My Dyslexia Is Not Just a Reading Disability
I have never been one to hide my disabilities. Within 10 minutes of meeting me, you will probably learn I am dyslexic. Dyslexia has given me many, many gifts; however, it’s also something I have struggled with. One of the reasons dyslexia is so hard to deal with is because it has a stereotype that only my reading is affected. This isn’t true at all, though. My language, motor skills, comprehension, and memory are affected just as much as my reading.
Dyslexia is a language disability. I have a hard time deciphering phonemes (hence why I thought three, tree, and free were all pronounced the same until my second grade special education teacher corrected me). My dyslexia is pretty severe, and here’s what it’s really like.
It took me until fourth grade to realize that the “pa-” in Pacific Ocean wasn’t pronounced as “spa-” as in “specific ocean.” I still have a lot of difficulty in differentiating between b and v, and th and f. I may struggle to pronounce your name, especially if it stems from a language other than English and has difficult phonemes. I swear I’m not trying to be culturally insensitive; I honestly just have no idea what phonemes I’m hearing, because they all sound so similar to each other. Like the name “Fatima,” I will probably think you are saying “Vateema” or maybe even something completely different.
Sounding out words is probably one of the hardest things to do, because I can’t connect the phonemes to letters. I usually read words as if they were pictures, which really helps with reading to myself. The second I have to read out loud though, it becomes challenging, because those words have to be translated into sound instead of just associating the word as a picture. I try to avoid public speaking at all costs because of this, and it’s a huge insecurity of mine. Honestly, it’s hard to keep up in conversations with people because words in general are just unnatural.
I describe how dyslexia affects my language abilities like this: You are in a foreign country with a language completely different from your native language. Everyone in that country, however, expects you to be fluent in this foreign language despite the fact you are only conversational in said language. In your native language, your comprehension is above average and you are incredibly intelligent, but since you have a hard time expressing yourself in this foreign language, everyone assumes you are unintelligent and don’t understand how you have such little comprehension in this foreign tongue. This leads you to develop things like social anxiety and depression because you feel as if you’ll never be able to correctly express yourself to these people around you. That’s what written and spoken language is like to me, a foreign language. I think in pictures, even the most abstract ideas. Whenever I have to have a conservation with someone, I think of what I want to say in picture form, and then I translate it to words.
My internal dialogue is very minimal, so it takes a lot to type out these long posts I write. (Honestly, it’s the closest thing I get to being a writer.) Even with abstract and philosophical ideas, I think in pictures. If I want to really have an internal dialogue, I have to talk out loud, which I got made fun of for in elementary school a lot. So now I have learned to go to my room, which honestly kind of sucks because it means I can’t problem solve as efficiently on the spot. Also, since English doesn’t come naturally for me, neither does any other language. I’ve tried for years to learn French, seven years actually. I took six years of Spanish. I can’t pronounce the words, I can’t spell the words, and accents and which way they go confuse me.
My reading is also affected: words disappear, reappear, change, increasing spacing, space incorrectly, and a bunch of other stuff. Like today I saw “Letter Template” on a piece of paper, thought it said my name “Leslie Templeton” and was really confused for a good five minutes. “B,” “d,” “p” and “q” are my least favorite letters in the alphabet because I have no clue why anyone thought, “Hey! Let’s make letters look literally the same but in different directions!” Why? Why do you make reading so hard. “V,” “y” and “u” are not as bad but suck just as much; if I got a nickel every time I saw the word “surveyed” as “survived,” I could pay for my college tuition up front. I have a hard time reading the notes I take in class, especially with professors who rush through material or jump between topics a lot.
My dyslexia makes it difficult to understand sequencing and directionality. I don’t know left/right and up/down take me a second to process; also now/then, here/there, before/after, and so on really confuse me. With the inability to understand directionality and instructions with ease, things like tying my shoes and holding a pencil correctly are extremely hard.
It also affects my ability to do something in a mirror. Due to my issues with directionality, I get really confused which way to move my hands if I’m looking in the mirror, or what side I’m looking at compared to my actual position. Each year I get better at it, but I still have trouble. Reading an analog clock? Yeah no way, doubt I’ll ever be able to do that. It doesn’t make sense, and don’t try to explain it to me, you’ll be wasting your breath.
Dyslexia affects my memory. ADHD has this effect too. If you know me well, you know I lose things a lot, get lost, lose my train of thought mid-sentence, forget about assignments/meetings, and so forth. Memorizing for tests is easy, but remembering my I.D.? For some reason, it just doesn’t click. Names are the worst because I can’t even picture them visually. I usually memorize words as pictures and that’s how I learn them, but often I only hear names. I usually end up calling someone by a name I think fits them for some reason.
And last but not least, I don’t think in words. I’ve learned to completely think in pictures. My internal dialogue is very minimal, so it takes a lot to type out these long posts I write. (Honestly, it’s the closest thing I get to being a writer.) Even with abstract and philosophical ideas, I think in pictures. If I want to have an internal dialogue, I have to talk out loud, which I got made fun of for in elementary school a lot. I have learned to go to my room, which honestly kind of sucks because it means I can’t problem solve as efficiently on the spot. Also, English doesn’t come naturally for me; neither does any other language. I’ve tried for years to learn French, seven years actually. I took six years of Spanish. I can’t pronounce the words, I can’t spell the words, and accents and which way they go confuse me.
This is dyslexia, my dyslexia. Please stop explaining my dyslexia to me when I share it, or immediately ask me to read something, or say “so you see stuff backwards.” Nothing is wrong with my sight or hearing, it’s my auditory processing and issues with my underdeveloped brain areas — my Wernicke’s and Broca’s area, and little connection between the two, amongst other things.
Stereotyping a disability can be harmful to the individuals who have the disability. One may think they know what a disability is, but honestly, unless you have done your research and have the disability yourself, odds are you have no idea. When we reduce disabilities to one element, such as dyslexia and reading, we only help some people and miss addressing challenges others face. Everyone will have different symptoms, so even if you have the disability, it doesn’t make you an expert. We need to listen to our disabled students, peers, and loved ones, instead of assuming we know what they go through. Only then can we truly support them.
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Thinkstock photo by Marjan Apostolovic.