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I Haven’t Overcome My Dyslexia. I’m Harnessing It.

By Junia Howell

Just this week, another professional contact learned of my dyslexia and responded in amazement, “it is so impressive how you have overcome your dyslexia to accomplish so much.” Although always said with the best of intentions, comments like these never cease to frustrate me.

Granted, I too am struck with amazement and gratitude when I consider all the wonderful opportunities bestowed upon me. I am the girl who failed state standardized testing in elementary school, entered high school with a second grade reading level, and continued to misspell words like “the” in college. My young self who despised reading, writing, and thus school would not even know how to comprehend the fact that now I am a college professor who has published over a dozen peer-reviewed academic articles, teaches PhD seminars, and consumes 100 books a year. Yet, that same young self would be less surprised that I still hate reading and writing (and often even school).

Being Accomplished Doesn’t Mean Overcoming Dyslexia

I might be “accomplished,” but I have not “overcome” my dyslexia. Just ask the doctor who recently requested I read a paragraph out loud during an examination. I enthusiastically complied but quickly began to struggle—stuttering like an eight-year-old trying to decode every single word and completely failing to comprehend the overarching meaning. Or ask the government official who worked with me on paperwork related to my research and quickly discovered I had misread simple words on various forms and entered incorrect information. You could even ask my two-year-old niece who knows Auntie JuJu’s versions of her story books are different than her Daddy and Mama’s. She doesn’t know yet that it is because I often cannot read the words in children’s books so I make up my own. She just knows her Auntie’s versions are special.

Despite hundreds of hours of tutoring and years of education, I have not overcome my dyslexia. I just have the gift of technology and resources like Bookshare that make the world of words available to me. For me, dyslexia is not something to overcome, but something to embrace, harness, and celebrate.

Audiobooks are Powerful Resource that Allow Capabilities to Shine

I will not lie. I still despise the moments after I am asked to read something and my entire body fills with overwhelming dread as I struggle to decode the letters and face the humiliation that I do not know what it says. But I cherish that my brain makes unconventional connections, remembers minute details, and can use spatial thinking to derive new mathematical approaches to studying social policy and inequality. I am thankful for the fact, thanks to Bookshare, I can download virtually all the books I need to read to keep up with my field and listen to them at 600 plus words a minute while I wash dishes, do yardwork, write computer code, or run statistical models. I have not overcome my dyslexia, but I have learned how to bend the expectations of the world to enable my capabilities to shine.

Parents and teachers often ask me what advice I would give for helping their dyslexic children. For a long time, I have said the same thing, “embrace it, don’t erase it.” Although working on decoding skills can help some children, for me learning how to “read” by listening was a more powerful tool that enabled me to identify and expand upon my own strengths. Yet recently I have begun to add to this advice that part of helping your own child is starting to change your approach to (dis)abilities and accommodations in all sectors of your life.

Adults with Dyslexia Don’t Outgrow Need for Accommodations

Now, as an instructor myself, I have realized that the U.S. education system’s emphasis on accommodations for students, particularly for so-called learning (dis)abilities, unintentionally perpetuates the notion that (dis)abilities are something students should and will “overcome.” As a professor I am expected to provide accommodations for students but have faced considerable resistance when asking for accommodations for myself. I have completed my education, and thus the unspoken assumption is I have “overcome” my “struggles” and am now expected to be a neurotypical worker. This assumption is further institutionalized by the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and subsequent court cases that have provided more robust protections and accommodations for students compared to workers.

Part of helping our children requires not only preparing them as individuals to have the skills to harness their own strengths, but to collectively work on reshaping our workplaces, stores, governmental offices, and places of worship to be spaces that accommodate for and celebrate the contributions of all (dis)abilities. Starting today to make your places of influence more accommodating will pave the way for your child(ren) once they exit the classroom and take their unique gifts into the broader world.

Junia Howell, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She has used audiobooks since elementary school (when they were on cassette tapes) and continues to use them to read about and conduct her own research on how public policies can be altered to foster racial equality. Learn more about her work at www.JuniaHowell.com  

Benetech would like to thank Junia for sharing her story in recognition of Dyslexia Awareness Month. This blog originally appeared on the Benetech website.

3 Comments

  1. Sue

    Wow! Amazing! Our daughter is a twin they are now 10yearsold. We have all our children in Catholic school. We removed our daughter in the middle of the school year and places her in Public school where it’s “supposed to best suite her needs) long story short she struggles but she gives her ALL she is a phenomenal artist I mean those who are shown her drawing are beyond impressed. She remembers but taking snap shots on her mind. She struggles but we are proud parents as she gives it her all!

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Marge Strong

    Well said. I am a person with Dyslexia and it is not ever going to go away. Learning how to use all the technology I can has helped me in my education and work. I work with student in college and teach them about the technology they can use to support themself during and after college. It is very important to let them know that they need to take these tools with them after college.

  3. Heidi

    I so needed this blog post today. I’m a fellow dyslexic also; who has a middle school aged Son with this learning style. I wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until high school. I too also failed standardized tests in elementary. My Mother was told, “Oh, she’s a smart girl… She’ll eventually get it.” But did that happen? Nope. I was “passed along”. The arts in high school saved me. Fellow dyslexics know that our brains are wired to be good one particular subject. Einstein, for example, excelled in mathematics.

    Some 30 years later. It’s heartbreaking to see the same trends happening to my son. It wasn’t until we switched elementary schools did our special ed team really take my Son under their wings. Bookshare was one of the tools that they recommended. This resource, opened a whole world to my son with audio books. He could now discover the world of Piercy Jackson, my Son’s personal favorite- another dyslexic. Our kids need heros who are just like them.

    Side note, I too made up bedtime stories. I came up Larry the Leprechaun for my youngest son when he was a toddler. We now have a ball telling grand adventures of how Larry goes around town causing mischief.

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