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chasing words
the view from inside a dyslexic.
by louise arnold

I’ve only ever seen the world through my eyes. Only ever thought with my brain. So you’ll forgive me if I thought the world was wonky, while I stood on level ground.

I’m dyslexic. It was only realised when I was in my twenties. See, the thing is, only seeing the world through my eyes, it all seemed pretty damned normal to me. Maybe it’s my inner narcist, but I just thought writing was really badly designed. The tight lines, the black squiggles, they way the words moved in the corners of your vision, tugging at your attention… Words on a page are like a magic eye painting you can’t quite grasp, and when you stare at the word you are reading all around it the other words jolt and writhe, and try to form some unknown image which never quite gains coherence. Jackson Pollock skims his hand through the page, and the words murmur in agreement. I thought everyone saw the written word like this, so when I didn’t do the reading for my exams it was because I was lazy. Chasing those words across the page was just too much like hard work – everyone else managed to graft their way through without complaining. Why couldn’t I? I became a furtive non-reader, a closet tape listener, a film adaptation watcher. Period dramas acted every which way, velvets and over enunciating actors filling my spare time. A book you love is easier to pursue across the page, the plot drags you along like a current, throwing you into each word as you go. Sticking to the path in books where you do not hang on every new turn, or where there is no plot (science books, history books, dusty books with linear drawings and footnotes and bibliographies) leaves you lost in the woods, with no trail of breadcrumbs. The words do not strand together naturally.

I got lost.

So I faked it. And I faked it pretty damn well. I managed to do my A-Levels without ever breaking the spine of my copy of Little Dorrit. Jane Eyre? I went and saw the play. Sadly, it was an intriguing interpretation to say the least, which probably did me no favours (Bertha stormed and gnashed her teeth through the entire performance, suspended above the stage in a cage, acting out her angst through modern dance). Luckily, I consulted the short notes on the book, averting what could have been a disaster. Those books I had to read but found I couldn’t do more than scratch at the words, and not grasp the meaning, I simply skim read; finding key quotes and highlighting them. Nothing in English can be wrong, dahling, as long as you explain why you interpret things that way. Armed to the teeth with an argumentative disposition, various period dramas, and a few highlighted quotes, I took my exams on. And won. I passed my a-levels with flying colours, and went on to University.

Disaster struck. University was not content with just my opinion, my voice - University wanted proof of my reading. Footnotes, quotes, and a thriving bibliography. Floundering, but always armed with an escape clause, I blamed the library for not stocking the right books, a cold, a noisy housemate, homesickness, anything to mask the fact that my plummeting grades were due to the fact I was having to be dragged screaming and kicking to the recommended reading. Finally, with my grades sinking to the bottom of the class, a place I’d never been before, I played my trump card. I’d go to see the education department, to see if there was something wrong. It was a cunning ruse to keep myself in the game, and I trotted along to make small token gestures that would, I hoped, prove I was trying. Enough to let me stay. I never once believed there was anything to actually fix. I was just lazy. Too much effort to chase the words.

They ask questions. Lots of questions. My cheeks burnt with embarrassment trying to answer some of them, not because they were actually prying or intimate, but because they were actively seeking to expose everything I had hidden through my education.

Recite your times tables.

I was twenty one, and I had never learnt them. I’d tried and tried, but the numbers had never stuck. Teflon brain. Give me pen and paper and a number, and I’ll do long division, short division, square it, cube it, and churn it through a quadratic formula before spitting the answer out, but I can’t even recite my three times table without stumbling like a child. My face burnt hot. I’d managed to hide away these little secrets, keep them tucked out of sight, and here was a woman stripping me bare within minutes of meeting me. I cringed.

I was sixteen when I’d finally learnt to tell the time properly. One of the other girls had realised that I wore a watch yet never knew what the hands were telling me, and I remember laughter raining down on me as the information spread. I’d been dismissive, laughed it off. My next watch was digital. And the one after that… I still have problems with the months of the year, occasionally misplacing August or May. I hid my closet stupidity deep inside, secret squirrel, and nobody seemed to know.

Can you tell me the months backwards?

She did. She knew. She looked at me, and saw my squirreled away stupidity, my laziness worn on my sleeve. I stumbled backwards, long pauses, brain racking, and she looked at me with the patient smile that I’d never wanted to see. Cheeks burning. August… June… July… Scribbling notes, and smiling encouragingly.

I’m going to read you a number, I want you to then say it back to me in reverse.

Childlike again, inside mouth chewed with concentration, performing seal, I grasped onto these numbers and tried to spin them in my brain. Clumsy. The numbers churned as I tried to hold them, and exasperated I would throw them back again, the order savaged beyond recognition. Tears stung in my eyes, child again, and I mumbled an apology. Hot face. Ousted.

I waited and waited for the report to come back. Big red letters: FRAUD. Shouldn't be at university. Secretly stupid - how did she hide this so long? When the letter finally arrived, I snuck away like a guilty child and read the letter tucked out of sight.

I am dyslexic. That’s what the report said, and suddenly everything makes that little bit more sense. Secret Squirrel, badge of shame, hiding my times tables and unread books out of sight. It came as a relief, to know I wasn't broken. To know I wasn't stupid. To know not everyone sees the world swimming when they look at a page.

I am dyslexic. Here’s a confession – I don’t know the difference between a colon and a semi colon. Word helps me out, sweeping my writing and throwing out green and red. I don’t know a verb from an adverb. I won’t remember your birthday - I only remember Jesus’ because the Advent calendars help out. If I’m lost and you give me directions, I’ll be lost again within three steps, and naked and foraging for food in the undergrowth by the fifth. I don’t know my car number plate. Sometimes, I get confused with my left and my right. However, I am still me, my thoughts are not somehow impaired by this new description, I don’t need mothering, I don’t want books with big letters and smaller worlds. Sometimes people find out I’m dyslexic, and read my writing and say “Wow, for a dyslexic that’s really good. Well done!” A pat on the head and a rosette for the little lady! I give them until I count back from 100 to find a decent hiding place from my rage (and who knows, that could take hours, so really I’m being kind).

So there you go, now you know. Secret squirrel. Badge of shame. Digital watches and deliberately folded pages. Times tables scrawled up my arm. Lost in a swarm of moving letters. I see the world at a slight tilt, but to me that’s the only way it’s ever been.


A work in progress.

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tracey kelley
4.16.03 @ 9:47p

Wow. All the time you were growing up, you never knew you were dyslexic? That's astounding.

juli mccarthy
4.16.03 @ 11:10p

This is an amazing look into dyslexia in particular and learning disabilities in general. I have a friend who had been frantically trying to figure out what was wrong with her bright, articulate son who, at age ten, misspells his own name on occasion. It tooks years, tears and finally threats to get someone with a clue to look at this kid, and all along it turns out he's been struggling, silently like Damini, with the fact that he is simply unable to write legibly -- there's a short-circuit somewhere in his motor coordination. Most people with learning disabilities are mistakenly labeled as stupid, and they often think of themselves that way, too. It's liberating to find out it's physiological.

And Tracey - I didn't know I had ADD until I was in my thirties. While ADD is not a learning disability in itself, it's the same concept. "There's something wrong with me. I can't do what other people do and it must be my fault." All that time, I believed the people who said I was lazy and stupid.


tracey kelley
4.17.03 @ 10:11a

What I meant by astounding is that, with all the information out there (at least in the States) about dyslexia, I'm just surprised that Damini would have to had gone so long with the puzzle incomplete. Certainly someone would have made a connection long before University.

And that's a sad picture of education in general.

juli mccarthy
4.17.03 @ 10:22a

Well, it's SOP for people with learning disabilities to instinctively hide the symptoms. No one wants to think they're "defective." Educators fall into this trap, too - no one wants to tell a parent that his kid is handicapped, and in a classroom it's not that easy to isolate a problem anyway. Even in the States, where the stigma of LD is finally starting to wear off, there's still the feeling that "she could do it if she just applied herself." It's easier to find a learning disability when it's accompanied by behavior problems - when you're bright and cooperative, you get overlooked.

tracey kelley
4.17.03 @ 10:32a

When I volunteered as a literacy tutor, I was amazed at the methods used by people who, truly, couldn't read a single word. If anything, educators should learn from people like Damini to truly comprehend the mind's capacity to absorb and display knowledge. This is such a valid argument for multiple intelligence teaching!

sarah ficke
4.17.03 @ 10:41a

I don't know about other colleges, but mine had a program that would pay one or two students in a class to read the assignments onto tape, or just read them to another student if there was someone who had a learning disorder and needed to hear things. I wish programs like that would get more support.

juli mccarthy
4.17.03 @ 11:00a

I'm of two minds on that, Sarah. While I think it's vital that a child with a LD is given access to alternative ways of obtaining information, I also think that there's been too much "swing" in that direction. Using my friend's son as an example, he's being allowed to type his papers because of his motor disability with writing. So he is able to both concentrate on the information rather than the mechanics of writing it and prove that he is assimilating the knowledge, which is a good thing. On the other hand, accommodating his disorder is not the same thing as treating it.

Reading a test aloud to a child who has a reading disability serves only the immediate problem of getting the kid through the test - but he still has to learn how to read.

sarah ficke
4.17.03 @ 11:30a

True. But in the case I was thinking of, the student assimilated information better by hearing than reading. Whereas I assimilate information much better reading than hearing. So, in some sense, the learning process is prejudiced in favor of my talent rather than her's.

russ carr
4.17.03 @ 11:38a

I agree with Juli -- there's a point at which too much "assistance" becomes coddling, no matter how well-intentioned. The LD students I've known have always preferred working through their problems and gaining every little bit they could, rather than having it made easy just because they're different.

As with any chronic condition, there are different levels of dyslexia; for some it may be so severe that reading is completely out of the question. Certainly I'd rather have someone get the access they need to education than being held back. But the rest of the world isn't going to be read to them.

david damsker
4.17.03 @ 11:48a

Diseases like Dyslexia and ADD are such interesting phenomena. We don't know the causes and there is no "real" test to diagnose someone. I mean "real" in that it is a purely clinical diagnosis based on general guidelines. The variability spectrums of these disease are as wide as it get gets.

I was diagnosed with an eye-convergence "learning disorder" when I was a little kid, only during a visit to the doctor because of my poor vision. However, I have always read fast and often like a champ and did great on my SATs and MCATs without additional "help". I really don't consider myself to have a problem. If your body can compensate appropriately, I suppose there is no problem.

louise arnold
4.17.03 @ 1:29p

I must admit I have deliberately avoided any assistance. The people that were around to help were genuinely lovely and caring, but I found them inadvertently condescending, and I couldn't bare it. I went to a couple sessions, but I felt I was back to being sat cross legged on the floor with crayons and blunt scissors, so I never went back.

For me, finding out about dyslexia has just helped me realise better what I can and can't do, and why. To an extent my degree has been sabotaged not only be being dyslexic but also by refusing to admit I am: I've taken courses that I've failed abysmally because they were completely incompatible with me, and this has dragged my grade average down. Courses where it was based entirely on notes from lectures, where try as I might I could only pick out a few details from a constant stream of sound, and my notes would hold disjointed fragments. "Brechtian" "evolution" "detachment". I would feel like the factory worker who goes too slowly, while the conveyer belt hurtled on. Everyone around me would have complete lines of sentences, and I’d hide my useless notes away. Another time I chose a course where I would have to learn a new computer programme and design sets in three dimensions. Everyone else grasped the basics soon, and shot ahead while I floundered behind. For our final projects, people showed their designs. The Sun rising over a Norwegian Forest. The beginning of time, stars pulsing to music. Me? My boyfriend had found me crying in the computer room, trying to put the finishing touches to my project. “A wall”. I had made a wall. More strictly accurate, I had made a rectangle and trying to stick a jpg of wallpaper on to it, and failing miserably L He helped as much as he could, bless him, but there’s no real way to polish a turd. I’m still a faker, I would say I’ve read maybe six whole books in my entire degree, the rest I’ve either read paragraphs from or just all out just wandered about with it, putting the book on my desk to carry the pretence, but never actually opening its pages.


louise arnold
4.17.03 @ 1:30p

It’s just so frustrating sometimes to not be able to get things to stick in your mind, to not be able to grasp them no matter how hard you try. I’m lucky, I have troubles taking words and sounds and sequences and converting them into thoughts and memory, but I have no real problems taking thoughts and memories and turning them into words or speech. Whilst I get frustrated at myself sometimes (the time I got a thief’s licence plate number, but had hopelessly mangled it by the time I got a pen and paper just one minute later, the times where I’ve tried so hard to learn something new and it won’t stay, the times where I try to read a page and find myself reading the same line ten times and never finding a meaning) I should imagine it in no way even comes close to the frustration felt by those who could not find ways to let their thoughts out.

Since I’ve been told I’m dyslexic, a lot of my old teachers have said “Ahh! Now that makes sense!” but I can’t really blame them for not knowing. I didn’t know myself, and I hid away any tell tale signs as best I could anyway. It’s easier to spot these things in people where you are trying to find reasons why they aren’t doing well – if someone is doing well but not as well as you suspect they could do, its easy to let it just slip by.

eloise young
4.18.03 @ 11:56p

I find it amazing that they didn't spot it. When I was at state school we had someone dyslexic in the class. The alphabet was stuck to his desk, in order. His name was Timothy and he let me go and play with his Sca-lextric even though I wasn't a boy. Cool kid!

I remember watching some TV programme years and years ago that showed some dyslexic kids finding things much easier when looking through colored glasses. I think they were yellow. Is this anything you have ever tried? You could use some yellow light gel discarded from a theatre light set or something as a test.

eloise young
4.19.03 @ 12:07a

Well, after searching on the web, it seems that there is no scientific proof for the colored lens idea. But it has sufficient supporters to enable a thriving little industry of tests and lens sales. It seems the "preaching" sites say something like "don't waste your money on lenses when what your child needs is special tuition" - but given in your case you are not a child now, perhaps you could try something out and see if it helps? You have more than 10p in pocket money now...

louise arnold
4.19.03 @ 5:40a

Strange you should say that, I'm off to the opticians today to discuss it. I used to have an A4 purple transparency sheet, and it really did help. It was very strange, it was like it slipped over the page and pinned the words down a lot more. But, alas, it got stolen, and also it was very cumbersome when you keep turning pages to re-arrange it. So I'm off to the opticians today to discuss the possibility of coloured glasses. Louise, the uber hippy.

And more than 10p in pocket money? Hah! On a student loan and a mortgage? If the tooth fairy still visited I'd be cranking out some molars and leaving them under my pillow to subsidise my poverty.



eloise young
4.19.03 @ 1:00p

Good luck at the opticians then! Perhaps you can get something to put over your computer screen too.

louise arnold
4.19.03 @ 1:22p

Bah. The opticians say that the glasses cost £300 a time. I think there's an official PAH to be said.


sarah ficke
4.19.03 @ 1:31p

Bastards. Is it a special kind of glass or intensity of colour? What happens if you buy ordinary cheap purple glasses?

louise arnold
4.19.03 @ 1:37p

Well, apparently the woman who came up with the whole idea has patented it and made an obscene fortune from it, and insists that it has to be a specific tint done to her specific specifications, or else it won't work properly. I have doubts, but there's very few opticians in the country that deal with these tinted lens, and if I'm going to be reading with them I'd want them to not make my eyes go liquid and migraines squish my skull, I'd want proper decent glasses. So no fairground jobbies for a starter. I'm going to carry on looking into it, but it seems its going to be a pipe dream really.

eloise young
4.19.03 @ 6:09p

What about getting a purple piece of film like the one you used to have? That should be cheaper - especially if you go make friends with some theatrical lighting crew! Besides, if that worked for you, no harm in trying something else eh? Like some cheapo colored glasses from a hippy shop?

louise arnold
4.19.03 @ 8:02p

Yeah, I'm chasing after another transparency now (having seen the price of glasses!!), but again they are sold by specialist opticians (I was given one before by a roaming student union disability person, but that got stolen by an old housemate - oh happy times of communal living, how I don't miss you). I've tried using gels from the theatre before, buts its very difficult finding something that actually makes things better without being too dark or too thick; if it's not right you just head into a whole new realm of reading angst. You'd think they wouldn't make it so elusive or expensive, the amount of people who must be in the same boat.

eloise young
4.19.03 @ 11:37p

I'm convinced my roomies are drinking my small bottles of water (I bought 6, drank one, have 2 left) and my BRITISH CHOCOLATE I SPECIFICALLY TOLD THEM NOT TO TOUCH! - Either that or I ate more of it than I remember.

There's good article on a single scientific test of overlays here at Essex. When you were handed the purple sheet, did you get to choose between colours? I note that purple was fairly unpopular in the selection (see graph p6). If the student disability person didn't check you out carefully, you may do better with another colour.

Are you all done with studying? This site has some policy guidance on supporting higher education students with dyslexia. It also states that 40% of dyslexic students are not diagnosed until they are at university (so you are not alone!).

eloise young
4.19.03 @ 11:50p

The best research review I have found is here at the British Dyslexia Association. I still haven't been able to find out anything about getting financial support for lenses, overlays, etc. - even though I figure there must be something available somewhere, on the NHS or through a local authority?

louise arnold
4.24.03 @ 3:42p

I found this article and it made me giggle: link

Suddenly my dancing makes sense!!

And thanks ever so much for your help Eloise. The lilac was the best for me out of the different colours I was shown, but it was a bit hurried, so maybe with a longer test with a proper optician I'd get clearer results.

I think University is the glass ceiling for a lot of people with dyslexia - it certainly was for me. It's the time where you find all your compensatory measures get rumbled or made redundent. I'm two weeks away from graduating now, so I think any help I get will be things I chase down of my own accord. It's taken me this long to really realise what being dyslexic means, and having my boundaries set out for me, instead of just thinking "if I try really hard then I'll stop screwing this up..." I wish I'd known sooner, but at least I know now.

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