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I can’t read an analogue clock; I don’t know my left and right, my times tables or the order of the months in the year. I lose track when counting, I can’t spell ‘fire’, ‘because’, ‘clever’ or almost anything with a double consonant (turns out I can’t spell ‘double’ or ‘consonant’ either; thank Les Earnest for spell check) but I am in my final year of my Master’s in Physics and my writing life is going pretty well. I am, as they say, a high-functioning dyslexic.
Mine is a happy story. I was born to parents with resources and know-how (my mother is a clinical psychologist who works in child development), at a time when people were beginning to realise that dyslexia is associated with strengths of higher cognitive and linguistic functioning, reasoning, conceptual abilities, and problem-solving. I was diagnosed early and was able to learn techniques for disguising or combatting my specific difficulties. However, the truth is that outside of my little Eden, dyslexia goes undiagnosed, misunderstood and ostracised.
‘Dyslexia’ is a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence. It is a specific learning disability. Unfortunately, the specific skills that it affects are the same skills that we use to assess intelligence and learning in young children i.e. spelling, reading, arithmetic, following instructions, remembering sequences or nursery rhymes, recognising groups of words that rhyme or share common sounds, copying things down, and so on. (I still can’t do long division. I can’t even take seven from ten to get three unless I stop and squint for a moment. I never would have passed an exam at university without my calculator, which, by the way, I use more slowly than other people because I can’t learn where the different buttons are.) These difficulties are the result of ‘processing breakdowns’ which in layman’s terms means that the way your brain is wired won’t allow you to perform a task using the simple methods that a ‘normal’ brain would. You find yourself stuck with no idea how to process the information that everyone around you is merrily ploughing through. To me, when I’m working on a physics question that requires algebra, reasoning and integrating information and I suddenly hit the bit where I need to find 4 squared (it’s 16, by the way) or 12/3 (it’s 4), it’s as though my brain suddenly shuts down.
Why is that any different from anyone else? We all have things that we are useless at, right? But the particular barb of something like dyslexia is the huge discrepancy between how well a student performs a specific task (please read this section aloud to the class) and their overall intellectual capabilities. The reason that this matters in an academic setting is that specific learning difficulties can prevent someone from performing well in an assessment designed to assess higher-level thinking. I took the Australian Maths Competition tests every year at high school. The questions supposedly increase in difficulty as you go along, but, although my overall score was always high, I would get most of the questions in the first two sections wrong. Basic arithmetic is a bitch.
Dyslexic students have to endure being repeatedly misrepresented by their test results because they are assessed in ways that disadvantage them. That’s why it can be so hurtful when other students challenge the assistance that some dyslexic students are given, such as reader/writers, extra time, or calculators, which are provided by Disability Services at Vic to those who need them to get through exams. The idea is that there is no reason why not being able to read a question quickly should prevent you from getting a degree in Computer Sciences if you understand computer science. Before you neuro-normal chaps drop a comment like “I could have got an A too if I’d had an extra half-hour”, consider whether you would like a processing breakdown to go with that half hour.
Beautiful things are happening these days in neurodiversity. There are organisations like the Yale Centre for Dyslexia & Creativity, whose mission is “to uncover and illuminate the strengths of those with dyslexia, disseminate information, practical advice, and the latest innovations from scientific research, and transform the lives of children and adults with dyslexia”. The UK’s Government Communications Headquarters employs 120 neuro-diverse intelligence officers who are relied on for their “dispassionate, logical and analytical” approaches. More than 100 of those are dyslexic and dyspraxic. But it was only in April 2007, after much hard work by the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, that the New Zealand Government finally recognised dyslexia. Before then, the education system didn’t even recognise that dyslexia was a thing, let alone take steps to accommodate dyslexics.
The point is, dyslexia shouldn’t be defined in terms of what it stops you from doing easily; rather, dyslexics need to be recognised as a group of people whose brains work differently. To finish, here is a quick list of famous dyslexics to convince you that society has something to gain by exploiting our intellectual queerness: Lewis Carroll, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, John Lennon, Don Mullan, Pablo Picasso, Louis Rosenberg, Jules Verne, Lee Kuan Yew, Benjamin Zephaniah, and Galileo Galilee.
By the way, the words in bold are the ones I spelt incorrectly as I wrote.
Ruth Corkill is studying towards her Master’s in Physics at Victoria University of Wellington. Her work has recently appeared or is upcoming in New Welsh Review, Poetry24, Tuesday Poem, The Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology, The Dominion Post, Hue & Cry, The Listener, Jaam, and Landfall.