Bringing dyslexia into the open


Despite being very common, dyslexia can still carry a damaging stigma for students and adults who have it.

Although 85 per cent of Ontario students who are identified as having a learning difference have dyslexia, most of the public do not know what it is.

The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as being a language-based learning difference that makes numbers and letters hard to interpret. Students experience trouble with language skills, reading, spelling, writing and pronouncing words.

In the brain, reading involves different cognitive processes and two specific ones have been researcher favourites. According to the International Dyslexia Association:

  • Grapheme-phoneme uses combinations of letters to map each letter with its matching sound and translates words for mental depictions.
  • Visual word recognition creates the pronunciation of words.

Kelli Sandman-Hurley, from TED-Ed, explains that it’s harder for dyslexics to manipulate words, and when reading it takes a longer time for the words to travel through their brain because of a delay in their temporal lobe.

Peter Palermo, Art Fundamentals coordinator at Sheridan College has lived a successfully as a dyslexic since Grade 4

“I took a class on speed-reading, although I never learned how to read faster,” he said. “The speed-reading taught me to just pay attention to certain parts of a word so I can get through it faster. It didn’t speed my reading up, but it taught me to focus on what I was reading.”

Dyslexics have to be taught differently as early as kindergarten in order to learn essential reading and writing skills from kindergarten.

When people don’t understand what it is, the stigma surrounding it only increases.

“I think if society really understood the humiliation that these kids go through,” said Elaine Keenan, president of the International Dyslexia Association, Ontario Branch. “The isolation, all of that kind of damage, nobody would want it to happen.”

People with dyslexia can suffer from shame, depression and self-esteem issues because of  daily struggles with peers thinking less of them in the classroom or at work.

“The invisibility of dyslexia, the lack of saying the word in Ontario, allows for stigma and shame,” said Annette Sang, founder of Decoding Dyslexia Ontario.It means parents are scared to come forward and say things; it means parents feel like they can’t speak up in their IEP meetings; they don’t know where to get help; employees don’t know where to go to get help, and they suffer in silence in the classroom or workplace.”

Despite the challenge, dyslexia may boost other talents an individual might have, like math or art. Some well-known people who were born with the learning difference include — Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group, the late Robin Williams and comedian Jim Carrey.

Dyslexia doesn’t stop someone from moving forward in life. It makes them more aware of the things happening around them.

“It’s sort of like that saying ‘When you’re blind you listen better’,” said Palermo. “When you’re dyslexic, you start paying attention to things more often.”

Every child needs the opportunity to be identified in Grade 1 or sooner. This is to help parents recognize the needs of their child early on so they can get help from a tutor and have their child learn basic reading and writing skills.

It can also rewire the brain to help form visual word recognition.

“Identification can change the way the child’s brain works,” said Sang. “It’s like neuroplasticity.”

The problem surrounding dyslexia is parents and teachers not understanding how to teach those who are born with it.Adults who have dyslexia also suffer because of the stigma around it.

“There are many, many people that will not come out to their employer fearing they’ll get fired for being dyslexic, “ said Sang.

There are cases of adults going their whole career without saying the word dyslexic because they fear their peers will think less of them as a person.

The International Dyslexia Association says dyslexia is hereditary: If a parent has it, their child stands a greater chance to be born with it too.

“It’s not their fault,” said Keenan. “They should be helped, not discriminated against.”

People can live a comfortable life with the learning difference if they aren’t afraid to talk openly when they need help.

When Palermo was attending university he knew he had to work harder since he was working for a master’s degree, he needed to create a thesis that a jury reads through.

The work you hand in for your thesis needs to be the best without any corrections.

“I’ve done an undergraduate degree, graduate degree, teacher’s degree and two masters degrees,” said Palermo. “I was very conscious about the work I was doing and because of that, I knew these people are going to judge me.”



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