By Jim Clifford
I’ve spent the past month working with parents of dyslexic kids in Saskatoon to raise awareness about the ongoing struggles students face in the public school system. I’ve used my history with dyslexia to highlight what is possible when public schools provide the students with adequate support and accommodation. I was interviewed by the U of S, CBC and CTV and I gave a talk at a fundraiser event. I’ve included the text of my speech below. On Wednesday, we will publish a post by Dr. Jason Ellis on the history of special education in North America and its mixed success in supporting students who struggled with reading and writing.
Thanks a lot for coming out to this Dyslexia Awareness Month event. I would like to thank Crystal for coming up with the idea and doing all the work to make it happen. I have a very simple message tonight. If we support dyslexic students, they can do anything. They can thrive in university in any discipline, become authors and even become a professor in a history department, a field that focuses on reading and writing. I was very lucky. I was born in the right year, in the right school district with the right parents. I want to see a future where dyslexic kids don’t need my improbable luck.
I am dyslexic. When I sat down this morning to write some notes for this talk, I misspelt the word “dyslexic” and then the word “misspelt”. Quickly editing as I write with the help of Grammarly is a normal part of my day, as I write emails, articles, and a draft of my second book. I’ve been writing this way since the introduction of the red squiggly underline in Microsoft Word in 1998. This was one of many lucky developments in my educational career, as the technology arrived the year I left home to start university Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec. Throughout high school, writing remained a major struggle and I dictated my exams and essays to a fantastic teaching assistant and my parents. I finished high school with straight As, but I still could not write on my own.
Starting university, I hoped Dragon Naturally Speaking would allow me to continue dictating, but I found it more cumbersome than writing and editing with word. Before the red squiggly lines, spellcheckers involved writing the draft and then running the spellchecker. It was an overwhelming process when multiple words in each sentence were wrong. It was very discouraging and it did not help teach me to spell. Writing the word “foreign” or “fascist” incorrectly a few hundred times during a degree in history and politics and correcting them each time, finally ingrained the correct order of the letters in my brain. Word by word I started to learn to spell when writing on a keyboard and make a manageable number of errors that I could quickly correct on the go.
I was still a very slow writer during my undergraduate degree. I could not take notes and I needed the accommodation that allowed me to write exams with a computer and extra time. I was one of the first students to receive this level of support at Bishop’s. If I remember correctly, the counselling office had one computer for exams in my first year. By the time I left that had a room full of laptops and staff dedicated to coordinating and monitoring the exams. This was normal for me. I was always one of the first students with accommodation who got to train teachers and professors to work with and support dyslexic students. Most of them respond to the challenge; a few fought it bitterly. More on that in a few minutes.
As I learned to write with the help of word processors, I eventually learned that I needed to camp out in the library for most of November and March writing papers. And I needed to get them done early enough that I could get a friend and my dad to proofread before submitting them. My grades in writing-intensive history classes climbed from 70s to 80s as I figured out these extra demands on time management. By the end of undergrad, I was offered a scholarship to do a MA in history at Wilfrid Laurier University.
From that point onward, I had my dyslexia under control. Everyone needs to work harder in graduate school and I had the advantage of having already figured this out during my undergraduate degree. I still needed friends, my partner Katie and my dad to help with proofreading, but I was starting to write at about the same speed as everyone else and the professors were more concerned with the content and less concerned with perfect spelling. By the time I started the PhD, I did not need accommodations anymore and I just informally talked with my professors about how they should expect a few more typos than usual in my written comprehensive exams. I was lucky that the technology worked in my case, but I still fully support the right of other dyslexic students who still might need extra time at the PhD level.
Returning to my improbable luck. My twin uncles were a part of clinical studies of learning disabilities in Montreal during the 1960s. Through this process, my mother’s family recognized that most of the family was dyslexic. My grandfather was lucky that his dad worked for Imperial Oil in Dartmouth Nova Scotia and he went to a small school funded by the company where the teachers had the time to recognize he was very bright even if he never learned to spell. He made it into university and then law school eventually became an executive with CN, but he did not learn to spell. His long-time secretary and friend Connie Hill developed the unique skill of interpreting his illegible handwriting and correcting the spelling as she typed.
My mother was terrible at spelling, but she was less severe than her brothers or myself and she made it through university and became a teacher. She was interested in supporting disabled students and completed a year of specialization to teach disabled and blind children during the late 1970s. My dad thankfully is very good at spelling. He also worked in the school system, first as a teacher and then as a principal. I was very lucky to be born into a family who understood dyslexia, knew it was hereditary, and who understood the school system. They spent countless hours advocating on my behalf and working on homework, as I dictated drafts to my mother and then corrected her spelling and worked on my grammar with my father.
I was also very lucky to be born in the Surrey School district in 1980. Elaine Freesen, head of Special Ed in Surrey in the 1980s and 1990s had a very progressive view of services which allowed Surrey to provide very progressive services to all unique learners. Families moved to Surrey for these services. 1979 birth year kids were the first to be able to say in the regular classroom at their home schools and get support. Again, I was born in 1980. It meant I got to work with support room teachers like Jackie Stinson and Susan Tuttle from grade 4 through to grade 12. At my high school, I was in the first group to be allowed to submit typed work. Of course, policy changes at the school board officials did not automatically translate to change in the classrooms and I had to train teachers year after year that my intelligence was not linked with early struggle with reading or my ongoing inability to write.
There were lots of great teachers. My grade two teacher recognized that I was really struggling with reading, but not struggling with other aspects of learning and did what she could to support me through that year. Some were not so great. I remember sitting outside my grade three portable while my mother had a long discussion with my teacher after school. The teacher felt I needed to move to a special education classroom to receive the support I needed. My mom knew the policy and I stayed in a regular classroom. Grade 4 through 6 went pretty well. I learned to read and quickly caught up to grade level. I still could not read out loud and read by the shape of words, which caused moments of embarrassment. My acting career was cut short when I read my first line in an audition, “put up your ducks and fight,” but I was doing OK in school.
Then I ran into a stubborn wall in grade 7. This is the teacher that I wish I could track down and send a copy of my book. She strongly believed that I just needed to try harder and study for the spelling tests. She did not believe in accommodation and was very concerned with a simplistic version of fairness. I think I asked her if we should ban eyeglasses, and I don’t think she appreciated my snark. But I think this snark was essential in my success in high school. With the support of my parents, standardized testing, and the good teachers, I became increasingly self-confident that I was a smart student with a learning disability and that teachers could not understand this were bad teachers. I became determined to prove these teachers wrong and this bitterness probably helped fuel my motivation straight through a PhD and tenure process.
In grade 11, the teachers at my high school did not think a student with accommodations belonged in the honours classes. I was extra motivated to show them I was one of the best students in their classes. To their credit, these teachers transformed from opposing my presence in their classes when it was an abstract principle to being my champions after teaching me for a few months. My grade 12 English teacher worked with me after class to prepare for the poetry section of the provincial exam. My history teacher, Mr. Falk, took me under his wing. He allowed me to write in-class exams in grade twelve at home or after class on a computer with no time limit to give me practice for the transition to university. My success in his classes made the possibility of majoring in history seem like a reasonable thing to do.
I was lucky in many ways, but it was still exhausting to fight year after year for my right to the same education as my peers. And even with the progressive support in the Surrey School district in the 1980s and 1990s, most of the other bright dyslexic kids I went to school with did not make it into university. They took on the role of the class clown who everyone liked but who underperformed in school or they learned to hate school and dropped out or barely graduated.
From what I understand, kids in Canada still need to be pretty lucky to get the support they require and parents still need to fight the school system or pay out of pocket for private education when the schools don’t have the resources. I’ve had the chance to hear about the struggles parents and students are facing in Saskatchewan and I get the sense our schools are not doing enough. It should not come down to luck whether dyslexic kids, who make up 15% of the population, get the support they need to be educated at the same level as their peers. My brother is a successful tech entrepreneur in Vancouver and I’m a professor of history. I think the extra money invested in our education has paid off. I believe we need to take luck out of the equation and make sure the schools are screening starting in kindergarden and providing evidence-based support to kids with learning disabilities.