Testimonial - Emma

EmmaThis is a copy of the opening speech given at the Palmerston North Dyslexia & Mathematics presentation on the 29th of March 2003. (Reproduced with permission)
Good morning.

My name is Emma. I am 22 years old and I am dyslexic. This is the first time I have spoken publicly, and I have been asked to give you some insight in to how this has affected me and what coping strategies I use.

I have found that dyslexia today is still surrounded with a lot of ignorance both from educationalists and from the public in general. People sympathies but most have no idea of what it involves. They are also mainly unaware of how the word 'dyslexia' is actually a very general term and categorising its individual effects is difficult.

Books have been written on the subject and there is a theory that dyslexia could be linked to pregnancy and birth difficulties. I don't know the link of these medical findings but in my case my mother suffered from undiagnosed placental deficiency. I was born full term weighing 5lb 3oz, a 'flat' baby with low apgar levels. After incubation and being tube-fed, due to my lack of oxygen my mother was told to keep an eye on my milestones over the next 12 month period, as there was the possibility I could be suffering from cerebral palsy.

When I was 7 years of age my mother and stepfather suspected that I was dyslexic as I was still reversing and having confusion with a lot of my characters - b's and p's, 6's and 9's etc. I was also left handed, and writing a number of my words backwards. This didn't alert any concerns at school though, nor were my parents' attention drawn to it.

My mother made contact with SPELD to have me assessed privately as I didn't appear to come within the boundaries of the Special Education Unit. Assessments they carry out are on referral but no one was referring me. Catch 22 situation. It was established that I have reading comprehension dyslexia and poor short term memory recall. I was always a great one at school for others to use as a confidante to tell their secrets to as they could always rely on me not to pass these on. One of the reasons for this was because I invariably couldn't remember what they had told me. I also got confused easily which made it difficult when growing up as my younger brother always won every sibling bickering with quick vocabulary that I didn't possess.

Tutoring through SPELD then became a part of my weekly life. My parents also spent a couple of hours each night taking me for reading. Depending on who had the best day at work would depend on who took me. Reading instruction at school was whole word learning which I had difficulty with, so at school I had whole word instruction and at home my parents would break down the words with me into syllables. We also had numerous flash cards around the house starting off with a word and a picture and on the flip side was the word on its own. Visitors soon became used to seeing everything around the house labeled and other words popping up everywhere. Instructions were also very hard to follow so Mum would work with me by giving me instructions to go to the bedroom, get such and such and then on my way back do so and so. It was a slow process before I reached a stage where I remembered to do everything I was told in the order required. Telephone numbers were also another good teacher. Mum would get me to make a phone call for her as she called out a telephone number to me. As I also had problems with left/right co-ordination my parents enrolled me in jazz ballet. My stepfather would take along a video camera and my dance teacher would go through the steps required for him. This then enabled me to play the tape at home and go through the dance moves without tripping myself up. When I got older Mum would give me her money machine card and get me to do transactions for her. She would write down her number and the instructions step by step. It took a lot of courage for me to do this as I was always terrified that I would do one of the steps wrong and lose her card in the machine or worse. Teasing from peers goes hand in hand with a disability, but I was always taught never to be ashamed about it, so when I was taunted with being stupid I would reply with "no I'm not, I'm dyslexic". Mum also taught me at a young age how to spell the word "encyclopedia" so when I was teased I knew how to spell a big word that the others in the class didn't.

Even with my teachers being aware of my having dyslexia, ignorance still surrounded it. I remember when I was 8 years of age, my mother coming to pick me up from school and finding me in tears. We had had a project to do in class which involved writing a story on one side of the book and drawing a picture on the other. I had carried this out on the opposite sides of the book to what was required. My teacher got very angry, yelled at me and tore the pages out of my book, and yet when Mum found me crying it was not because the teacher had upset me, but because I had upset him.

I was conscious of trying to follow instructions precisely as they were given to me. When I began playing netball I was put in to the goal keep position and told that it was my job to "guard the post". A home video we have shows one of my netball games. The ball and all the play was at the other end of the court. Then it shows a shot of me standing on my own at the other end, my back to the game and my arms up in the air guarding the post. I can tell you that goal post never went anywhere!

Unfortunately education in our western society is geared towards left hemisphere teaching, the factual side of the brain, whereas I have always excelled at art and singing (the right hemisphere). Whole brain education would probably assist in alleviating a lot of problems associated with dyslexics learning.

On reaching fifth form and school certificate, I was given the opportunity of having a reader/writer but elected not to have one. My study was carried out by going through all my notes etc. and highlighting key points, then my mother dictated them onto tape for me to enable me to study. Due to the fact that it takes me twice as long as others to do exams I was aware that I had to basically pass my exams on partial work completed. When the results came out it took a lot of courage before I would open them up. I cried and cried when I found out that I had passed all 5 subjects. My parents were very proud of me because they have always taught us to always do our best. If you happen to be a 'C' grade student that is fine providing that C grade is your best, but don't be an 'A' grade student gaining C's.

Education at this level and above became even harder as the work demands and output required were higher. Throughout primary school I was always exhausted at the end of the day and know now that this was probably due to the amount of mental energy needed for day to day learning. Just prior to my bursary exams I got glandular fever and then six months later I got shingles. Dyslexics trying to learn has been likened to being a foreigner in a foreign country where you don't know the language.

Since then I have studied Civil Engineering and am now in my second year of training for a Bachelor of Education degree. It is still difficult for me as I have to carry out all my study aurally. I send all my textbooks down to my mother in Alexandra and she dictates them word for word onto tapes for me and then sends them back. One advantage of this is the volume of study books required to be read at university level and how much the individual actually takes in. I have the benefit of being able to play my tapes over and over again, sometimes while doing other activities like the 40 minute drive each way each day to university, or listening to them through my Walkman while I take my two Labradors for a run along the beach. Even now the education system does not cater for individual requirements sufficiently. My tutors are aware that this is how I have to carry out my study but the facility is still not available to obtain my notes and books on tape. I get sympathy from them but mostly I get people asking me how it affects me and how do I cope. There is always amazement when I show people how I can write perfect mirror image or take a pen in each hand and start writing simultaneously in different directions.

So back to the question of how does dyslexia affect me? Apart from the fact that I don't know any different, it's very difficult at times, very mentally tiring and many a time I have been tempted to 'give up'. I am very fortunate though to have parents who have brought us up to always set our own limits in life, if we want the stars reach for them. Without the ongoing support I receive from them I wouldn't be able to achieve all that I have done so far as there isn't the support systems out there. SPELD always stood for Specific Learning Disability, now it's referred to as Some People Learn Differently. Yes, I have a disability but it is up to me whether I allow it to disable me.