«You will never reach the standards of academic writing»

On the shame and social stigma of dyslexia

I was almost 17 when I was diagnosed with dysortography, a  specific dysgraphic disorder of spelling which accompanies dyslexia.

What this meant, was that I suddenly had an answer as to why, even if my reading skills excelled, my spelling was at times very poor.

It also meant that people saw me differently; I became that girl who now needed special assistance to manage. Never mind that before I was diagnosed, I had managed quite well, being one of the top students in my year. Still, I was suddenly the token example of a disadvantaged student, and over night my presence was associated with dyslexia as if that was suddenly everything there was to know about me. The shame that others associated with me on account of me being dyslectic, was hard to cope with.

When I started my bachelor, I made a choice to not share that I was dyslectic with the other students. Of course, my professors and lecturers needed to be told, but even then I did so with much trepidation. Turns out I was right to feel that way.

During my time as a student, a lot of my professors and teachers commented on my perceived inability to be a good writer. One actually went as far as to call me out in the classroom, telling me that «I would never be able to write academically, and should consider getting speech therapy (?) because clearly my oral abilities were affected by my dyslexia». This incident in particular was incredibly damaging as it destroyed my confidence in my writing as well as the belief that I could actually thrive as an academic.

It took my many years to rebuild my confidence. But I managed, and 20 years after I was first diagnosed, I am in the final stages of writing my dissertation and thus completing my PhD. The feedback on my writing has been overwhelmingly positive; cited, among other, to be engaging, performative and inclusive. Of course, me reaching this point did not happen on its own. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a huge network of support, but recently I was reminded that not everyone is as fortunate.

One of my best and oldest friends is also dyslectic, and it has always been a great support to be able to talk with her – not to mention complain, if I needed. When we recently spoke, she told me that her daughter had exhibited some of the classic signs of dyslexia, and as such she had been scheduled for testing. The story should have ended there, but it did not.

Instead she told me that when the need for testing was made clear, her husband, and the father of her child, told her [my friend] that she was not to speak a word of dyslexia to their children or outside of their home. As if dyslexia is something shameful that needs to be hidden away, like a dirty secret, and never spoken about again.

I was outraged. I know first hand that many of the obstacles you face when dyslectic include a social stigma. I also know that for many of us, this stigma leads to a sense of shame, and a feeling of never being good enough or, as another dyslectic friend shared with med, the feeling of «being stupid»

I have never felt stupid on account of being diagnosed with dysortography. Sure, there have been times when others have tried to make me feel stupid, but I had the unwavering support of my family and loved ones. So I know how important it is to feel that support when facing the social stigma that sadly, is still attached to dyslexia.

And yet here, my best friend and sister, was telling me that she was suddenly faced with said stigma in her own home, where she is supposed to feel safe and loved. And to know that her daughter might face that same stigma from someone who is supposed to love her unconditionally was absolutely heartbreaking, not to mention shocking. I really had thought, that in 2020, we would be passed the stigma, the shame and the insidious belief that you are stupid.

Right now, my niece wants to be a veterinarian. But when told she might have dyslexia, she suddenly began to question if that dream was still a possibility. No wonder, with a father who seemingly believes that dyslectic people are «stupid» and incapable of higher education.

My niece is fortunate nonetheless. She has her mother to tell her that she can overcome everything just like she once did and do everyday. She has her aunt to tell her that she can do anything she sets her mind to just like I did and do every minute of everyday. But I know that there are many others that might not have that.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but just because you struggle with reading and spelling does not mean that you are stupid, and it doesn’t change you as a person.

Having dyslexia should never be a source of shame, but if someone is shaming you for that reason, then just know that that’s on them and never on you.

You are smart, you’re resourceful and you got this.

Never let anyone tell you differently!

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