm careful to proofread, far more times than usually considered necessary. Have I possibly overlooked an errant apostrophe, snuck in to irritate the lurking grammar nazi, ready to pounce with conclusions that I'm lazy, sloppy or even worse, unreliable and not to be trusted because the apostrophe is either there, or not, as the case may be. What a petty way to bestow the word 'reliable' onto someone!

A good and generally keen, willing student, but with occasional lapses in concentration, is how I suspect I was described at school.

I was lucky, I was mostly taught by competent teachers who knew how to encourage me to give my best. I learnt spelling by carefully paced, sequential instruction, each element building on the one before; there was lots, and I mean LOTS of drill, pulling words apart then putting them together again. I enjoyed prefixes and suffices and learning that English is made up of many different languages which have been absorbed through the ages. I still love words and trying to work out their meanings and where they came from by thinking about the different components.

I benefited from having teachers who were on the whole competent and confident in their ability to teach. Even so, I don't always get it right; when writing by hand, p, b, d and q can be interchanged haphazardly and with a certain flair and originality. Spelling can be problematic at times, and sometimes words simply refuse to co-operate. There can be the sense that something is wrong, but I can't see what, yet at other times I'm oblivious to any error, which can be glaringly obvious to others. (Unfortunately maths was a different story and wasn't as well handled by my teachers. I remember being hit for making errors which isn't a great way to get a child to improve.)

However I didn't have to suffer through an ignorant, antagonistic school system while trying to cope with deeply challenging dyslexia or learning difficulty.  Typically you hear: lazy, poor attention to detail, doesn't try, doesn't care, doesn't listen, scatty, should try harder, deliberately careless or the purely cruel tearing up of a child's work in front of the class whilst making scathing comments about quality and appearance of a project.

Maybe there are some little children who deliberately set out each day to do their worst at school. I've never met one though. Most children I've observed and worked with, want to fit in, want to be part of the crowd, don't choose to be humiliated when they've done their darndest to follow instructions to the best of their ability and it all goes pear shaped. They're the ones my heart bleeds for, they're left confused, perplexed, hurt, crushed ... and too often without hope.

A couple of years ago at puppy training class we were instructed to hold the lead in a particular way. I looked at the instructor, looked at my hands. All fine! Good oh, let's get on with the next bit of the class. But no, something is clearly wrong, everyone is waiting patiently. The instructor repeated the instruction, and demonstrated again. I followed along carefully. Then it dawned of me gradually, painfully, that everyone was looking at me - and I had no idea why.

My ears heard the instruction, my eyes saw what to do, but somewhere along the line, my brain twisted the instruction - I saw my hands do a perfect reflection of what everyone else was doing - yet it apparently wasn't correct and I couldn't see what was wrong. It's a horrible, horrible feeling. I knew I'd done everything right, but from the reactions of the instructor and the rest of the class it was obvious that I hadn't got it right.

Even writing about that public display of incompetence makes me feel awkward and humiliated - who knows how those people were judging me? Were they thinking I was being difficult by insisting on being contrary, or did they just think I was thick by being unable to follow a simple instruction? While in this instance it doesn't really matter, in the workplace this kind of experience can have unintended and unfortunate ramifications and is why many dyslexics remain silent about being dyslexic and take extra care and go over details ad nauseam.

Dyslexia can take many different forms. It can affect writing, reading, mathematics and spatial awareness.  It's not a one size fits all condition. Some days everything can run smoothly, others, particularly when you're tired, it can be hugely challenging and frustrating.

Some time ago, I watched a highly intelligent, competent, dyslexic engineer write down a phone number a caller was reciting to him. He repeated the numbers and wrote the same numbers down but in a completely different order, it was only when he repeated them back and was corrected that the mix up became evident to him. Because he's aware this is a difficulty for him he's fastidious about checking for accuracy.

Helpful signs in Parkes NSW
Is it any wonder that with the prejudice surrounding dyslexia that people are reluctant to share the information - one brilliant Australian university professor was fired when he spoke about how he managed his dyslexia. People have reported being overlooked for promotion and treated as lesser human beings; their intelligence is questioned, it's assumed they can't drive - if you can't read, how can you drive?  People with dyslexia or poor literacy can drive, and drive well. You don't have to spell well to navigate or to understand the meanings of signs. Just ask any person who's driven in a foreign country!

Now here's a gentle plea from me to you. Don't be too quick to judge harshly when someone's spelling or grammar is lacking. Tactful, even good natured humor when pointing out an error is kind and generally welcome; the error can then be corrected with the minimum of fuss and embarrassment.

Give people the benefit of the doubt - dyslexics can have a tough time not only at work, but on line. Spell check is great, but can be painstaking in the cut and thrust of online communication and doesn't always work. Some people have been so hurt by their early school experience that they run a mile when they're openly and harshly criticised in forums. Some don't return. That's sad and further alienates a group of people - who could be our workmates, colleagues, friends and neighbours - who have a lot to offer.

Posted by Sue Travers


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - excellent post about dyslexia .. many well known figures have developed amazing careers, despite being dyslexic - Richard Branson being one that most people will know from the Virgin brands.

It's one thing I've taken from the time spent with my mother and uncle - and try to remember today .. that people we meet - we have no idea what they're going through .. and should give them the benefit of the doubt.

People can be incredibly cruel, and usually in those circumstances aren't thinking properly ...

If I have a problem now - which I don't from dyslexia - I'll often be upfront about it .. and answer criticism of others .. with perhaps they're ill, or can't afford it .. or just plain exhausted ... there's usually a reason.

However your recognition as expressed here .. re your puppy training - I hope you're up front now ... so people understand. I do it in exercise class - I'm not good at co-ordinating til I get it! It relieves me of the pressure, and the teacher who then doesn't try and get me in line - I can just get on as best I can ..

You've said it all .. thanks for such an interesting post .. cheers Hilary

Diana Studer said...

(can I just whisper - your label for this post is ironically dysELxia, but I'm sure Google will compensate)

On blogs or G+, I prefer to take time to get to know the person behind. One of my treasured and regular blogs has gone quiet on me. Emailing yesterday - are you OK? She said, words are being uncooperative, no blogging for now.

Sue Travers said...

Hilary, dyslexics have so much to offer, but there's a lot of prejudice when people can't spell easily. Giving the benefit of the doubt is important, as you say we have no idea what others are grappling with, and it's gracious to look for a possible cause instead of jumping to critical conclusions.

It's not easy to be open, particularly for those who struggle daily - their jobs can be put on the line which is so unfair. I'm now in a position where I can speak out via my blogs and hopefully this will help some others.

Diane - arrrgh :(
I'd never noticed. Hopefully all is well given that within the post it's spelt correctly (I hope!). (Wanders off to kick self then write a post on "Do you bully yourself!)

Getting to know others is wonderful in the world of blogging and being able to say a kind word when things go haywire is great.

Michelle said...

Interesting, and brave post Sue. I had no idea. I often joke at myself about how I get my numbers mixed up. I write things with switched numbers, and then I see my mistake and rectify it, only to discover I did it all over again in the same or different way aaggrr but it's never really caused me a problem, I think I go through spates...and then nothing for a while. Would explain why I never passed the Bank entrance tests ;-)