More from Mary…

Working out that my 89-year-old aunt Mary was dyslexic answered a lot of questions; the identification in adulthood, late adulthood in Mary’s case, always does.   But it raised questions, too.

In a family of five children, four girls and one boy, dad was third born and Mary next, 18 months younger.   Mary idolised my dad, and he always ‘looked out for her’, particularly when they were teenagers and young adults.   Dad was a good scholar.   Mary was not.   From the day she started school she was in trouble – ‘You’ll never be like your brother John,’ teachers would say.   When I was a child I can remember Mary teasing my dad with this line.   But now, aware that we were both dyslexic, the perspective sharpened.   ‘You were bullied by teachers, weren’t you, Mary?’ I said.   Mary was, I think, one of the least sentimental women I’ve ever known, but tears brimmed in her eyes.   ‘They were cruel, Vincent,’ she said.   Knowing her sense of humour, fierce wit and ability to mimic, I guessed she must have taken on the role of ‘class joker’, as we dyslexics so often do, and in so doing became even more vulnerable to teachers’ bullying.

But something didn’t fit.   Mary had worked at the village Post Office, working there, part-time well into her seventies.   Like me, I knew that Mary could never learn multiplication tables and had trouble with arithmetic as well as print.   This was before the days of the calculator – so how on earth did she get into this work, and how come she stayed in it for so long?

Mary’s eyes lit up.   ‘Ah, it was all because of the Postmaster, Mr Parsons.’

After leaving school, Mary had helped her boyfriend Jim with the donkeys on the nearby beach, but when the war came, ‘I felt I had to get a proper job,’ she said.   ‘There was a job for a postwoman.   The young men were joining up, so I applied.   Mr Parsons said, “I’m not having a young girl like you going out early in the morning delivering the letters in all weathers.   You’ll work here in the Post Office with me.”   I said, “But I can’t do that sort of work, Mr Parsons.”   “Oh yes you can,” he said.   And do you know what he did?   He broke everything up into little bits!   We started with the stamps.   I’d be doing things like tidying, or drawing margins, but when a customer came in for stamps I’d be standing beside him, and tear off the stamps that the customer wanted.   Next I’d serve the customer myself, and he’d deal with the money.   Then he showed me how to take the money and give the change.   He said it was much easier if you counted the change out loud as you passed it to the customer until it matched the money they’d given you.

He broke all the work up into tiny little pieces, and when I’d learnt each piece, he just let me get on with it.   It wasn’t long before I was doing everything, the parcels, the postal orders, the telegrams, everything.   He was a wonderful man, Mr Parsons.’

‘You’ll never be like your brother John.’   Perhaps not.   But you’ll be just as significant.

Vin Arthey

To label or not to label?

There is a great deal of debate surrounding the question of whether or not someone should undergo assessment for dyslexia.  On the one hand, assessment can give reassurance to those with the learning difficulty that they are not unintelligent.  Furthermore, knowing that they are dyslexic allows people to rationalise difficulties they may be experiencing.  In having something to attribute potential problems to, they have something of a starting point from which to tackle them.  Not only this, but in a world where budgets are constantly getting cut and resources are becoming increasingly scarce, some people need the label in order to receive the appropriate support.  In a school or workplace environment, the label may be the difference between succeeding and not because, unfortunately, reasonable adjustments may only be made if the label is applied to an individual (in some circumstances anyway).

Others may not see dyslexia as a label, but rather as a gift that allows them to do certain things more easily than they otherwise would be able to. Conversely, the label may itself be seen as a gift; not just as it enables people to receive support in order to help overcome challenges, but it means those who have dyslexia may more easily develop a positive mindset specifically because they can say “I have dyslexia.  This is why my brain works differently.  Now, what can I do about it?”  They can then be directed to people in the same boat, or find role models in the media who have been in a similar situation to them if they wish to.

Of course, whether someone feels they need the label will depend on the sort of support they feel they require which will be dictated by the severity of their dyslexia and the circumstances in which they find themselves. While knowing that they are dyslexic may have been beneficial to people during their schooling, for example, they may find it detrimental to their career as adults for fear of the stigma that surrounds dyslexia in some fields.  Independent of that, individuals may feel that a label of dyslexia undermines their successes and is detrimental to their mental health.

Staged intervention is becoming increasingly common in schools. In Scotland, support can be given without a formal assessment or label. Without the label, children may not be not singled out as being different from their peers. Different learning needs are therefore normalised, irrespective of the reason for it.  Not only does this increase understanding of dyslexia, but some would argue that staged intervention is the most economical use of resources as it lessens the need for outside agencies.  By dealing with things “in house” communication, learning strategies and the eventual outcome may be deemed better as a result of fewer people being involved in the process.

Of course, everyone is different, and this blog is just a snapshot of what people’s experience of having dyslexia might be – if you want to find out more about the lives of people with dyslexia, I recommend Dyslexia Scotland’s Dyslexia and Us book.  Even then, it tells the personal stories of a group of people who are writing about their experience alone, which will have been shaped by their own personal circumstances.  The choice about whether to label someone with dyslexia or not is ultimately the same thing; a choice dependent on a variety of factors that may not be unique but they are personal to the individual and so are unique to them.  Therefore, there are no right or wrong answers to this debate.  Only understanding for both sides – or at least there should be.

Gemma, Resource Centre Volunteer