Sunday, 20 March 2011
Funny, I can't read that...
I am dyslexic.
I didn't find out until my second year of an English degree, when one of my tutors told me that he had no idea how I'd managed to get a place at university, that I was going to fail my degree and, even if I didn't manage that, I would certainly fail his section of it. Luckily, they weren't all like him and, with the support of another member of staff, I was subsequently tested, diagnosed with dyslexia and given strategies for coping with my written work. (And, in case you were wondering, got a 2:1 over all and came out of my first tutor's exam with a borderline First.)
The problem is, it isn't an easy condition to live with. I do not suffer from the severest forms it can take, but am still constantly embarrassed by my spelling and grammatical mistakes, hate the amount of time it takes me to get to grips with complex pieces of written work, cringe at the difficulties I have in remembering people's names (yes, really: that too is a common dyslexic symptom), find it hard to read music because the notes seem to wobble and am forever mixing up my right and my left.
Having said that, though, I don't want the condition to limit what I can and can't do. People are often surprised, given my various career choices, that I have a specific learning disability (as it is known in the trade): English Degree, MA in Medieval Studies, law and now writing novels are not part of the expected CV of a dyslexic. None of them give any slack: I have to be as good as the competition despite the dyslexia - or I go under. No one is going to make excuses for me.
And I wouldn't want them to.
So this was me and how I saw my life - until last week, when I learned from the school that my eldest child could well be dyspraxic. Now, I had suspected dyslexia for a while: familiar symptoms were starting to rear their heads in his school work - messy hand-writing, words spelled as anagrams of themselves, words with letters missing, sentences with words missing, lack of organisation and co-ordination on the page - I could go on. However, as soon as I began to look at lists of dyspraxic symptoms - some of which overlap with dyslexia - I saw where the teacher was coming from.
My immediate reaction was relief - fantastic! The fact he struggles doing up a zip and has messy handwriting is explained away! Then there was sadness: my child is going to have to struggle like me. To achieve the same marks as his peers, he will have to work harder than them for no extra reward.
And then, after the reaction of a couple of friends, I got into thinking about labels and whether we are too quick to label our children as 'not quite right', and the effect this might have on them.
And my response was quite emphatic.
I think, in our society, we already label people. Every day. In every conceivable way. Other people are better off/worse off/cleverer/stupider/have better jobs/nicer cars/better educations/more holidays/larger houses/smaller houses than us. We are always defining others against our own achievements or failures; always trying to ascertain if their grass really is any greener. This is nowhere more pronounced as our education system which now constantly assesses and grades children; comparing child against child in a way that would have been unthinkable thirty years ago. Parents and kids (myself included) get sucked into the grading/testing cycle and worry about whether our child is really a 4b when they should perhaps be a 4a or even a 5c. There is so much middle class parental energy expended on this, they could run the National Grid off it.
So my child is already labeled by the education system. And, if he is dyslexic/dyspraxic, that school attainment label may be selling him short. My view is that at least if we know, we can do something about it, even if it is simply to roll up our sleeves and work harder to make up the shortfall.
Because I know from experience that without labels such as dyslexia, the child will be given other labels such as 'lazy' or 'a daydreamer' or 'needs to pay more attention' or even - as I was by my university tutor, 'stupid' and 'unintelligent' and 'a failure'. That way lies nothing apart from a vortex of increasing frustration, sadness and loss of self-esteem.
So fine,whilst we live in a label obsessed society, let's go forward with the positive labels too - and as far as I'm concerned, dyslexia and dyspraxia are positive. If my boy is dyspraxic, so be it - he is in some illustrious company and I won't let it hold him back for one moment. The news that Daniel Radcliffe aka Harry Potter was dyspraxic cheered my son up enormously. Frankly, if you can be that good at quidditch, nothing on earth is going to stop you succeeding in life.
For more information on dyslexia, click href="http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/">here
For more information on dyspraxia, click here
For a list of famous dyslexics, click here