In life, I think it is very easy to judge a book by its cover. Many people see me and my story as a success story, and by all means, it is. I am a successful dyslexic, but I am still a dyslexic. Every day I still struggle with various aspects of my dyslexia.
Dyslexia is invisible. Frequent spelling mistakes are the visible symptoms of dyslexia, as are the grammatical and syntactical errors in a dyslexic’s writing and speech. My dyslexia causes me to second guess any form of my written communication because I know there may be errors in something I write that I cannot see (particularly in social media).
I should probably start off by giving a little background on my story.
My name is Dr. Kathryn Garforth. I have a Ph.D. in Learning Disabilities, but more importantly, I have the knowledge you can only gain from personal experience as someone who is severely dyslexic.
To the trained eye, my struggles would have been apparent even in preschool. In fact, my preschool teacher even mentioned something to my parents regarding her concern for my development.
Once I started school, it was obvious that learning to read was not going to be an easy feat. I knew that I was different because most of my peers had no problem understanding how the letters on the page related to words that we speak.
In kindergarten, my difficulties were brushed aside, and my parents were told not to worry because I was a ‘late baby’ (I was born at the end of October) and that I would catch up with my peers.
In the first and second grade, I was always put in the lowest reading group. I was getting pull-out, one-on-one support with the Reading Recovery™ program but did not make any progress.
I was still struggling in the third grade and it was the first time my parents were told that I may have a learning disability. In grade four I was diagnosed with dyslexia.
I was fortunate that my parents were able to pay for private tutoring outside of school. It was through this private tutoring that I began to make some progress in learning to read.
My grade five teacher felt that I was a waste of her time and predicted that I would never finish school. It was obvious to my parents that the public school system had given up on me.
Luckily, my parents knew I was smart and refused to believe I couldn’t learn to read. They also had the ability to send me to a private school specializing in dyslexia. It was at this school that I learned how to read, and more importantly, I learned that I wasn’t stupid, something that my parents were never able to convince me to believe. Finally, I was given hope that I could overcome my learning disabilities.
There were more than a few bumps along the road, but I learned how to read and what strategies I needed to use to support my learning.
I made it through high school, a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, a Bachelor of Education, a Master of Arts in Special Education and a Doctor of Philosophy in Learning Disabilities. I don’t think there are many people who would argue with me when I say that my story is a story of success.
There are some people who would say that I am cured, or that I never really could have been dyslexic after all. It is something that I have heard before and I am sure that I will hear again. Every time I hear it, it hurts.
The outside world doesn’t see how hard I have worked to get where I am. They don’t understand how much effort is needed and how long it takes for me to read a research article, or a book in order for me to comprehend what I have read.
They don’t realize that before I publish a blog post or any form of communication that I have to have it proofread. The first drafts of my writing are riddled with spelling, punctuation, grammar and syntax errors. This does not mean that I am not an expert in my field, it means that I am dyslexic.
They don’t think about how my dyslexia has shaped my career path. When I first started university, I had a double major in Drama and Computer Science. I had to drop the Drama because there is no way I could keep up with the required readings for the course work. I wasn’t cast in any of the school productions, not because of my acting ability, but because I couldn’t do the dry reads required for the auditions.
When I was finishing up Computer Science, I realized that even though conceptually I could do it, my dyslexia made it difficult and I would get frustrated doing this as a profession. My biggest problem was debugging my programs because I could not recognize the errors within the code. I can vividly remember spending hours going through code looking for the bug and not being able to identify a simple spelling error in one of the variable names.
I then decided to follow my passion for education. I struggled during my Bachelor of Education program because I had to do a full course load. Completing all the readings was challenging and exhausting. During my practicums, my sponsor teachers commented on my spelling errors and mentioned how it wasn’t a good model for the students. Also, it wasn’t considered professional in my written communication with parents.
These issues made me question whether being a classroom teacher was really the right choice for me, so I decided to pursue a master’s degree.
Again, in the master’s program, I struggled to keep up with the assigned reading for my classes. When I turned in written assignments, I would frequently get comments on my work suggesting that I create a draft before writing and that I have someone edit my work before turning it in. They didn’t realize I had worked off an outline and already had someone proofread my work.
During my Ph.D. I faced similar challenges. When I was preparing my dissertation, I asked the Faculty of Graduate Studies if they could recommend an editor to proofread my dissertation. They suggested that if I hired an editor it might be viewed as cheating. Instead, they suggested that I hire a tutor to teach me how to proofread the material myself. I explained that I had already gone through extensive tutoring to try and learn these skills, but that I still needed assistance to identify mistakes not picked up by computer checks due to my severe dyslexia.
I had originally wanted to earn additional accreditations during my program so I could be a licensed school psychologist. This would have allowed me to formally diagnose individuals with learning disabilities. Although I completed almost all the course work for this, I eventually decided against this because in reality, I would have required an editor to proofread my reports before I sent them out. Having an editor reading every one of my reports would be expensive, and a potential breach of confidentiality.
When I started my Ph.D., I had dreams of becoming a tenured professor at a top-ranking university. However, once again the realities of my dyslexia began to sink in. How would I manage in a profession that is ‘publish or perish’ when academic writing was not my strong point?
I realized the amount of reading I would need to do to keep up to date with all the latest literature in the field would consume all of my time. Not to mention the time I would need to prepare for teaching several courses, grade assignments, and the other obligations I would have to fulfill for a potential university appointment.
Ultimately, I decided the best job for me was to use my dyslexic gift. Throughout my life, I have been an advocate for individuals with dyslexia at various levels. I have provided support to families and individuals with dyslexia and other learning disorders since I was in high school.
Many people have told me that I have a gift in explaining how individuals with learning disabilities learn. I have chosen to use this gift by supporting individuals, families and educators with their understanding of learning disabilities. That is why I created this blog, why I work privately with families, and provide professional development.
I cannot control other people’s judgment of my language errors that are part of my disability. I can only control how I react to adverse comments. Sometimes it still hurts. Even though I was told I couldn’t at a very formative time in my life, I did finish high school and went on to earn four degrees. My accomplishments and insights allow me to say that ‘I am successful dyslexic.’
My life goals include helping others with learning disabilities learn to accept themselves and strive to learn and achieve to their own fullest potential. I hope to inspire their families and educational professionals to understand and learn how to help children with dyslexia learn how to learn.
The point that I am trying to make is that learning disabilities are a very real part of many people’s lives. With the right support, all dyslexics can be given the basic human right of learning to read. Education systems around the world need to so that students get this support starting from an early age, when interventions are most effective and successful.