Mark Le Messurier
"I'd like to change the world so that no one feels left behind or diminished."
Joan Kirner, 2007
REFLECTIONS ON DYSLEXIA is a 20 minute film designed for school leaders, special education coordinators, teachers, school assistants, parents and students.
It invites you into the lives of four very different adults who live with Dyslexia. Rick, Jane, Ross and Gemma; they tell how their learning difficulty has steered the choices they have made. They discuss the bigger issues behind Dyslexia; the emotional issues, and how it influenced their health, decision making, behaviour, opportunity and success.
They share humiliating, humorous, joyful and frustrating experiences in the hope you might really understand. They hope their stories will urge you to review your opinion about learning difficulties, to exchange viewpoints, to gather more information and devise greater support options for students.
The motivation behind the film came from Darryl. He was 45 when I first met him and had recently been identified with Dyslexia, and a full scale IQ of 126. He was a delight, and beamed now that he knew the true nature of his problem - a chronic learning difficulty and not an intellectual challenge - he wanted to learn to read! Having basic reading skills would permit him to read the newspaper and discuss its contents. This was top priority in his workplace; everybody did it. In the space of several sessions a warm friendship and an energetic working relationship ensued.
Darryl was a part owner of a well-regarded landscape design and construction business, which he ran with his brother. Together they employed twelve staff. They had run the business for fifteen years and had built an impressive reputation in our city. Darryl was the design and irrigation specialist, but he relied on his brother to read all the documentation that came his way.
Over time, Darryl shared snippets about his school days.
As a young student he knew the sounds each letter made, but it took him so long to find one in his memory and say it, and much longer to put sounds together to work out a word. To add to his frustration he'd forget the small commonly used words. By year 4, because of his spectacular failure to read, spell and write, he was placed in an Opportunity Class (Special School).
Once this decision was made he was relocated to an adjacent campus. He no longer spent the day with his friends and his brother. It was replaced by an unfamiliar peer group. A group that Darryl and his friends in the mainstream school had always poked fun at. He still remembers feeling ashamed that his teachers, who he thought were next to God, had wasted their time trying to teach him to read. He remembered feeling as though he had let his parents down too. He used to make sure he could walk home by himself some days, and during the twenty minute walk he would cry to make himself feel better; he played a game that the tears would help to wash all this away.
He recalls bringing home five or six new spelling words to learn each week. Each night he would keenly copy them out and ask his father to test him, usually with a successful result. Then half an hour later when retested he had little idea of how to spell them. Worry about his performance always worsened his performance at school. He vividly remembers his enthusiastic, year 5 teacher. She introduced an innovative coloured card system that she promised would solve his reading problems. Almost every day for two years he used the coloured card system. Darryl swears the system didn't solve his reading difficulty, but proved to be a reminder of just how "dumb" he really was.
He spent the remainder of primary school and the early years of secondary school in Opportunity Classes. And, before he finally left school at 14 he made a promise to himself. As a way to protect his dignity he vowed never to let anyone too close, except for his brother, as the humiliation of having to explain that he couldn't do what everyone else does so easily - read and write - was too much. To this day Darryl has kept his promise. He never invited anyone to share his life.
Darryl's story illustrates the deep impact an unrecognised chronic learning difficulty can have on a person, their health, choices and opportunities. It highlights how easy it is to rob children with learning difficulties of confidence, hope and self-realisation, despite educators believing they are doing their best. It reminds us of the damage students with learning difficulties can suffer through indifference, ignorance and inappropriate responses.
Darryl's story prompted me to look more closely at the lives of others who live with dyslexia.
Imagine never being able to acquire adequate reading and writing skills and struggling to employ them every day at school or in the workplace?
This is familiar territory for each of the four participants interviewed in this film. They live with Dyslexia. They discuss the emotional issues and how this disability has influenced all manner of things in their lives.
As an educator do you sometimes wonder -
At 19 years of age Ross has long been identified with Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Ross is also considered legally blind due to Macular Dystrophy. In earlier years, his impulsiveness, wavering concentration and Dyslexiamade it difficult for him to find success at school. Despite these stumbling blocks, his will to succeed and the dogged persistence of those close to him, has seen talents in mathematics, science and music emerge. He completed year 13 gaining an impressive Tertiary Entrance Ranking and was accepted into University to study for a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Performance. This exceptional bass guitarist has been influential in developing three bands to date. Ross has battled extraordinary odds and his story is one of success in the face of very obvious hardships.
At the time of filming this vibrant, articulate 24 year old was about to enter her second year of Podiatry at University. Just two years before this, she was identified with Dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. She describes the diagnosis as a defining moment in her life. It finally made sense why she faced such difficulties with reading, writing and focusing her attention, despite her noticeable intelligence. Jane reflects on her learning experiences, motivations and aspirations. Her struggle to achieve her degree at University is immense. She knows that her academic success hinges on the support systems she has put in place, and how she approaches each and every task.
Rick has always been a practical, 'no-nonsense' sort of bloke. By age 17 he was employed in the oil and gas industry. At the time of filming Rick was 43 and managing a gas well in the jungles of Indonesia. Here, he is responsible for 130 personnel, logistics, budgeting, ordering components and the day-to-day operations. There was never a time in his life Rick didn't struggle with reading, spelling and writing. As a young child, he convinced himself that everyone found reading and writing as difficult as he did. Later, at secondary school, he was driven by the ambition to be the first in his family to achieve his high school certificate. Nearing the end of school he recognised that a practical, hands-on career would best suit. It wasn't until eight years ago when his youngest son was formally identified with severe Dyslexia and Dysgraphia that he recognised these same signs in himself. Despite facing significant unidentified learning difficulties throughout school, he found ways to compensate, to feel confident and to excel.
Gemma's 24 years have not worked out well at all. Years of chronic family problems, a string of foster care placements and successive primary schools masked her significant concentration and learning difficulties. Today Gemma is able to reflect on why learning was so challenging and so threatening. She couldn't read, couldn't spell and couldn't write much at all. In the classroom she felt constantly overwhelmed and vulnerable. Her response was to bluff, be confrontational and act in aggressive ways that she felt saved her dignity. By the time she entered secondary school Gemma found a way of life that was far more accepting of her than school. She knows that her unidentified learning difficulties, in combination with other dire circumstances, are responsible for her tragic choices and lost opportunities. Although her learning difficulties are now recognised and she has the support to build literacy and work skills, her commitment still wavers. A simple thing, like filling out a form instantly reminds her of how "dumb" she must be.
Next: After the film
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