As a reader of LD.org, you know that people with learning disabilities (LD) are often some of the most intelligent, creative and innovative folks around. We bring you stories of both celebrities and everyday people who are not just surviving life with a learning disability, but truly thriving. Most of our success stories are told after-the-fact by people who have already graduated and established their careers. But what does an LD success story look like as it’s happening—in middle school, in high school and beyond? What might a person with LD in the midst of his or her educational journey have to say?
Today, we start a series looking into the life of one remarkable 14-year-old with dyslexia: Jack. Known as the “puzzle king” in preschool, he’s starting his freshman year at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)-focused high school in the fall. A skilled self-advocate and user of assistive technology, Jack has come a long way since he learned he had dyslexia as a third grader. We’ll be posting blog updates throughout the year as he experiences his first year of high school, but here’s your chance to get to know him now. We sat down for an interview with Jack where he shared his experiences, hopes, dreams and what he’s learned so far on his LD journey. His story is sure to inspire, and you’ll definitely want to know what happens next!
Do you remember feeling different in school even before you knew you had dyslexia? Yes. In first grade, I started to “feel stupid” and didn’t understand the teacher’s directions. I always had to look over at other students to see what was going on. My work was the same as everyone else’s, so my teachers thought I was fine. But inside, I felt like I wasn’t smart.
It can be hard for parents to talk to their kids about having dyslexia or another LD. Do you remember when your parents told you that you are dyslexic? Yes, we sat down with my reading tutor and they explained everything. When I found out, it made me feel a lot better about myself. Finally, I knew that I wasn’t stupid. I have a different way of learning and different abilities but I am just as intelligent as any other student.
You’re a successful honor roll student and have (except for the past year in English class) been in only general education classes. What strategies do you use to help you in school? I use a lot of assistive technology (AT). I take my Macbook Air with built-in speech-to-text software to school everyday. It’s in my IEP to have the computer and I use programs that help with phonetic spelling, mind-mapping, word processing, and more. I use Learning Ally for audio versions of my and Siri on my iPhone for spelling and grammar. In terms of types of reading tutoring, I have done 5 years of the Orton Gillingham method and taught myself the Davis Method. None were “the key” but together they were helpful. I still read very slowly.
I have always comprehended everything but read very slowly and decoding is hard for me. Each dyslexic person is different. Some read well and comprehension is hard. Others are in between. Different methods work for different people.
What are the best things about having dyslexia? Having a creative mind and thinking outside of the box. I think in pictures and this makes me good at creating diagrams and maps. I love building things. I wouldn’t change having dyslexia. I wish I could read well but I love how my brain works and how I function and how I think—I’d never want to lose that.
What have been the hardest parts of having dyslexia? Being put down, misunderstood and mistaken for not being smart. With school, it’s hard when teachers don’t understand that although I use AT, I still have to put great time and effort into tasks that come easier for people who don’t have dyslexia. Technology helps a lot but even with technology, it still takes me three times longer than other kids to do work like essay writing. I can do the same quality of work as other kids, but it does take me a lot longer. I also find that most teachers are not taught about dyslexia. They don’t realize that most kids with dyslexia have a hard time with memorizing rote facts. For example, I am really good in math and math concepts but I am weak with times tables, so I need a calculator. If they didn’t understand how a dyslexic brain works, they might think if I am not good with my times tables then I am not good in math. They might not know that I can demonstrate my comprehension of the material in a different format.
I also went through a year when I was bullied because I was in a special education English class. Even though I was on the honor roll, there was still a stigma to being in this class. It was a really difficult year and I had recently moved to a new town and new school and felt really alone. I realized that I know I’m capable of anything other kids are and have a lot of pride in myself—nothing can break me down. I talked to another older friend who also had been bullied and he gave me some good advice and I also talked to the principal by myself. The bullying stopped by the end of the year.
What do you wish people knew about dyslexia? Dyslexia doesn’t make you any less smart or capable. Because I have dyslexia, my weakness is reading, but everyone has some sort of weakness. For example, a lot of people need glasses…and you wouldn’t assume that someone is stupid because they need glasses to read. So don’t assume I’m stupid because I need AT to read!
In school, I’ve found that a lot of teachers don’t understand what dyslexia is and assume that it means that I need to be given easier work. This isn’t true! I can (and really want to!) do the same work as other kids. I might need extra time or a reduced work load because things take me longer, but I can do just as challenging of work as anyone without dyslexia. I wish more teachers understood dyslexia and were trained in how to teach kids. I am part of a group that educates teachers and students about dyslexia. I also wish some of my teachers would take the time to sit and watch what it takes for me to do the work so they would understand how much extra time and effort it takes. They may even have better ideas of how they want me to do something. My teachers who have done this with me have always taught me the most and been the most creative.
How have you learned to advocate for yourself? I started going to my own IEP meetings in 7th grade. This is a great place to advocate for yourself and learn more—and make sure you speak up when you have ideas! You know your own learning better than anyone else. Get to know your teachers well and communicate with them. If you need something, don’t be afraid to ask. You want to start taking charge of what you’re doing before you head to high school, so you can advocate for yourself on your own. This gets even more important as you get older—in college, you might be away from your family so it’s very important to know how to handle things. What advice would you give to a younger student with dyslexia who is just starting middle school? It might get harder for you as you move up grades. Know that it will be a struggle but remember that you can accomplish anything if you believe in yourself. As long as you keep believing in yourself, you will excel forward. You will find teachers and others on the way who also will believe in you and that will keep you going when you get tired or frustrated or wonder if you can do it. Remember to share with your family how you are doing and when you need more support.
Many famous people—like inventors, designers, architects, scientists and more are dyslexic. Dyslexia won’t stop you from success. Find a role model with dyslexia you can look up to, and you too can help other students who have LD: talk to them about AT and show them the websites and tools you use. Most importantly…never give up.
I am excited to share my journey with you this year. Remember your family, friends and your teachers are so important on your journey.