Dyslexic for a Day

November 10, 1990|By Sara Engram | Sara Engram,from the evening sun

I DIDN'T know her name, but I was beginning to hate her. It was one of those primitive impulses we're supposed to leave behind on the playgrounds of childhood, but there it was -- instantly recognizable and asBy Sara Engram emotionally powerful as a familiar smell that catches you unaware and transports you back to another time.

Suddenly I was a first grader again. But instead of being a good reader earning praise from the teacher, I was staring helplessly at the scribbles on the paper before me.

Praise indeed! What I heard from this teacher, after her long, expectant pauses, was usually something like, "Can anybody help Sara with this word?"

Then the person next to me, the one I was beginning to hate, would chime in with "brought" or "village" or "with" -- whichever "easy" word I was stumbling over at the time. And the teacher would say "Very good!" or -- worse -- "Very good. You're really paying attention!"

But I was paying attention, too. I just couldn't make heads or tails of what I was looking at. (Besides, my uppity neighbor had said she'd seen this exercise before. That must explain it.)

Resentment wasn't the only feeling welling up in me. I was also beginning to hate this exercise. I wanted to get away, out of that room. I wanted to stop feeling like a failure.

I was lucky. For me, these feelings were only temporary.

I and 99 other people were stepping into the shoes of a dyslexic, putting ourselves through the anxiety and frustration that is part of their daily lives.

The workshop, part of the annual convention of the Orton Dyslexia Society, held in Washington earlier this month, consisted of simple tasks. Simple, that is, if you could trace shapes by looking only in a mirror, not at your writing hand.

Or if you, as a right-handed person, could print legibly with your left hand, or vice versa if you were left-handed.

Or if you could read aloud in a reading group when the story was printed backward or with familiar words spelled in a code you hadn't quite broken.

Or if you could fill out an order form when the instructions came from one voice amid a jumble of noisy chatter.

Each of these exercises simulates a different manifestation of dyslexia, defined by the World Federation of Neurology as "a disorder manifested by difficulty in learning to read despite conventional instruction, adequate intelligence and socio-cultural opportunity."

There are many variations and degrees of the disorder. But according to the National Institutes of Health, as many as 15 percent of U.S. students -- about 1.2 million children -- may be classified as dyslexic.

Dyslexics don't process language the way other people do. Being different doesn't make them dumb. But accurate diagnosis and effective tutoring are rarely available in public schools, which means that dyslexics whose parents can't afford special tutors or private schools are usually out of luck.

They feel like failures in the first grade, and soon they really are failures, dropping out or flunking out well before they finish high school. But dyslexia is not an intelligence problem. It's best described as a processing problem, a glitch in the way the brain deals with language.

That glitch never bothered anybody until civilization became dependent on writing. A look at prominent dyslexics like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Amy Lowell and Leonardo da Vinci makes you wonder whether dyslexia may even be conducive to particular creative skills.

Yet humans are herd animals, and dyslexics pay a price for that. We hear "disorder" and think "disease." We hear "disabled" and think "permanently crippled." But we're wrong, and we pay a price for our prejudices.

One of the costs can be seen in the illiteracy rate. Not all adult illiterates are dyslexic, but many are. Think about it: How many children don't want to learn to read? How many kids enter first grade muttering to themselves, "No matter what they do, I'm going to refuse to learn to read"? Probably none.

Yet dyslexics don't have the key to the language code. Too oftewe fail to give it to them and then tell them it's their own fault.

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