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Growing up with dyslexia: How I learned to succeed

A high school senior with learning difficulties inspires hope by telling his personal story of using determination and drive to overcome his challenges.

By Richard Olney

Throughout school, I've been troubled with being very intelligent and at the same time having to rely on others to do my schoolwork. I've needed hours of help to express my ideas in a form the education system — one that works so well for many but wasn't really made for me - would accept.

Identifying My Problems

In first grade I discovered there was an enormous difference between what I knew and how I functioned in school. How could those jumbled letters mean anything? Why didn't the words sound like the letters? Why couldn't my hand form the letters correctly? Why did people laugh at my spelling? My parents told me it was because I had dyslexia.

My grade school teachers didn't know what to do with me. I wasn't labeled a poor student because I understood and dictated information at a more advanced level than I could read and write. The best thing they did for me was put me in a program for highly capable learners. This labeled me as "intelligent" rather than "slow learner."

Other kids teased me because of my difficulty in the classroom and motor problems on the playground. I became a loner, shy and afraid to step forward, afraid of being hurt.

The special education teachers tried everything, but they couldn't come up with a system to help me read better. I began to feel more like a guinea pig. They tried to teach me Braille and suggested I learn Morse Code. Some of these things might have worked if I had had the patience to keep them up.

Things got better in fifth grade when I had a teacher who treated me with respect and inspired me — giving me much of the drive for excellence I now have. She recognized I could be smart but still struggle with things. She worked with me the entire year, helping me build my confidence. Finally, my peers began treating me with respect, too.

Finding My Motivation

My life took a shift in seventh grade. When I was younger, I lived in a world of fantasy and imagination — with action figures and books. I met a group of friends similar to myself - intelligent, imaginative, and good-natured — and through them, I learned a game called "Dungeons and Dragons."

For the first time in a long time, I had friends I could trust and relate to. They introduced me to something that would be key to my development. I became their dungeon master, and as such I had to read tremendous amounts of material to prepare the adventures I led. How was I to read it? My parents wouldn't read it to me. My tutors couldn't help me. It had nothing to do with school.

The drive to take some personal control over my disability had to come from outside of school. In my case, school helped me compensate for my problems but didn't force me to overcome them. I had to believe I could overcome my own dragons, just as I had to slay the dragons in the game. Finally it was my own challenge.

I chose technology to gain my independence. I obtained a scanner capable of optical character recognition. This allowed me to scan a book into my computer in a text format and then have a speech synthesis program read it to me. Because of so many errors in the scanned version of the text, I had to follow along in the hard copy and was forced to begin overcoming the difficulty of reading.

Continuing the Challenges

In high school, I finally managed to convince my parents and school to take me out of me special education classes. I still spend almost twice the time my peers spend on their homework. My dad puts in countless hours a week helping me, as well as paying for outside support from college students. Still, I can't really read or write cursive, or read for too long at one time.

I use technology in school, but it's not the total solution. Voice activated technology doesn't operate fast enough for me to keep up with school, so I still have to rely on people for help. If I dictate to a human being, it's easier to edit and write as I go. Still, each year the challenges become less, even though they aren't eliminated.

As for my social life, it's also improving. Last year, I realized I didn't like being a loner. So I made a conscious decision to change who I was. I would remake my outward shell but keep my core intact. I started to go to school plays and games and tried to change the way I interacted with people. It's been a long struggle to rebuild my courage. My journey hasn't been easy, but I'm succeeding in becoming more socially adept- at least so far!

Looking Forward

In the past, I found my ability to express intellect and imagination was limited by dyslexia. But my disability has helped me think outside of the usual ways people look at or approach things. Despite the pitfalls and roadblocks, I always manage to push forward and find other ways to grow as I explore my world. And I've developed a drive and determination to succeed that's invaluable. There is still pain at times, but I look forward to leaving home for college and the new challenges I'll face in the future.

Comments from readers

"Great to hear about success of dyslexics. Where is this person now? How have continuing challenges been met and managed? As an adult with dyslexia I am always looking for howto's for dyslexics. The howto's seem to end when education ends."