Lara Sierra meets inspiring young dyslexics who have been told they have a disability their whole lives. They are learning, however, that dyslexia is a positive tool, which can be a starting point for a bright and visionary future. This is their voice.
“I was made to feel like an outsider from the beginning,” the young man explains. “I was diagnosed with dyslexia aged 10, and no one knew what to do with me. There was no effort made to provide support. Then they told me I had ADHD because I just wasn’t paying attention.
“Eventually, I changed school. I started all over again: new friends, new teachers, a new assessment of my dyslexia. This time though, they took the best of it. At this school, they reinforced the positive things that come from having dyslexia. The ADHD had been a symptom of the frustrations of not being supported in my learning.”
Welcome to Dyslexic Teen Dialogue’s second youth organisation project, titled Dys-Team Dys-play and Dys-cuss. Its co-ordinator, Mary Rose Formosa, an educator herself, is warm, compassionate and extremely articulate on matters relating to dyslexia. She explains the work she’s been doing alongside her day job to bring this project to life.
“Designed and written in Malta, this youth group targets young people with dyslexia and helps them discover and develop talents and soft skills that formal education does not target,” Mary Rose says.
“Our organisers took over a year to prepare and develop an exchange, which happened over summer, between the Maltese group and its Italian counterparts, Futuro Dislessia, in Molfetta, Puglia.
“The idea for this group originated from 11 young people who wanted to raise awareness about dyslexia through their own voices and experiences. We toured schools and had meetings with policymakers, educators, other young people and the general public. The aim was to start a conversation about dyslexia; to remove the taboo and also to be a source of encouragement to others.
“The group further developed by exploring funding opportunities to start the conversation overseas with young people who are in the same situation, while learning each other’s languages,” Mary Rose explains.
“These young people have finished compulsory school, aged 16, and are looking towards their next step in life; either to find a job, or to continue their education.”
The room is filled with bright and engaged youths, with dyslexia being the common denominator, and their adult supervisors. As the difficulties they have faced in their various educational institutions are discussed, there is no self-pity, or any me-against-the-world mentality. They talk with thoughtful insight and thorough analysis, offering carefully constructed solutions to providing better support for the dyslexic children of the future.
This would be impressive were it a group of adults all speaking the same language. Now consider it is a group of fidgety teenagers, working across three languages, all squeezed into a stuffy conference room over their summer holidays…
Diagnosed with dyslexia
“I have always had a strong character,” says one young Italian. “And that developed more once I began needing to overcome hurdles in the classroom.
“I was not diagnosed with dyslexia until the age of 15. Being diagnosed at such a late stage was a relief. It made me realise I wasn’t just incapable, but that I could finally move along and find ways to work around it.
“Having said that, I had to start from zero. How I was being taught all along in school was not the right way of learning. I had always had problems.
“My mum thought I was lazy and that I wasn’t putting the energy into it, but she was always encouraging me and trying to work with me. She taught me to keep trying and trying and trying and that helped my mindset a lot.
“There were various points at school that were so hard I thought I would never overcome the difficulties. But at the end of the day, when you keep seeing your grades are low, it is very discouraging. However, as I was very strong-willed, that discouragement didn’t get me down; I learnt to just keep going.
“Once I went to the psychologist and got the diagnosis of all the various dys – dys-this and dys-that, dyslexia, dyspraxia and many, many, others – she was surprised at how I had managed to carry on and said I should be proud of myself, as even with all the bad marks at school, I had reached that age without any support.
“Being diagnosed dyslexic wasn’t surprising for us,” explains one half of a pair of twins. “Our older sister had dyslexia; then they found we had it too. As we got older, it affected us less and now I am studying to be a chef at the InterContinental Hotel. It doesn’t affect me at all.”
One half of another set of twins says that “when they told us we are dyslexic, our mother went to meetings and tried her best to understand what it was. Yet for me, dyslexia is a word that will not affect me, because I try as hard as my friends, if not more. In fact, they are always surprised when they realise we are dyslexic”.
“In school, it was difficult for me,” her sister continues. “I never took the extra provisions, such as extra time, or a laptop for my exams, because I knew that, at the last minute, the allowances could be taken away due to discrepancies in the way the reports are written.
“It was frightening to know that they may be taken away, so I thought I would rather do without. I also didn’t want to be judged for using these extra support methods.”
Her twin nods in agreement. “I believe the education system needs to change a lot. I believe a system that is more project based, rather than exam based, would help.
“I have become accustomed to feeling intense pressure around exam time because I feel I need to do well in spite of my dyslexia. I have developed anxiety around that period. I have suffered panic attacks… even right now, just thinking about it…”
The girl pauses and tears begin to roll down her face. Her friends squeeze her shoulder and the adults assure her she’s doing very well.
She continues: “I believe exams should be less stressful; other students should not judge too harshly when we are given particular arrangements such as extra time. These allowances are authorised to help us, but then we are made to feel like we are cheating.”
There are sighs and nods all around the room… And there are also those who acknowledge that the entire exam system cannot simply be scrapped, with everything being project based, as that would exclude the pupils who do well in exams. They want the system to be “adaptable”.
No, no, no!
Mary Rose speaks, giving the girl a chance to compose herself.
“Us adults all have children who have dyslexia, and what this young woman is explaining is how we all feel right now. We’ve all been there; we’ve all had these negative experiences. We’ve all been told: ‘No, this is not possible!’ We’ve all been told: ‘No, your child will never make it!’ And that’s why we are all here. All those ‘nos’ have put us in this room.
“And we have to remember too that there are people who are not in this room; who do not have these opportunities to work positively with their dyslexia.
“There are many more children who have been destroyed by the ‘nos’ they have been told. But this difficulty is what has made this group possible, and we have taken the positives, so we can educate others that dyslexia is a positive thing.”
Another woman adds: “When we are told, as mothers, that our child has dyslexia, we take it as bad news because that is what the world has made us believe…”
The tools to succeed
A softspoken teacher at the back of the room says she finds it “very unfair when students have been diagnosed with dyslexia, but their report has not been written in a specific and formatted way, which says they can have extra time, or a laptop. And just because of an error in the way a report has been written, they will not be permitted the tools needed to succeed. Then their grades won’t reflect their intelligence.”
Mary Rose nods. “Even with the required documents, sometimes the provisions are still not handed out. Sometimes, a student’s provisions are taken away if they seem to be doing well. Their allowance of extra time is taken away because their grades improve; they may, for example, have been awarded a four, but could have got a one!”
Another girl speaks up. “Malta does, however, offer opportunities. I think it’s important to state that. I, for example, receive both extra time and a laptop and help from an occupational therapist and psychologist. However, the support is not always given in the right way,” she adds. “There are biases from the top level…”
Another Italian student says that this is also the case in Italy. “When the system works so that you are given necessary support, it is seen as being given ‘extra help’, so students are penalised. Whoever is marking the exams will see that extra time has been allowed and will adjust the marks, so we may as well not have received support to begin with.
“Dyslexic students can never get the highest mark, otherwise other students will deem it unfair.”
One of the adults pipes up and chips in: “Yet the computer is a mere tool; like a pen, or a pencil. It is not cheating, or an extra advantage; it is just a different tool. The competence remains the same, whether you are writing by hand, or typing. But it is not viewed in that way; and the students are penalised.”
The entire room is in agreement about the fact that they are tired of not being asked directly about dyslexia.
There are so many experts, who talk about them and tell them what resources they need, but the young people have felt they never had the opportunity to voice their own opinions about how they can best be supported.
“This is why we began the project,” says Mary Rose.
Help at hand
“I have been using a smart pen,” says one of the Italian youths. “It helps me a lot; the pen translates what I write onto the computer and records it into different media, which is easier than typing when I am taking notes. It corrects any errors, and when I go back to my notes, I have the option to listen to them, or read them.”
Another boy enjoys using mind mapping as a learning resource, but adds that some teachers don’t like this because they don’t know what to do with it.
“I had one teacher I’ll never forget,” says another Italian boy. “She would produce summaries and mind maps for the dyslexic students in her class. She went that extra mile for us, and actually, all students enjoyed access to these tools, so she helped others to learn in a different way too.”
It is agreed that the level of competence of the teacher is crucial, but that this will not change unless there is a general mindset shift in the public of what dyslexia is.
It is safe to say that we have all been mis-educated about dyslexia. We have all learnt that it is not a good thing and, therefore, we have all put it in the box of ‘learning disabilities’.
Yet we need to stop treating it as such; because these children do not have a low IQ, or anything preventing them from learning other than the way they are taught.
So why are dyslexic students often shunned from the education system? Because it is easier to marginalise than to make the required changes to allow them to thrive.
Creativity as a consequence
There is an educational psychologist in the room, who has mostly been helping with the translations up to this point. But he now offers his insight into the benefits of having a dyslexic mind.
“Creativity is a consequence of dyslexia,” he says slowly, in a mixture of Italian and English. “Dyslexic students have to get used to solving additional problems. They have to draw on their creativity as a resource so find ways to solve the problem in front of them.
“If you don’t have a problem, you don’t have to find a solution. But dyslexic children become very well versed in finding solutions; they become very good at problem solving, which helps them for life.
“Everyone’s dyslexia is so different,” he adds. “And people develop very different creative methods…”
The taste of failure
This group of young people, on the brink of adulthood, have already tasted so much failure; failure to read as quickly as their peers; failure to do well in spelling tests; failure to read aloud; failure in exams; and failure when kids laughed at them.
Even when they were handed a laptop and extra time, eyebrows were raised. Were they cheating? And by default, even when they did well, they failed.
Yet they are not thick. They are not cheaters. They are certainly not lazy. They have ‘failed’ their education system for one reason alone: their brains work differently. And their education system may have failed them by making them feel they were at fault; that there was something wrong with them.
Ultimately, “we are all different and we all learn in different ways, so we should all be allowed to learn in the way that suits us best.”
This article first appeared in Pink magazine. Get your copy with The Sunday Times of Malta.