Being a writer and editor with dyslexia

I have dyslexia, diagnosed at the age of nine with two separate forms. Reading was incredibly difficult, but I learned to adapt. And I refuse to let it label me as something I'm not.

When people learn that I have dyslexia, it often comes as a bit of surprise. I am a writer and a professional editor, after all. I spend a lot of time behind the computer or with my nose stuck in a book. So, it's not totally out of the realm of possibility that someone would question my career choice when they hear the truth about my history.

There is still a lot of negative stigma surrounding dyslexia, but what people don't realize is that the majority of the people on the planet have one form or another of dyslexia—but they just don't know it.

For most people, their form is so weak that they were able to easily compensate. However, for approximately 15% of American children [1], for 30 to 50% of prisoners around the world [2], the dyslexic forms are severe enough to cause significant issues.

Today, a friend of mine, Beth Beamish, is releasing a book about what it's like to be a parent of a dyslexic child, with practical advice on how parents can help their children through this.

Dyslexia is not a disease. It's just a different way of seeing the world.

To help Beth Beamish spread the word about her book, I thought it might be a good idea to share my own story, highlighting that having dyslexia doesn't stop you from following your dreams, whatever those dreams might be.

Those with dyslexia see the world differently.

According to Mayo Clinic [3], dyslexia is a learning disorder that involves the difficulty of reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words. In essence, dyslexia affects the way the brain processes language.

It's not a disease, therefore it is not something that can be "cured". Instead, it's a matter of understanding exactly how you might see the world and being able to make those comparative connections to how everyone else sees the world.

Any situation that can hinder your ability to learn is a learning disability. Normally, it's just a matter of learning how to manage it. But there was a time in the past when our understanding regarding dyslexia was so infantile that people were quick to dismiss anyone who had a severe form of dyslexia as being stupid and mentally retarded.

Historically, people labeled those with dyslexia as dumb, but some of the most intelligent people in history were dyslexic, including Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Carl Jung.

Past conceptions of ignorance

My mother was labeled mentally retarded when she was in her pre-teens. She had a unique form of dyslexia where she occasionally saw things mirror image.

There were times when I was growing up when mom was tired and trying to study for her nursing qualifications—or her social worker qualifications when I was at university myself—where she would take her textbooks into the bathroom and hold them up to the mirror. For a child, it was an odd sight.

"Mom, what are you doing?"

"I'm studying."

"By holding your textbook up to the mirror?"

That was when my mother told me what had happened to her.

She would've been in fourth grade, or something like that. She had studied for a test, and she was sure she knew everything she needed to know. But when she got her marks back, she had failed—with zero explanation as they why answers that were actually correct were marked as wrong.

She went home in tears and showed the test to her mother. It was my grandmother who noticed something odd: It was written in mirror image. So, my grandmother took mom's test into the bathroom and held it up to the mirror—and was able to read it perfectly.

My mother's teacher couldn't be bothered to mark something that was mirror image. The teacher thought my mother was playing a practical joke, not recognizing that there was a real problem with the way my mother saw the world. As a consequence, my mother was labeled mentally retarded.

It took years to get that label removed, and it was all because of one teacher who was ignorant.

Don't get me wrong… I think teachers are amazing, and my hat goes off to them. They have an incredibly difficult job to do, and they get paid peanuts for it too. In fact, it was my own fourth grade teacher who was an angel in disguise.

When I was diagnosed

Prior to fourth grade, I was a straight-A student. Top of the class. Fourth grade hit, and suddenly the reading material changed. The print became smaller and more compact. There were more words on the page. And I struggled.

I went from being the top of the class to the bottom of the class within the span of two months. And my teacher was concerned.

When a student has their grades drop that quickly, the instant assumption is that there is something wrong in the home life. But nothing had changed at home. The only thing that had changed was the type of reading that I had to do for school, and I wasn't coping.

My teacher at the time had a flatmate who was doing her own PhD in dyslexia, studying with the top in the field. My teacher spoke to my parents and suggested that I should be tested.

Because of the ignorance that existed at the time regarding dyslexia, the State officials wanted me to be assessed for being abused. They held strong to their assumptions that for a student's grades to drop that quickly, there must be something wrong at home; they wanted to label my parents as child abusers.

With the help of my fourth grade teacher, and because of her connections with somebody who worked in the field, I was able to be tested and became a subject for study regarding dyslexia. I was tested by the top in the field at the time, and he found that I have what is known as esophoria and a severe tracking problem in one eye.

Try to imagine what it's like to read something when your left eye is seeing a word on the right-hand side of the page, your right eye is seeing something on the left-hand side of the page, and your left eye is bouncing back-and-forth at an insane rate, unable to stay focused on a single point. Yeah, reading was difficult.

In my case, the treatment for my forms of dyslexia was all about muscle control. The exercises I had to do were designed to force my eyes to move in the way they needed to move so I could focus properly. There was nothing wrong with my lenses. It was 100% associated with the eye muscles.

In 1987, my family moved to New Zealand, and I had to face the ignorance regarding dyslexia all over again. The glasses that I was given when I was in fourth grade no longer worked. My mother tried to get me tested again, and once again the government system insisted that there was a problem at home and that I was being physically abused. It didn't matter that we had documentation from the US that specified exactly what the problem was. Ignorance is ignorance.

It took some searching, but my mother finally found an optometrist who actually understood what dyslexia was and was prepared to test me. The reason my glasses were no longer working was because my esophoria had transitioned to exophoria.

Instead of my left eye seeing a word on the right-hand side of the page and my right eye seeing the word on the left-hand side of the page, it had gone the other way. My left eye was seeing a word on the extreme left-hand side of the page, but at the same time as my right eye was focussed on a word that was on the extreme right-hand side of the page. And when I was tired, my left eye would still bounce around, because it could.

When I went to high school, I was finally able to ditch the reading glasses, but when I was tired, that left eye would still bounce around like a jackrabbit.

It still does.

Becoming the regular reader and learning to manage my dyslexia

Because of my history with dyslexia, I will never be the fastest reader on the planet. In high school, I had major problems keeping up with my English classes. It probably didn't help that the books they wanted us to read were boring!

But I had dreams, and all of those dreams involved me going to university. To get there, I needed to do something about my reading speed.

When I was 16 years old, my mother signed me up for a speed-reading class. My esophoria/exophoria pair was under control, and my tracking issue was something that only showed its ugly head when I was tired.

During that class, I went from reading 80 words per minute to approximately 250 words per minute.

I also learned about concepts like skimming and paragraph jumping, which could bring my reading speed up even higher, helping me get through the boring academic textbooks that could easily put anyone to sleep. And during my teen years, I developed a freakish memory, helping me remember seemingly insignificant details—with a single read of text.

These are all skills that helped me obtain a PhD of my own, and I use them every day of my professional life.

I will always need treatment

Today, I have no problem seeing and reading mouse print. But it's the hours on end that result in headaches, because I still have signs of the esophoria/exophoria pair. It means I see things with a slight blur around the edges… and when I cover one eye, my vision does jump from one side of the page to the other.

I had my vision recently retested, and of course my eyes decided to play silly buggers. Two years ago, I had slight esophoria—and I mean slight. It was barely detectable, but it was enough to give me headaches with all the reading and computer work I do. And during my most recent eye exam, I had slight exophoria.

The optometrist said that this is going to be an issue for the rest of my life. The two are going to constantly swap back and forth.

I wear reading glasses because my eye muscles have to work all the time to correct my near-sight vision—and sometimes, it's too much.

99% of the world's population are dyslexic.

99% of the world's population has one form of dyslexia or another (though I struggle to find proof of this statistic in my quick Google search). For most people, their dyslexia is either easily corrected with glasses or is at a level that doesn't impact on their daily life. As a consequence, most people have no clue that they have dyslexia. They had learned to compensate so they can function. It doesn't cause them a problem.

But when you have multiple forms of dyslexia compounded on top of one another, like I did when I was younger, there's no escaping it. And when you come up against the ignorance of society who has no idea what it's really like to live with dyslexia, it is a struggle.

My current forms of dyslexia are incredibly weak. If I was doing a job that didn't required me to to so much reading and computer work, I probably wouldn't have a problem. But I've never done things the easy way, so why should I start now?

Living with dyslexia

I don't tell people right off the bat that I have dyslexia. To me, it's not a part of my identity, just like the color of my eyes is not part of my identity. It's not how I see myself. So, it's not part of the image that I choose to share with the world.

But it is important, because my experiences dealing with dyslexia, and how I live with it, have shaped how I manage the amount of reading that I have to do. I've developed strategies to get the information I need, and quickly. If I hadn't developed these strategies, I wouldn't have been able to work on a PhD. In part, those strategies make me a good developmental editor.

I have a freaky memory for details. Most of the time, I can read something once and I will retain the information. It means that I can track a plot without having to read through a manuscript 15 times. It also means that if I'm reading a series, I can see the connections between books a lot quicker than other editors can.

Having dyslexia doesn't stop you from obtaining your dreams, whatever those dreams might be. Having dyslexia means we see the world differently, like my mother seeing the world in mirror image and me seeing the world on two different sides of the page at the same time. Our perspectives are unique.

Practical advice is out there!

It's my pleasure to tell my readers about a book that has just been released by one of my writing buddies.

Beth Beamish has released a book on how to help your child (and yourself) learn how to manage their own dyslexia. The book is filled with her own research and her own experiences, not only with her own dyslexia, but with that of her son's.

This book and books like it are important. While the stigma attached to dyslexia has become better over the years, there are still people out there who believe dyslexia means you're stupid. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Beth has written this book in hopes of improving awareness about dyslexia, which is why I totally support the idea. People with dyslexia are more common than the general population realizes. And those with dyslexia are incredibly smart—it's just our eyes playing silly buggers.

Beth Beamish also writes a blog filled with practical advice about parenting a dyslexic child. I even discovered an article discussing the connection between left-handedness and mixed-handedness with dyslexia—a fact I found interesting, because I'm left-handed and my mother was ambidextrous.

Check out Beth's website and check out her book.

And if you too have dyslexia or have a child with dyslexia, know that you're not alone.


[1] Dyslexia: What Brain Research Reveals About Reading (2004) LDOnline

[2] Dyslexia Foundation

[3] Dyslexia: Symptoms & Causes. Mayo Clinic

Copyright © 2020 Judy L Mohr. All rights reserved.

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