Traveling with Dyslexia
I am an American student living and studying for the year in England. I came to the UK to study neuropsychology and disability studies in literature as part of a year-long exchange program between my home university, Sarah Lawrence College (in New York), and Oxford University. I also happen to have dyslexia.
My experience in Oxford has been wonderful, but the cultural and linguistic divide has proved much more challenging then I anticipated. I am frequently baffled by my British peers’ frequent use of abbreviations, such as “uni” for university, and unfamiliar vocabulary like “snug” as a noun (it’s a small, comfortable public room in a pub or inn). The strange accents I experience here can also be quite bewildering. And all of these encounters are more disorienting precisely because they occur in an English-speaking country in what is supposed to be my native tongue.
To cope in a foreign land requires a lot of adaptation. And in spite of some initial difficulties, I am adjusting. My British vocabulary is quickly expanding and I now understand some of the more popular abbreviations. But when cultural impasses emerge, sometimes just speaking up and acknowledging my foreignness is the most effective way to assist understanding. For example, I often interrupt conversations at awkward moments to clarify unfamiliar phrases and references, and have acknowledged openly to astonished listeners that I don’t know what takes place inside a British primary school. But bridging the cultural divide sometimes also means acknowledging my difference in more explicit ways: The simple statement, “I’m a visiting student from the US,” usually makes the confusion and anxiety disappear. However, thanks to my accent and other American characteristics or mannerisms, such explicit self-identification is often not even necessary.
I have limited international experience, yet these acts of self-identification and the acceptance of otherness nevertheless feel familiar to me. As a person with dyslexia, I’m practiced in bridging a cultural divide of a different sort. Dyslexia has always been an experience of difference for me. It is easy to feel strange, even in the town you have lived for all your life, when everyone around you seems to be able to do with relative ease such tasks as spelling which will always be difficult for you. Similarly, it is easy to feel foreign, even in the classroom of your home university, if your professors make the assumption that you bring to the table the same set of skills as every other member of the group. But both my own experience and the neuroscience I study tell me that I am not the same. Dyslexic brains are different and as people we reflect this neurodiversity. Functionally, these differences mean we bring unique abilities and different needs to our studies and occupations.
But our society and educational system are still acclimating to this diversity and often fail to do so completely or at all, without our help. Dyslexia (and the dyslexic), remains the foreign “other” in the classroom and the workplace. In order to navigate this reality, we as dyslexics must remember the techniques employed by other foreigners: we must practice self-advocacy in order to navigate sometimes confusing environments and language in order to make sure we’re understood and our needs are met. Of course we must try our best to meet the world where it is. I am always trying to improve my work efficiency and learn how to spell the words that still elude me. But we must at the same time accept that we are travelers in a strange land and find the courage to speak up if we don’t understand something. I try to never allow the consensus of my fellow students to determine when I have found comprehension. Perhaps most importantly, though, we must learn to declare and explain our difference. No matter what country I am in, if someone finds my slow reading or poor spelling surprising, I try to explain it: first I tell them that I am dyslexic and then I describe what that means. Sometimes they still don’t understand, but maybe they will next time. Like any declaration of differentness, my self-identification as dyslexic helps to guarantee that at least people will begin to understand where I come from.
Dwight Richardson Kelly has served as a summer intern in Washington, DC, for both the National Council on Disability and the American Association of People with Disabilities. He also created The Dyslexic Corpus Callosum, a dyslexic-run space on Facebook for people with dyslexia and their allies to share ideas with each other about the condition. Their motto: “nothing about us, without us."