WXXI AM News

Dyslexia can present challenges and opportunities

Jan 22, 2020

Credit freeimages.com/Deborah Krusemark

Dyslexia is a language processing disorder that causes difficulty reading or processing spoken words. 

It affects anywhere between 5% and 20% of the population, according to various estimates.

Courtney Hathaway, a school social worker, was diagnosed with dyslexia when she was in third grade, but she was placed in reading intervention programs as early as kindergarten. 

In elementary school, Hathaway didn't think much about the fact that she was singled out, but by middle school, she became more aware of the fact that she was being separated from her classmates.     

"At that point, I was also receiving accommodations," she said, "so I was taking my test in a different location, I was having my test read to me, which were all very helpful, however, you start to realize, what's different or why me?"

Hathaway doesn't remember being teased or bullied because she was different.  Any discomfort, she said, was strictly internal. 

But there were times when she was frustrated because her experience was so different from her peers.

"They would say, 'No, I don't really have that much homework tonight,' " she recalled, "and in the back of my head thinking, 'My gosh, this is gonna take me three, four, or five hours and I've got to get up and go to school the next day."

The earlier a child is diagnosed with dyslexia, the sooner they can get help. Even preschool-age kids show signs of the disorder if parents and caretakers know what to look for.

"One of the biggest ones is difficulty in recognizing rhyming patterns like sit, hit, bit. They may struggle with those types of things," said Laura Arrington, family and youth education coordinator at Starbridge, a nonprofit supporting people with disabilities and their families. "Mispronouncing familiar words, like saying 'refrigicalator,' instead of 'refrigerator.' "

By the time a child is in school, Arrington said, dyslexia can show itself in different ways -- having trouble finishing tests, for example, or acting out during reading times to avoid having to read.

"Everyone wants to be successful," she explained, "so when a student is having low self-esteem, is having behaviors, maybe getting sent out of class, we want to look at why and what's going on and get that student tested to see if there's something else going on, and the majority of the time, there usually is something such as a hidden learning disability."

Arrington said schools are getting better at helping students who are diagnosed. They can be enrolled in special reading programs, get extra time to take texts, have class notes provided for them, and use tools like speech recognition software.

Hathaway said as she got older, she eventually learned how to compensate for her condition so she could fit in academically and socially, but even as an adult, there have been times when it's a struggle.

She calls dyslexia a hidden disability. People can't see it, so they might think a person is lazy or has a behavioral problem.

"If you were going to, say, a fast-food restaurant," she said, "and somebody is in front of you ordering a meal, an individual who may be dyslexic ... maybe they're struggling to read and process and make that decision, it may take them a little longer. But the person behind them, in our fast-paced society, we think, 'They look normal on the outside; they should get up there, tell them what they want to eat, pay, and move on,' versus a visible disability, maybe somebody is in a wheelchair, most people would not think twice about holding a door, allowing for a little more time."

Hathaway said she finds it easier to talk to people on the phone instead of exchanging emails. She still struggles with reading, writing, and processing words.

"It's part of me," she said. "I often say it's one of my greatest strengths as well as one of my greatest challenges."

She said dyslexia has taught her resilience, empathy, and creative problem-solving.

Arrington said this is an important message for people with this diagnosis.

"Having dyslexia doesn't diminish your potential," she said. "With the right supports and services, the sky's the limit."

As if she set out of prove it, Hathaway graduated from both high school and college as the valedictorian.

This story is part of Dialogue on Disability week -- a partnership between WXXI and Al Sigl Community of Agencies -- in conjunction with the Herman and Margaret Schwartz Community Series.

On WXXI-TV, British documentarian Richard Macer takes a journey across the United Kingdom with his dyslexic son, Arthur, seeking to answer the question: "Can this disability also be a gift in disguise?" 

The film, "Farther and Sun: A Dyslexic Road Trip," airs at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 22.