Have you ever imagined what life would be like if you couldn’t read? Everyday tasks can become seemingly impossible hurdles to overcome. Imagine trying to fill out a job application or form at a doctor’s office while struggling to read the questions on the page. What would you do?
Reading difficulties can impact a wide range of everyday activities, and for people with dyslexia, reading difficulties start early in life. At Indy Reads, we help students overcome issues associated with dyslexia and other reading challenges.
October is National Dyslexia Awareness Month, and we sat down with Indy Reads’ Vice President of Program, Jennifer Malins, to talk about advocacy and action.
Could you talk briefly about adult dyslexia?
I try not to think of people in terms of their diagnosis. If you’ve seen one person with dyslexia, you’ve seen one person with dyslexia, so I think you have to be really careful. First of all, I’m not qualified to make that diagnosis. I don’t consider myself an expert in dyslexia per se. What I am an expert in is sensory-cognitive processing. So whether someone fits into that box of dyslexia or doesn’t quite fit in that box but has a lot of the same symptoms, I work with that student according to what that student’s needs are and teach others to do the same.
What I see with our students is that a lot of them cannot sound out words. They do not have the phonemic awareness needed to decode unknown words, and that ability to decode is an important part of becoming an independent reader. If there is no one standing over your shoulder to help you, but you know the rules and have good phonemic awareness, you have about a 50/50 chance of getting the word right. When a lot of our students went through school, we [as a society] just didn’t know as much about dyslexia. More often than not, I’m hearing students say, “Well, they just said I was LD and put me in special ed.”
What are some things the public should know about adult dyslexia?
There are a lot of adults walking around out there who probably have dyslexia, but have never been diagnosed because we just didn’t know as much about dyslexia when they were going through school and therefore they didn’t get the right instruction. Or it wasn’t intensive enough. Whatever it was, they didn’t get the help they needed [and] they feel a lot of shame about their reading.
How can we as the general public help raise awareness and change the stigma around dyslexia and illiteracy issues?
Understand that there are a lot of really bright people with dyslexia. Some of the country’s best and brightest have dyslexia. Charles Schwab is an example. I’ve heard dyslexia described as “a weakness in a pool of strengths,” and I agree with that.
For example, I find that people with dyslexia often have very good visual/spatial skills, which I don’t have, so I can really appreciate that. I had a student with dyslexia who was 13 at the time and she was what we would call dually diagnosed. So she had a diagnosis of dyslexia and also was gifted. One day I noticed that she was drawing something. I thought she was just doodling. I looked down and she had drawn this beautiful Pegasus. I can’t even draw a stick figure Pegasus. And she did that while also working with me on her reading.
I think a lot of people . . . associate having a reading difficulty with not being as smart as the next person and that’s just not true.
Also, there’s nothing natural about reading. From what I’ve read and heard, the neural pathways that we use for reading were . . . . used for hunting originally. We’re hardwired for speech but not reading… And so, unfortunately, a lot of people end up having very low self-esteem because this seemingly easy task for so many people it isn’t easy or natural for them and they need a different kind of instruction in order to learn to read.
People might say, “Well, just work harder, get a different job, go to school.” That’s not always an option for everyone, especially if you’re reading below sixth-grade level. A lot of our students want a certification or to go to school, but they need help getting there first.
What else can we do to help?
Just being understanding and nonjudgmental will help people open up about their reading challenges and be more willing to come in and get help.
Want to learn more about how you can help those struggling with dyslexia?
Come to one of our volunteer information sessions!
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