I can't tell you how pleased I am to have been chosen for The Olympian's Diversity Panel. You see, I can't possibly write a column. I'm not capable of doing anything like that.
When I was about 9, I was as “stupid as a box of rocks.” Then one day my teacher, who was young, beautiful and sneaky, told us we were going to play a game. She handed out papers and we were supposed to puzzle out the answer. I like games, and had a lot of fun with this one.
It was an IQ test.
There was a phone call to my dad. Who did he think was the smartest kid in school? He guessed my sister.
Here I was, nine years old and couldn’t read, write, spell, or tell right from left — some smart kid.
My teacher was determined that I was going to read and started taking me home after school. After a short unwinding session with milk and cookies in the kitchen, we headed for the living room where she had flip charts and other aids, and we studied reading.
I remember her talking about lollypop letters such as b, d, p, q, and g. All these letters were just a circle on a stick and they got all mixed up. One day the penny dropped and I read a book of about 100 pages in an hour. To avoid having me stare at the letters that switched around, she had taught me to speed read.
I still couldn’t write, spell or tell right from left but I could now read.
When I expressed an interest in writing, I was told in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t write. I bumbled along through high school and failed at higher education several times.
My writing skills were appreciated in the Navy, as being on report meant you had to write one. I could prove in 500 words that World War III would be the direct result of whatever action or omission the person on report had committed.
I had a nice little sideline selling reports for recopy. The officers didn’t read the reports.
I was almost 30 when a physiology professor at Centralia College pulled me out of class. I was told that I had something called dyslexia. I was amazed that “it” had a name.
I was given an interpreter who rewrote my hen scratches into English and I completed an Associate of Arts degree and Associate of Technical Arts degree in three years — my first academic success.
When the personal computer came along, it allowed me to finally express myself. I can write and the words tell me if they are misspelled.
When typing, the letters even come out right side up.
I earned my history degree from the University of Washington without an interpreter, and for the last few years I have been writing.
Two words of caution come from this story. Dyslexia is real. I understand that sometimes you make stupid mistakes and want to joke about it. We all do. But that’s not dyslexic. That’s a mistake. Those of us with dyslexia are not mistakes or jokes.
Second, don’t label children. After years of being labeled “stupid” I was confused when I was suddenly labeled “smart.” I still struggle with feeling inadequate because my mind drags up the old labels. Help your children succeed by telling them they can succeed.
Finally, let me say that a diagnosis of dyslexia is not a forecast of your future, but may be the tool sets you free. Know that the struggle may be harder if you are dyslexic, but when success comes, it will be sweeter because you did it yourself.
Virginia Towne, a member of The Olympian’s Diversity Panel, retired from the University of Washington as a computer programmer. Towne, who has personal experience with disabilities, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.