I have always been an avid reader.
My childhood is filled with memories of my nose in a book – historical and science fiction mostly, though I have broadened my reading horizons as I have gotten older.
When I got married more than three decades ago, my husband told me he was dyslexic, never reading novels because he can’t read fast enough to follow the plot. However, he’s a retired environmental engineer who is close to a doctorate in soil physics, so he is constantly reading professional journal articles. He never complains about his dyslexia.
I never really thought about whether he struggled with reading because he’s always reading.
Then my youngest daughter was diagnosed with dyslexia after second grade. She was in special programs in elementary and middle school to help with reading comprehension, and she never complained. She now has associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
I never really thought about how much she struggled with reading.
Enter the private school Vertical Skills Academy in Bergen Park. The school, which opened in 2014 — the year my daughter graduated from Evergreen High School — specializes in working with children with dyslexia. Twice a year, the school hosts an open house along with a two-hour seminar on what it’s like to be dyslexic. I decided to go, and I am now much more aware of the challenges my husband and daughter and millions of others have faced all their lives.
Dyslexia is more common that we might think. Depending on which organization you ask, between one in 10 and one in five people in the world is on the dyslexia spectrum from very mild issues to having more profound reading difficulties.
Those who went through the training with me — parents, members of the school’s board of directors and other interested folks — called the training eye-opening, one that helps them be more empathetic to the challenges those with dyslexia face every day.
According to the International Dyslexia Association, dyslexia is a learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It’s not an eye problem. Simply put, it’s when people may not see the correct letters or words, which makes it super difficult to read and understand what they have read. It is not just seeing words backward, which seems to be the perception by some.
When our schools expect students to read to learn — and when it’s nearly impossible to comprehend — our children who are dyslexic are set up for failure.
You can talk about dyslexia all you want, but seeing is believing.
To explain what it’s like to be dyslexic, Christine Riedlin, a Vertical Skills Academy teacher, put the group through five simulations.
We were tasked to read a paragraph to ourselves where the i’s could be i’s or e’s and the p’s could be p’s or t’s. Then we read a paragraph out loud to the rest of the group with the same rules. Figuring out a single word was a victory.
So “spriss” was actually “stress.” We all felt that stress. This was HARD!
Riedlin asked us to write sentences with our non-dominant hand, a task that takes so much extra thought. Then I performed a demonstration: Walk three steps toe to heel, stop and pat your head, then do it again. When I finally walked to the teacher, I was supposed to talk about what I cooked for dinner the night before. Who has time to think about what I cooked for dinner when I’m trying to walk and pat my head?
Riedlin used the demonstration to show how people with dyslexia spell and write.
A student who wants to write about how the Grand Canyon is a magnificent place will change it to the Grand Canyon is big just because it’s easier to spell and write.
“If you have to think about how words are formed,” she explained, “it has an impact on how you write a sentence, so their sentences look more elementary. They work so hard on the mechanics such as spelling that they don’t think much about the content.”
All of this is multitasking on steroids, so exhausting, and something people with dyslexia can face daily as they try to figure out words and comprehend them.
For children with dyslexia in a classroom full of students who don’t have those issues, they feel inadequate because they can’t read or comprehend the written word like the others. Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence.
Riedlin advocated for teachers getting more training about dyslexia and remediations, especially when so many children are dyslexic — something that isn’t happening enough.
I left the seminar with profound empathy, not just for my husband and daughter, but for everyone who doesn’t learn using traditional methods. This seminar gave me the opportunity to walk in other people’s shoes — those of my husband and daughter — and I am grateful.
While I can’t cure their dyslexia, at least I can understand it better.
Deb Hurley Brobst is a Community Editor at the Canyon Courier. She can be reached at email@example.com.