• Behind the myth that dyslexics are stupid is a startling reality – there are some incredible benefits to being dyslexic. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Dyslexic kids still have to navigate a school system that isn’t set up for neuro-diversity.
By
Cat Rodie

17 Oct 2019 - 8:51 AM  UPDATED 17 Oct 2019 - 8:51 AM

I didn’t realise that I was bad at spelling until the middle of primary school. At first I laughed along with my classmates when teachers poked fun at my creative takes on our sight words. But over time the joke wore thin. I realised they weren’t laughing with me. They were laughing at me.

By the time I reached Year 6 the message was sinking in. I was different from my peers. I was stupid. My teacher, a stern woman who struck fear into children with the twitch of an eyebrow, had made it clear to me, and the rest of the class, that I was completely incompetent. She called me stupid so often that it became fact.

Being stupid wasn’t as bad as the relentless teasing that went with it. My cranky teacher seemed to think that ritual humiliation would somehow snap me out of it. If she pushed hard enough then perhaps I would work harder and stop failing her weekly spelling test. 

What my teacher and classmates didn’t know was that my poor spelling had nothing to do with the effort I put in. I carried my little blue notebook with me everywhere, chanting the letters out loud like little mantras.

What my teacher and classmates didn’t know was that my poor spelling had nothing to do with the effort I put in.

Of course, back then, in the early 90s no one had heard of dyslexia. My poor spelling wasn’t the only sign. My handwriting was a mess, my maths was always wrong and I couldn’t tell left from right. I was also bright, creative and good at telling stories. My teacher’s diagnosis didn’t add up – I wasn’t stupid at all – I was dyslexic.

Sadly my school experience is all too common. The Australian Dyslexia Association tell me that 95 per cent of dyslexic adults recall being either told or made to feel, dumb, lazy or stupid by a teacher when at school. Likewise, research by international group Made By Dyslexia found that nine out of 10 dyslexics people have felt angry, stupid or embarrassed because of their dyslexia.

I was 13 when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. It was a revelation. The educational psychologist that tested me explained that dyslexia is a learning difference. Dyslexic people process information differently and have weak memory systems.

I was 13 when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. It was a revelation.

Problems with memory systems can affect all types of learning. Verbal memory makes it hard to remember verbal instructions. Sequential memory makes it hard to order facts and information. Working memory makes it hard to keep facts in mind in order to manipulate them and visual memory makes it hard to recognise symbols, letters and words. No wonder I kept failing my weekly spelling test.

People often ask me if I have been in touch with that teacher to tell her how her words made me feel. I haven’t wasted my time. It’s far more powerful to help advocate for a new generation of dyslexic school children. Kids like Tom, Ayesha, Ali, Mackenzie and Willow – children of friends who are just starting their dyslexia journeys.

Behind the myth that dyslexics are stupid is a startling reality – there are some incredible benefits to being dyslexic. In fact, according to Made by Dyslexia, four in five successful dyslexics attribute dyslexic thinning skills to their success. On top of this, a 2007 study from the Cass Business School London, found that more than a third of the US entrepreneurs surveyed identified as dyslexic. 

In 2018 EY published a report on the value of dyslexia – it found that dyslexic strengths such as visualisation and logical reasoning align with the changing needs of business.

“The often talked about skills gap shows a need for creative, different thinkers to make sense of the rapid change and the disruption we’re facing in the world today. Dyslexic individuals have a range of natural strengths that make them ‘hard wired’ to step right in and fill this gap,” the report says.   

The tragedy of dyslexia is that while there are many pay-offs in the long run, dyslexic kids still have to navigate a school system that isn’t set up for neuro-diversity. It’s why one friend with three dyslexic kids told me that dyslexia is a debilitating curse on her family. “It’s heartbreaking to see the struggles our kids have, not to mention the anxiety,” she added.

Our education system wasn’t built for dyslexic thinking. Teachers aren’t trained to identify the one in 10 dyslexic kids that walk into their classrooms. Support is a lottery – if you lose, you’re on your own.

Young dyslexia advocate Georgina Ryan wants to change this. She is campaigning for a compulsory module on learning differences to be included in all teaching degrees. “It’s sad to think that in a developed and ‘lucky’ country such as Australia, that my story is not unique and there are 1000s of students like me falling through the cracks,” she writes in an open letter to Universities Australia and the Department of Education published on her Facebook page.

It amazes me that so little has changed since I went to school. I often say that going to school with dyslexia is like riding into battle every day. But the truth is we don’t battle dyslexia – we battle a school system with a one size fits all mentality. And with better awareness this could change in an instant.

Cat Rodie is a freelance journalist and an Ambassador for the Code Read Dyslexia Network.  

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