I am dyslexic
* Updated for 2022
If you don’t know that I am dyslexic, you really don’t know anything about me. That would not be your fault, I have spent most of my life trying to hide the fact that I am dyslexic. In fact, I used treat my ability to hide my dyslexia as a measure of how well I had overcome it. But mostly I hid for the same reason people always hide, for fear of exposure. Years of bitter experience at school and in the workforce had taught me that if you have a learning disability, many people think you are stupid. Some of those who don’t think you are stupid think that you are just lazy or a liar instead.
I began my academic career in 2004 as Visiting Assistant Professor at Northwestern Law School. I took a tenure-track position at DePaul in 2006 and realized as soon as I placed an article in the California Law Review in 2008 that I would have no trouble meeting the tenure standard at my school. Even after I placed another article in a top ten journal a few months later, I still worried that if my colleagues realized that I was dyslexic they would hold it against me when it came to tenure and promotion.
These concerns might sound paranoid, but I know other people in the academy who feel or felt the same way in similar situations. You might think that these fears are uncharitable to my colleagues, but I feared their ignorance more than their malice. When I became a tenured full professor I really did (mostly) stop worrying about what people thought. More importantly, I hope that by sharing my experiences I might offer encouragement to others coping with learning disabilities and help change attitudes towards dyslexia.
Reading with dyslexia
Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with learning to read fluently and with accurate comprehension despite normal intelligence. American Academy of Pediatrics “Joint Statement—Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision” 124 Pediatrics 837 (2009)
Dyslexia can mean a lot of different things. The term is used as an umbrella term for a combination of auditory, visual and attentional disorders that manifest as learning disabilities. I can’t say what it means in general to be dyslexic, I can only say what it means to me.
My type of dyslexia is visual/attentional, but mostly visual. When you look at worlds on a page, chances are that you see words on a page. Until I was 30 I had 20/20 vision, so I see the words too – but I don’t really see them. For some reason I just don’t process combinations of letters very well. I see what you see, but what I see is not very stable. The word reversals and word skipping associated with dyslexia seem to be the result of a software failure in the brain, rather than a hardware failure in the eyes. [Although the instability is more of a hardware issue than I had previously understood.]
Some common illustrations on the Internet can give you some idea of what a dyslexic might see, but they are not exactly right either. (These two are from the Irlen website)
The best way I can explain it is that when I read a word, I can only process two or three letters at a time. A word like “detection” becomes
de – et – te – ct – ti -io – n
But I compensate by sort of flitting over the words so “detection” might actually be more like
det – [bla] [bla] [some kind of tall letter] [bla] – ion
Defection! That sounds like an interesting book, … why is it all about detective stories?
It took me a long time to learn to read. When I was in first grade (age 5) I would chose my books for quiet reading time on the basis of which ones had the most pictures. I would figure out one or two words per page and then just make up the rest of the story. Even when I supposed to read out loud I found that making things up was pretty good substitute for actually reading.
All through primary school, my reading age lagged my actual age by two or three years. This confused my teachers because I seemed to have “normal intelligence” and my vocabulary was quite strong. I did the usual range of remedial exercises and vision therapy (this mostly involved crossing my eyes and making red and green circles come together). These things helped a bit but I still read poorly, and only when forced. [I recently did some more vision therapy and found it quite helpful. I had not realized how much vision had destabilized since I was a teenager, but it still was not the cure that some hold it out to be.]
In year seven, thanks to the loving tyranny of the diminutive Mrs. Johnson, I realized that I had to start reading. The first book I read was Battlestar Galactica, not a literary masterpiece but easy to follow since I had already seen all the TV episodes more than once. I spent weeks reading Battlestar Galactica at the glacial pace of about 10 pages an hour. After that I very slowly worked my way through my older brother’s sci-fi collection. I loved the escapism, but reading gave me a kind of dull headache and left me exhausted.
Reading in color
In year eight (the first year of high school in Australia) my English teacher told me that my written work showed that I was either stupid or lazy. He then explained that he could see (I am not exactly sure how) that I was not lazy and that he knew from my standardized testing (I was always good at multiple choice tests) that I was not stupid. My new school’s special education teacher referred my on to a psychologist who tested me for “scotopic sensitivity syndrome” also known as Irlen syndrome. The psychologist ran me through a battery of tests and then we spent about two hours trying different colored lenses while doing yet more tests to see which color worked best for me.
Reading with colored lenses was, and remains, a totally different experience. I began to read much more quickly and without headaches. By year 11 I had transformed from a C student in everything but math to an A student. Colored lenses have not cured my dyslexia, but they make it manageable. I still have a shorter than average span of visual focus and words still tend to swim around on the page, but now it is more like
de – et – te – ct – ti -io – n
How do colored lenses help? Do they really help at all?
This is very difficult to explain. Irlen syndrome and the associate Irlen colored lenses are controversial. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement—Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision”
“Most experts agree that dyslexia is a language based disorder. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or tinted lenses.”
There are studies showing the effectiveness of colored lenses, but the American Academy of Pediatrics does not think that much of them. On the other hand, I have my doubts about the American Academy of Pediatrics. I wear non-tinted lenses for social activities that don’t involve reading. When I forget to change back to my tinted lenses all my old symptoms come back. This is as close to proof as you can get that colored lenses work for me and that this is not just a placebo effect. On the other hand, it also seems clear that these lenses don’t work for everyone. Likewise, vision therapy is great for some people, but again, may not work for everyone.
What is it like to be dyslexic?
People who know me now think of me as confident, perhaps even a little brash. I did well at university and as a lawyer, but have only really excelled as an academic. I have published in Nature and many of the top U.S. law reviews (California, Northwestern, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Iowa, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, …) and I receive great teaching evaluations. So, yes, I am fairly self-confident — though not confident enough to leave these achievements unstated.
I have not always been so self-assured. For most of the time I was in school I my greatest intellectual aspiration was to be normal or average. I told myself that I was average and that it was just my dyslexia that held me back. For a long time this anchored my self perception, to the extent that when I started excelling in high school I wondered why 95% of my classmates were below average. I did not know about Bayesian inference then. When my sister told me that I would never get the grades to get into law school I resented her because even though I was determined to prove her wrong, I also thought deep down that she was right.
Being dyslexic means being misunderstood, dismissed and underestimated. I was almost held back at the end of third grade. I failed the recorder in year 8. I always did poorly in English when it was graded on in class exams and then I was accused of cheating when I handed in high quality short stories and essays that my mother typed for me. [Thanks mum!]
My grade seven teacher asked me once, how do you expect to get a job if you can’t spell? I had just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation where one of the characters dictated into her screen and the words appeared in her own handwriting, so I pronounced that by the time I entered the workforce computers would spell for us. It actually only took until I was in year 12. I love words and I love language, but if not for spell check I probably would have become an accountant.
I am still a terrible speller, especially when writing by hand. Spell-check has made my life possible, but even without it, there is something about the muscle memory of typing that works better than the fine-motor skills required for handwriting. My spelling embarrasses me. Even today, I will do almost anything to avoid letting other people see my handwriting. If I have to write a card I usually type it on my computer and then carefully check each word.
When I write on the whiteboard in class I know that my students can see how poorly I spell and that I often write words out of sequence and then add in the missing letters. This used to be excruciating (a word I would never try to write on the whiteboard), but I try to think of it as a demonstration of how amazing I must be to be a successful law professor with this kind of spelling ability.
Proud to be dyslexic
Not all differences are defects.
I grew up thinking of dyslexia as a problem to be overcome, a disability that was holding me back. It took me a while to realize that dyslexia is also a gift. I am a bad speller and my attention to detail is inconsistent. On the other hand, I am a great problem solver and and excellent generalizer. I can grasp general patterns based on what seems like insufficient data to most people. I am usually the first person in a movie theatre to get the joke. I also have great listening skills. When I was 26 I moved to the United States and studied for the California bar exam purely by listening to audio tapes from a cramming course. Life with dyslexia is an obstacle course — it is frustrating at times, but there are benefits if you can learn when to avoid and when to overcome. Dyslexia has made me creative and resourceful; it has also pushed me into a career path where these faculties are valued more than penmanship and spelling.
There are lists of famous people with dyslexia on the Internet, but I suspect that most of these are rubbish. For example, the biographies of Winston Churchill of Albert Einstein that I have read provide no basis for the common assertion that they were dyslexic. I am not famous, and I have no plans to become so. But I am reasonably well known and respected in the small world of the American legal academy. If anyone compiles a list of non-famous-but-reasonably-accomplished dyslexics, I would be proud to be on it.
Are dyslexia jokes funny?
My personal favorites are the one about the dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa, and the one about the dyslexic agnostic who wonders if there really is a dog.
Coping with dyslexia
I have some suggestions for individuals and parents dealing with dyslexia.
- See a range of vision, educational and psychological experts. Anyone who tells you they have all the answers is probably a quack or a charlatan.
- Most of the advice in books like “driven to distraction” about ADHD actually works really well for dyslexia.
- Don’t just treat dyslexia, think about ways to treat the inevitable frustration that goes along with it.
- Don’t be afraid to seek reasonable accommodations at school, but also think about which ones will and won’t be available in the ‘real world’.
- Spell check. I used to carry a pocket dictionary with me at all times but this is much easier now in the digital age.
- Dictation software. Dictation software can be useful but I find it hard to use because I don’t always see the mistakes.
- Audiobooks. I love audiobooks and they may be the pinnacle of Western Civilization.
- Listening to eBooks. I listen to ebooks using the text to speech function on my Kindle Fire (I don’t know why this feature does not exist on the Kindle iPhone app.)
- Also “Natural Reader” is great text to speech app for the iPhone. I use it to read a lot of law review articles while exercising or walking the dog. Speechify is also good. Voice Dream is great value but it does not have the fancy natural sounding AI voices.
My final advice is that you should accept that you need to better than other people to do as well. That sounds hard, but it is a challenge that is shared by many groups who, for one reason or another, have something to overcome.
That is pretty much everything I have to say on this topic. In the years since I first wrote this post I have been told by a surprising number of people that it has offered them encouragement or helped them to understand their child. That brings me joy and satisfaction. I know that some of my students will read this and know that they are not alone in their struggles, whatever they may be.
* originally published Aug 12, 2013 6:59 pm.