California Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed funds in his recent budget to pay for schools to test kindergarten- to second-grade students for dyslexia. If the Legislature agrees, schools could divert students with the learning difference early in their academic lives to the support they need to read and succeed at the same level as the rest of their peers. As someone who learned about his dyslexia well into adulthood, I know that students with the learning difference could avoid many false judgments and anxieties in their later academic and professional careers if they learn early how their brain works.
While 40 states have mandatory dyslexia screening in their schools, California doesn’t.
Dyslexia impacts a person’s phonological processing — connecting sounds with letters — spelling and general reading processing. The condition is unrelated to vision or intelligence. Some people with dyslexia see numbers and letters out of order and miswrite them. Some 40% of self-made millionaires are dyslexic, and bright people like Gov. Newsom have dyslexia.
I learned about my dyslexia and dyscalculia — a numbers challenge — at age 35. Looking back at my school life, the clues were there. In third and fourth grades, I was taken out of class an hour a day to practice paragraph formation. I was also in speech therapy from first through third grade, which is common for dyslexics. And I was an awful standardized test taker, partly because of its dependence on written instruction.
I remember occasionally transposing numbers in math. I repeated Algebra 1 twice, partly because of its numbers and letter formations. I couldn’t process my Spanish courses as the language seemed never to reach my brain fast enough.
I wasn’t a terrible student, however. I earned mostly A’s and B’s in high school and college. I enjoyed writing and pursued it as a passion. But teachers marked me down regularly for spelling and grammar mistakes.
Some teachers did see my issues and mentioned them to my parents, but others wanted to test me for the gifted and talented program. Others assumed apathy on my part. My parents did have a private educational psychologist examine me at age 15 to determine if I needed extra time on tests, but the psychologist did not mention dyslexia. None of my educators ever did.
A few difficult years in my career compelled me to seek a diagnosis. According to the Dyslexic Advantage, few corporate middle managers have dyslexia. I understand why. I have always had trouble spelling, taking phone numbers, proofreading documents and reading databases correctly. In more junior jobs, I had more senior people catch my mistakes and attribute them to learning. When I got into middle management, the responsibility to see my errors fell more on me. Fewer bosses were sympathetic to my mistakes.
After making errors on client work that I could not explain, I felt there had to be something else going on with me other than carelessness. So, I spent $1,000 of my savings to have an independent educational psychologist sift through my old school records, interview a relative and a former boss about my education and work histories, and subject me to five-plus hours of intelligence testing.
Unfortunately, I got my test results the day after my employer let me go. My diagnosis spurred many emotions. I felt relief for finally having answers to questions about myself. I read about other dyslexics’ journeys, and many of their stories felt like they came straight from my biography. I learned I had naturally adopted many strategies to help myself, such as having my computer verbally read my writing and having software check over my work.
But I also realized I wasn’t using helpful tools enough. As I didn’t know I needed help, I wasn’t always willing to seek it out. I often tricked myself into thinking that if I worked harder, I wouldn’t make as many mistakes and wouldn’t need help.
After my diagnosis, I sought counselors to help me understand how to use my dyslexia in the workplace. Nearly all of them served only adults up to college. One career counselor, who was legally blind, told me I faced two difficulties: unlike hers, I have an invisible disability that people don’t see and understand, and adults forget that students with learning differences grow up and still face them.
The state of California does have the Department of Rehabilitation, which helps adults with learning differences find jobs. I utilized its services to help my career. I now work for an organization that advocates for seniors and people with disabilities, so there is more understanding from my employer about my little imperfections. I also run a small business and only take on projects I can achieve.
While I recognize that California does not have all the resources it needs to help dyslexic students and that there may be some misdiagnoses, I urge the Legislature to fully consider how early testing for dyslexia will help students later in life. Such an exam could have helped me understand my brain and avoid years of frustration and confusion in my education and career.
Sam Felsing is a freelance public relations professional and writer. He also serves as the communications director for the Community Living Campaign, a non-profit that advocates for seniors and people with disabilities in San Francisco.
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Nina Rubenstein 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago
Sam, this is wonderful. It’s so nice to learn this about you after knowing you my whole life. I’m glad you’ve empowered yourself with this understanding and am impressed, though not at all surprised, with how well you’re advocating for it for others.s
Erin P. 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago
Thank you for being willing to share your story! I too believe strongly that universal screening for risk of dyslexia in K-2 is absolutely crucial to help students get the intervention as early as possible – when it is most effective. Good luck in your continued successful career.
cathy johnson 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago
Your story is like so many children’s stories that I evaluate for dyslexia and dyscalculia. I appreciate your piece! I started a school for dyslexic kids about 16 years ago because of my daughter. She has graduated from college and has a great career. She lives in SF! Anyhow, I’m hear as a resource or if you are even in San Juan Capistrano, drop by! We have a school … Read More
Your story is like so many children’s stories that I evaluate for dyslexia and dyscalculia. I appreciate your piece! I started a school for dyslexic kids about 16 years ago because of my daughter. She has graduated from college and has a great career. She lives in SF! Anyhow, I’m hear as a resource or if you are even in San Juan Capistrano, drop by! We have a school here (Johnson Academy) with 60 kids in our academy and kids that come before and after school.