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Dealing with Dyslexia (Star Neighbourhood Wednesday, August 17, 2005)

By Shari Cummins
The Star

What would life be like if you could recognize the letters in these words, and understand the sounds they are supposed to make, but could not translate them into words?

That would be a lot like life with dyslexia, says Alan McDowell, founder of the new Vancouver Island Dyslexia Association. For a dyslexic, whose intelligence is normal, reading or writing can be like scaling a massive brick wall, he explains. It's a frustrating, discouraging and even demoralizing problem which affects an estimated 15 per cent of Canadians. Despite that, said McDowell, there are relatively few non-commercial resources available to help people cope with their dyslexia, which is still largely misunderstood by the general populace.

McDowell, who divides his time between Britain and Canada, has spent the last 15 years working as an advocate for people with dyslexia, through work with the British Dyslexia Association and his private business, Fulcrum, which provides dyslexia awareness in the workplace. It's a passion he found late in life. McDowell didn't know anything about dyslexia, or that it was the source of his lifelong struggle with reading and writing, until hew was 49 years old.

Prior to that, McDowell says, he used a variety of coping skills to achieve success working in different London hotels. "I hid behind the skirts of some really fantastic secretaries," he recalls. He never, ever, filled out paperwork in front of other people, and went to great lengths to get secret assistance from his wife to fill out things like job applications and other forms. The struggle with written language was a source of great frustration, he recalls. "I had no idea what was wrong with me."

A chance encounter with someone who recognized the signs of dyslexia gave McDowell the answers he had sought for decades. Diagnosis of his condition led him to seek help. "But at that time, 15 years ago, there was nothing for adults with dyslexia in Britain."

Throughout the 1990s that changed in Great Britain, says McDowell, who moved to Nanaimo four years ago, and there are now extensive services for children and adults with dyslexia, and even recognition of dyslexia under the British government's Disability Act. Canada is well behind European nations in that regard, he says. "I believe Canada is about 15 years behind Europe and the U.S. in this area," says McDowell.

The Canadian Dyslexia Association (CDA) estimates that five million Canadians - more than 15 per cent of the population - has dyslexia. That makes dyslexia one of the most common disabilities in the country, and yet there are few organized services for people with dyslexia, and a serious lack of information about the condition in general, says McDowell.

"The perception of dyslexia is that it's just difficulty reading and writing and you can never fix it," says McDowell.
"People don't understand it."

Dyslexia is too often confused with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), he adds. Those are behavioural disorders, whereas dyslexia is a learning disability. Dyslexia, as defined by the CDA, is difficulty with the alphabet, reading, writing and spelling in spite of normal or above-normal intelligence, conventional teaching methods, and adequate social and cultural opportunities. In short, says McDowell, dyslexics see and process words different than the rest of us. "I think in pictures, not words," he says.

In a world which prizes literacy, dyslexics can face huge hurdles to success. Misunderstandings about dyslexia on the part of parents, teachers and employers are commons, said McDowell. That can have a crushing effect on people's self-esteem and ambitions, in spite of their intelligence and abilities. But, he quickly adds, some of the most successful people in fields ranging from business to science and the arts have dyslexia. "Because of the problems we face many dyslexics are great problem solvers and entrepreneurs," says McDowell.

Famous people with dyslexia include Winston Churchill, writer Agatha Christie, designer Tommy Hilfiger, actors Tom Cruise and Whoopi Goldberg, scientists Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein and business leaders Richard Branson and Walt Disney.

One of the most common misconceptions is that people with dyslexia simply cannot learn to read, which is not true, stresses McDowell. Dyslexia is not linked to intelligence and , given the proper support and assistance, they can learn to read successfully. In addition, changing technology, such as voice recognition programs, is making it easier than ever for people with dyslexia to succeed. McDowell hopes that VIDA will address two key areas - providing information, support and services for people with dyslexia, and increasing knowledge about dyslexia in the community.


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