Words are not my problem;Cover story;Dyslexia Awareness Week

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Mike Juggins says it's time the education world learned to embraqce the dyslexic thinker.

'I am qresently squinning tetxs, thus givieng you an exmpleexpeiance off letter reverzals, aslo plaese note the errattic sqelling."

I am a dyslexic, (dys-difficulty, lexia-words), which suggests that I struggle with words. However, nothing could be further from the truth, as understanding complicated concepts and expressing myself orally is not a problem. My difficulty comes with reading, writing and then remembering information within a word-dominated society.

At school I was a slow reader and erratic speller, a child who always seemed to be in a daydream. As a sociable young person I enjoyed the camaraderie school life offered but, like many dyslexics, I was systematically humiliated by teachers and fellow students alike, simply because of my inability to achieve basic levels in literacy. I now obviously understand that it was the establishment and not I that had the real problem.

I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed young thing, keen to be involved, to discover and to learn. My inability to decode (read) and thereafter transpose (write) should not have held me back from participating in learning situations, but it did. Frustrated and short-tempered, I would often fly into a rage. The more I tried the less I seemed to achieve, which lead to alienation and bitterness. Moving on to secondary school, I fulfilled their expectations of me and didn't achieve academically.

My schools focused on my weaknesses instead of helping me to recognise and develop my strengths. I have heightened visual spatial and oral reasoning abilities that were ignored, while during such activities as having to read out aloud to the class, reciting times tables and copying from the board, I was stripped of confidence.

One experience that will always stay with me was the time my teacher charged into an English lesson and threw my exercise book (which had pages covered in red ink) across the room at me shouting: "Juggins you simpleton!". The rest of my class fell about laughing, but I was devastated. When the bell rang I ran home so fast my lungs nearly burst and when I got home I not only broke down but broke my heart.

It wasn't until my mid-twenties that I realised that words were made up of symbols and only in the past two years have I actually started to enjoy writing. Indeed, I still believe that I have yet to fulfil my full potential, even after gaining a BA Honours degree, Art in a Social Context, with a 21. It is anybody's guess how many dyslexics there are nationally, probably millions. Vast numbers of people are being systematically discriminated against by the very institutions that up to cater for learning opportunity.

Indeed, one of my three children, Dominic, is dyslexic and I view this with mixed feelings. Dominic has a number of heightened abilities; his visual memory is very strong, as is his visual spatial awareness. This means, for example, that he very rarely forgets a building after visiting it and, unlike many of his peers, he also has no problem representing three dimensions two-dimensionally - he has the potential of making a fine architect. He has an inquisitive nature and enjoys learning. But he also struggles with basic literacy skills and, like his father, has a short-term memory like a sieve . The skills he lacks mean he is unable to access the information and knowledge that could make school a place were his intellect might blossom rather than just a social meeting place.

Dominic's primary school is a lot more supportive than many I know. Unfortunately his school, like so many others, continues to relay so much important information in a form, (linear word based) that most dyslexics are unable to decipher and then store it in their long-term memory. I am concerned Dominic's time at school will pass him by, as did mine, and he will not fulfil his potential. Like most dyslexics, Dominic is starting to feel like a round shape being forced into the rigid squared grid of the education system.

With a lot of hard work I have succeeded academically. But I consider myself lucky. Recent statistics suggest that between 40 and 50 per cent of the male prison population are dyslexic. The frustration and alienation many dyslexics experience within a word based education are great, as society continues to disenfranchise and ultimately discriminate against them from an early age.

Elements of the national curriculum and the introduction of the literacy hour have limited the use of the essential varied teaching approaches necessary to accommodate all students' learning styles. I do believe that the written word is a valuable tool for relaying information, but if an individual finds that tool difficult to use then surely a new one should be found that suits that particular individual. Yes, support can be given to dyslexics having difficulty with the 3Rs. But this must not be at the expense of their emotional equilibrium, nor should it be allowed to result in the wasting away of their individual strengths. It may take a dyslexic 10 times the average effort to achieve average results. This reinforces feelings of inadequacies. I suffered in a word-based education system; but I do not suffer from being dyslexic. I feel fortunate that my brain is wired slightly differently from that of the "norm".

It is time for big changes in how we organise our education. Many dyslexics have succeeded and left their mark. It is our responsibility to facilitate the healthy growth of each individual. Educationists and decision-makers should embrace the dyslexic thinker and learn to think of us as being wonderfully different rather than as being simply "disabled".

Mike Juggins, pictured with son Dominic, recently gained BAHons Art in a Social Context at the University of the West of England. While at university he wrote a dissertation on 'Dyslexia in a Word Based Education System' and produced dyslexia-related student handbooks for UWE and Swindon College. He works for Swindon borough council on mobile media projects enabling children and young adults to produce films and animations. He is also a freelance dyslexia adviser to Swindon College on using computer technologies such as voice to text software, and he is a member of the Arts Dyslexia Trust (tel: 01303 813221) and the Adult Dyslexia Organisation (tel: 0171 924 0559), and is committed to promoting greater understanding and appreciation of dyslexia and the breaking down of prejudices for a fairer system that embraces the dyslexic thinker. As a visual communicator and writer he offers a multitude of skills alongside his personal experience in the field of dyslexia.

Mike Juggins can be contacted on 01793 423419. email: mikejuggins1.freeserve.co.uk

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