1.2: How it feels

What does it feel like to have dyslexia?

See and hear Elena talking about her dyslexia.

Next Alessandro talks about his difficulties in reading and maths.

Without early recognition, pupils with dyslexia may risk continuous failure at school. They lose morale as their own efforts do not yield results whilst they see their classmates improving. 

The lasting impact of this loss of self-esteem and self-worth should not be underestimated.  Whilst research in self-esteem yields ambivalent results, research on Academic Self-Concept (ASC) consistently evidences negative experiences and outcomes in this population.

Students with dyslexia feel defeated by the education process and are unlikely to go on to further training. They may face challenges finding and maintaining a job. In some instances, they become marginalized, cannot integrate into society and get involved in anti-social behaviour.

The famous English poet Benjamin Zephania (1958- ) has severe dyslexia. He narrates how he dropped out of school because he was not taught to read and write in a way in which he could learn:

…the teacher would say to me: “Okay, you can’t read and write, and maybe you can’t do maths, but you’re a great footballer – go and do football practice” … because I was expected to be good at something physical, but not expected to be good at something intellectual. 

They thought that they were doing me a favour … but really it didn’t do me any good. I would write my own things down, in my own way, and then I couldn’t read it back and the teacher would say: “But you just wrote it, how come you can’t read it back?”, and if you don’t have a word … like dyslexia, dyslexic to describe what’s going through you, you just sit there and you really do believe you’re dumb … When I got home I wouldn’t try and improve – homework meant nothing to me – why do homework? Play football! 

… Now teachers who told me that I was going to be a born failure come to my poetry readings … I left school at the age of thirteen and then got in trouble with the police and went to approved school. 

“Approved school” – the name is very misleading … there was no school at all, and so in fact by the time I was twenty I could not read and write. But I still managed to create a book; I always say “create a book”, because I didn’t actually write it, I dictated it to somebody and somebody wrote it for me.

Benjamin Zephania

Elena describes the consequences of her dyslexia: how her relationships with fellow pupils were affected, and her loss of self-confidence affected her. She had to work twice as hard and was regarded as stupid and humiliated.

ACTIVITY 1

Eric Woehrling is a student with dyslexia who only managed his dyslexia after a long and dispiriting struggle at school.

His learning needs were not fully understood but he did have the support of mentors, in his case his parents and eventually some of his teachers. who recognised his giftedness. With his self-confidence safe-guarded, he was ultimately able to win through. 

He graduated from the University of Cambridge, UK, and went on to read his doctorate at the University of Liverpool, UK. He achieved his goal and is now a financial analyst.

Read his testimony from and discuss with your course partner: 

I have suffered throughout my schooldays as a result of dyslexia, but I have slowly learned to cope with it to the point where I recently got the job I always wanted.

Yet dyslexia does not go away. It keeps cropping up in odd ways. I had re-read my Ph.D before the oral examination, and detected hundreds of mistakes.

Dyslexia is hard to define as it covers a lot more than inverting words or having trouble reading.

Although dyslexic, I had no trouble with reading and writing but I persistently misspelled certain words.

My problem was that I couldn’t do things like understanding time-tables, reading maps or remembering directions.

On my first day at school in Brussels, our first lesson was Maths with our form teacher, who gave us the time-table for the year. I inexplicably assumed that Maths would be the first lesson of every day of the week. I was, partly as a result of this, late for every lesson every day of the first week and frequently for the rest of my school days. Once the teacher had to send a search-party for me.

What hurt me was the fact that my interpretation of the time-table was not illogical, although it was certainly strange; it was just that everyone else automatically knew what rules to follow and I didn’t.

Dyslexia often leaves you feeling exposed in this way, like a soldier on parade who turns left when the rest of the regiment is turning right.

In my case, turning up late was a ritual the whole class looked forward to and my disconsolate entry would, perhaps understandably, elicit waves of hysterical laughter.

Those and other related difficulties made me into a figure of fun with my peers, and frequently played havoc with my school work, thus preventing me from achieving my potential. It all seemed so unfair because there was never anything fundamentally irrational about what I was doing; I consequently felt resentful and humiliated much of the time. Today, when I make mistakes similar to those I made in those days, I can feel the frustration well up purely because of the associations raised.

This leads to an important point. Though spelling and timetables are often arbitrary, they are essential to life in society.

Dyslexics must also learn to accept the conventions of society as their own, and to understand that these are not mere trivialities. To want to invent your own ways of doing things is to isolate yourself.

To the harsh teacher, who will dismiss a beautiful essay because it is full of dyslexic mistakes, we can retort, as the saying goes, ‘the spirit brings life but the letter kills’; but to the dyslexic who cannot see the point of spelling (and I am thinking mostly of my former self here) I would say that without the letter the spirit is just a lot of air.

Dyslexics should be confident that they have something of value to say even if it does not always conform to linguistic and other lexical conventions, but they should still learn to accept those conventions and, as it were, make their peace with the world.

In coping with dyslexia you are absolutely dependent on others and absolutely dependent on yourself at the same time. I was lucky to have parents who supported me – I also had great teachers who were able to recognise some value hidden in my chaos, but were also consistently able to criticise and help me identify those weaknesses which prevented the value from revealing itself.

At the same time, as I say, you are absolutely responsible for yourself. The most important element is self-belief, because for years you can make efforts to improve yourself and get no results or recognition. It is very easy to give up then, and you have to keep believing it will come right.

The second element is ambition. You have to be willing to sacrifice and make efforts to make yourself a success. The cliché of ‘going that extra mile’ hits the mark here. Once you have, say, made your paper 95% error-free, you have to be willing to stay up an extra hour to make it 96% error-free, and then keep working until it is perfect. Whether it was in re-reading my job application forms or the final chapter of my thesis, going the extra mile has meant the difference between success and failure for me.

Eric Woehrling

With your course partner, discuss and try to answer the following two questions:

1) Bearing in mind our definition of dyslexia, and comparing him to Elena and Alessandro, what strikes you as the single most noticeable aspect of Eric’s condition?

In fact Eric says he had no problems with reading and writing, but only with spelling! His major problem seemed to be related to organization in space and time.

On the other hand, Elena and Alessandro mentioned great difficulties with reading and writing, but did not talk about difficulties with the processing of timetables, and spatial or temporal information.

Note however that reading and writing performance cannot be solely defined, and measured, in terms of accuracy, but also needs to take into account speed or fluency. Because dyslexia always involves some difficulties with the accurate and/or fast processing of the written language, it is very likely that, although Eric could read and write with few or even no mistakes, he was probably slower at these tasks than people without dyslexia.

These three testimonies clearly show the multi-faceted nature of dyslexia which is manifested in different ways in different people.

2) In the later part of the testimony, what comes out most clearly as necessary in order to be able to overcome dyslexia and succeed, according to Eric?

What strikes us is that Eric mentions two things that people with dyslexia should develop and cultivate in order to cope with their condition:

  • They need to be supported, as Eric was by his parents and by some of his teachers but, at the same time, they need to have self-belief because in many cases they will not receive recognition nor even get results despite their efforts.

  • They need to develop ambition and determination because for most of the time they will have to make extra efforts with at least some of the tasks involving the written language.