We’ve been talking about stories, so here’s the story of a friend. It illustrates perfectly some of the challenges dyslexic people face in the current educational system. It also shows the huge impact our view of ‘dyslexia’ can have on how we see other people.
Our friend was highly verbal and curious as a child, so her parents thought she would love school. Instead, they were shocked to discover at her first parent-teacher conference that her teachers thought her basically unable to learn. “I was doing so bad that the teachers were telling my parents, ‘She’s basically retarded.’”
This is how she recalls her first years in school. “I so vividly remember as a child my experience of not being able to read. Having no idea what was going on in class. Always being behind. Never getting any stickers on my paper. Just the worst student. Looking at an exam not knowing how to read and just sitting there twiddling my pencil, and seeing all these people around me writing and having no idea what’s going on. I just knew that I could never keep up, that I never understood what was going on.”
She struggled this way for 2 years before finally being tested and identified as dyslexic. She began to get appropriate instruction in a specialty private school, but her progress was slow. After 2 years her parents could no longer afford the high tuition and she had to return to public school.
Because her reading and math skills were still well behind grade level, she was placed in special education. Unfortunately, instead of receiving specialized instruction she spent the day in a chaotic environment surrounded by children with severe emotional, behavioral, and cognitive disabilities. Two decades later she seemed almost in shock as she described those years for us: “I look back now and I wonder, ‘How did I have the endurance to even keep going?’”
After two years it became obvious that she couldn’t go on much longer, so her parents found a way to get her back into a private school. Although the classroom instruction wasn’t a great fit for a child who learned best by talking and doing rather than sitting and listening, she benefitted by the greater flexibility for accommodations. She slowly discovered how she learned best, and found ways to improve her performance. She eventually got into college, and had the foresight to select a school with an excellent student accessibility and support service.
Once in college she was finally able to take small classes that allowed lots of discussion and focused on topics she enjoyed. She began to thrive as a student. She also became active in student affairs and became a recognized leader on campus. She was even selected by her fellow students to give the commencement address at graduation.
Over the next few years she held a series of jobs and was found to have incredible talents as a negotiator and strategist. Through some amazing circumstances that she’ll discuss later this year when she presents at our annual conference, six years after graduating from college she was admitted to Harvard Business School.
Now, there are lots of things we could say about her experience (and lots we’ve left out), but for now here are two key points.
First, at no point in her early years of schooling did her schoolwork give any indication she was future Harvard Business School material. As we’ve often discussed, dyslexic talents are usually late blooming. That’s why we chose the image of the butterfly for our logo: the mature ‘butterfly’ talents are often hard to see in the childhood ‘caterpillar’ stage. [In upcoming posts we’ll discuss some of the signs you can often see if you know how to look.]
Second, consider her thoughts on how her change in fortunes affected the way other people regarded her: “It was amazing! I had always been thought of as basically this kid with learning disabilities who could still do a few things well. Now, suddenly, I was a grad student at HBS, which meant I was really a smart person, even though I also happened to have some challenges. But the core part, the real me, was SMART!”
The difference in how her teachers viewed her was particularly stark. Before she’d often sensed an attitude of, “How are you ever going to get by with all your problems—I don’t know how you’re going to make it.” Now the attitude was, “We know you must be a super smart and capable person because you’re a Harvard Business Student! So we’re totally committed to doing whatever we need to so you can get around these challenges.”
Consider for a moment what this story says about the importance of our ‘paradigm’ of dyslexia—that is, about how we view the core identity of individuals with dyslexia. All through her early years of school, our friend’s core identity was ‘learning disabled, but with a few strengths’. At Harvard, it was ‘smart, but with some focal challenges’.
So what changed? Only perception: the way others viewed what was central, and what was secondary.
In other words, we hold a strength paradigm. We believe that strengths are what the dyslexic mind should be known for. That’s why our vision at Dyslexic Advantage is, A world where people with dyslexia are known for their strengths.
If you haven’t read the post where we explain the Dyslexic Advantage Vision in detail it can be found here. Over the coming weeks we’ll say much more about the core strengths of the dyslexic mind, and how you can spot them in younger learners. We’ll also be asking for your help with surveys on how to identify these dyslexic strengths. So please check back often.