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“Erevy asigmnent for this cuorse will be submited with perfect speling, punctutaion and acuracy.”
Trouble reading this statement? Now, imagine reading 400 pages with the same jumbled letters, and finding red underscores under every sentence you type. Imagine walking into section, only to see that everyone else actually remembers what they’ve spent hours poring over in Bass. It’s highlighted with stickers, post-its and annotations.
I’m lucky if I even get through the first half of the reading. I pick classes based on how thick the books are, not how interesting their synopses seem, and anything with the potential for a pop quiz is out of the question.
After being at Yale for almost two years, I thought this simply meant that I was less smart than everyone else. I was proud of my ability to apply the portions of the readings I had completed to literally any of the professor’s question. I assumed that I was unable to read the material because I was overcommitted to other things outside the classroom: sleep, Netflix, this newspaper.
But instead, midway through sophomore spring, when studying a foreign language became an endless ordeal, a solid concrete wall that was never going to fall, I finally plucked up the courage to admit to my dean that I was scared.
“Maybe I’m not smart enough to be here anymore.”
Journalists and authors publish many articles about my problem, but rarely in the first person. It’s a third-person narrative, because no-one suffering from the secret could ever tell their own story, right? Wrong.
Three weeks ago, I received a piece of paper. On it, a diagnosis: dyslexia.
THE FEAR OF FAILING
“I hear you have dyslexia,” someone said to me a couple weeks ago. He said the word in a hushed tone, as if offering a form of protection from the people around me. He was right to offer protection: When I told other people, their expressions went from surprise to sorrow to sympathy, as they began to change their opinions of me.
Still, with most people, you get the chance to change a first impression. The dyslexia comes second. With professors and figures of academic authority, on the other hand, the dyslexia can be the first impression.
When Laura Schifter first began a graduate program in education at Harvard, she met with one of her professors to discuss the special accommodations she would need for exams and lecture notes. One professor told her that the department would need to be confident that the work was all her own before agreeing to these accommodations. The professor worried that dyslexia was an excuse for plagiarism.
“That hit me in the face right when I started … It really made me question whether I want to talk about my disability,” she said.
Together, we talked about our fears — we’re reticent to explain our disabilities to peers and professors who could judge us harshly, or expect less of us. But as high-achieving students, we’re most afraid of cracking under the pressure.
Why? Because it hasn’t always been easy for students with learning disabilities at Ivy League colleges. In 2010, Diane Metcalf-Leggette sued Princeton for refusing to grant her extended time on exams. She argued that the university was in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act, and that Princeton had mistreated her in regards to her academic goals.
The lawsuit stated that the insufficient accommodations left her at the “bottom of a slanted, not level, playing field.”
Even though the university eventually settled with the student, Metcalf-Leggette fought to receive her learning accommodations for her entire freshman year.
Thankfully, things at Yale have been different: The Office of Disabilities provides a comprehensive set of options; professors are responsive; and students have unlimited access to research, journals and speakers through the Yale Center For Dyslexia and Creativity, a research institute on learning differences.
Neither Schifter nor Jonathan Mooney, an advocate for people with learning differences, had trouble receiving accommodations on an institutional basis.
Instead, they dealt with a different problem: the sometimes pre-emptive accusation of academic dishonesty. In Schifter’s case, her professors made the assumption, but in Mooney’s case, it was sometimes peers at Brown. Not everyone understood why Mooney got access to a notetaker, extended time on exams and the possibility to alter the syllabus slightly to meet his needs.
“I felt like a fraud and a phony,” he said.
THE HONORS STUDENT
On his website, Mooney defines himself as “Author. Public Speaker. Different.” He graduated from Brown with a 4.0 in English literature and was awarded the Truman Scholarship, which funds up to $30,000 in scholarship support for graduate school. His first book, “Learning Outside The Lines,” was published while he was merely 23.
It’s an impressive resume, but still: Mooney has had the same worries about learning differences for years. Diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD in elementary school, he told me that he’s had a different learning diagnosis nearly every year of his life and struggled to understand how best to learn and succeed.
“There’s 10 Ph.D.s over there writing dissertations and books about kids like me. But, guess who has no voice in the process?” he asked at a conference at Towson University in 2001.
The answer: “The kids who live the experience. So, I’m a voice for all those kids who are silent.”
Silent because, even after decades of research and analysis, the assumption that dyslexia and intelligence are mutually exclusive remained as intransient as ever. Mooney’s own story is a counterexample to that assumption, he said, and it’s a way to address the social inequality surrounding learning differences. He does not like to call them disabilities.
And in light of new research suggesting that dyslexia either doesn’t exist or is over-diagnosed to help under-qualified students, he said, the temptation to hide learning differences was even stronger.
The term dyslexia was first coined in 1887 by Rudolf Berlin to describe a young boy who had demonstrated intelligence and a capacity for learning, but could not read at the same rate as his peers. The term was defined in early medical journals as “Congenital Word Blindness,” with the term dyslexia not being widely used until the 1930s.
Yet in the early 21st century, British professor Julian Elliott and others claimed that dyslexia did not exist at all. He termed it “useless” — a simple term for “poor readers.” The British Dyslexic Association termed his papers “very damaging and insulting to people who are trying to overcome their dyslexia.”
In 2004, during another wave of such claims, Serena Gosden-Hood ’08 told the News that students without learning disabilities tend to have difficulty understanding the need for special accommodations, particularly when the students were intelligent Yale students.
“I would often see pathetic and embarrassed looks in people’s eyes when they heard I had a learning disability, and I would have to explain that it doesn’t mean you’re unintelligent,” she said.
Sometimes, students with learning differences endure more than just embarrassed looks. In 2008, the charity Mencap released statistics that showed 82 percent of young people with learning disabilities have experienced a form of bullying. And, even though the cases of bullying can be the most extreme and I am fortunate to not identify as one of those 82 percent, I can begin to relate to the fear of backlash.
“Remember, you are the same person now that you will be in 45 minutes time.”
That’s what the Judy York, Yale’s director in the disabilities office, told me as she gave me the formal diagnosis. But, irrespective of what the paper says, it can sometimes be difficult to remember that it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day.
I can’t ice skate. I’m allergic to shellfish. Fish creep me out. I read slower. I think in pictures, not words. I want to be a writer. Albert Einstein was dyslexic. Science is hard too.
So, it does not matter whether I was formally diagnosed or if I had just continued to think of myself as a right-brained, creative mind. I got to Yale without anyone even noticing my learning difference. I declared as an English major. This is only one of many stories I have successfully written in these pages. I’ve read Shakespeare and Tolstoy and got further in a language course than any statistics could have predicted.
Disability or no disability, I have no plans to stop.
Contact Stephanie addenbrooke at