I Haven’t Overcome My Dyslexia. I’m Harnessing It.

By Laura Deck, posted on

By Junia Howell

Just this week, another professional contact learned of my dyslexia and responded in amazement, “it is so impressive how you have overcome your dyslexia to accomplish so much.” Although always said with the best of intentions, comments like these never cease to frustrate me.

Granted, I too am struck with amazement and gratitude when I consider all the wonderful opportunities bestowed upon me. I am the girl who failed state standardized testing in elementary school, entered high school with a second grade reading level, and continued to misspell words like “the” in college. My young self who despised reading, writing, and thus school would not even know how to comprehend the fact that now I am a college professor who has published over a dozen peer-reviewed academic articles, teaches PhD seminars, and consumes 100 books a year. Yet, that same young self would be less surprised that I still hate reading and writing (and often even school).

Junia Howell sits on a desk in front of a window wearing a red shawl.

Being Accomplished Doesn’t Mean Overcoming Dyslexia

I might be “accomplished,” but I have not “overcome” my dyslexia. Just ask the doctor who recently requested I read a paragraph out loud during an examination. I enthusiastically complied but quickly began to struggle—stuttering like an eight-year-old trying to decode every single word and completely failing to comprehend the overarching meaning. Or ask the government official who worked with me on paperwork related to my research and quickly discovered I had misread simple words on various forms and entered incorrect information. You could even ask my two-year-old niece who knows Auntie JuJu’s versions of her story books are different than her Daddy and Mama’s. She doesn’t know yet that it is because I often cannot read the words in children’s books so I make up my own. She just knows her Auntie’s versions are special.

Despite hundreds of hours of tutoring and years of education, I have not overcome my dyslexia. I just have the gift of technology and resources like Bookshare that make the world of words available to me. For me, dyslexia is not something to overcome, but something to embrace, harness, and celebrate.

Audiobooks are Powerful Resource that Allow Capabilities to Shine

I will not lie. I still despise the moments after I am asked to read something and my entire body fills with overwhelming dread as I struggle to decode the letters and face the humiliation that I do not know what it says. But I cherish that my brain makes unconventional connections, remembers minute details, and can use spatial thinking to derive new mathematical approaches to studying social policy and inequality. I am thankful for the fact, thanks to Bookshare, I can download virtually all the books I need to read to keep up with my field and listen to them at 600 plus words a minute while I wash dishes, do yardwork, write computer code, or run statistical models. I have not overcome my dyslexia, but I have learned how to bend the expectations of the world to enable my capabilities to shine.

Parents and teachers often ask me what advice I would give for helping their dyslexic children. For a long time, I have said the same thing, “embrace it, don’t erase it.” Although working on decoding skills can help some children, for me learning how to “read” by listening was a more powerful tool that enabled me to identify and expand upon my own strengths. Yet recently I have begun to add to this advice that part of helping your own child is starting to change your approach to (dis)abilities and accommodations in all sectors of your life.

Adults with Dyslexia Don’t Outgrow Need for Accommodations

Now, as an instructor myself, I have realized that the U.S. education system’s emphasis on accommodations for students, particularly for so-called learning (dis)abilities, unintentionally perpetuates the notion that (dis)abilities are something students should and will “overcome.” As a professor I am expected to provide accommodations for students but have faced considerable resistance when asking for accommodations for myself. I have completed my education, and thus the unspoken assumption is I have “overcome” my “struggles” and am now expected to be a neurotypical worker. This assumption is further institutionalized by the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) and subsequent court cases that have provided more robust protections and accommodations for students compared to workers.

Part of helping our children requires not only preparing them as individuals to have the skills to harness their own strengths, but to collectively work on reshaping our workplaces, stores, governmental offices, and places of worship to be spaces that accommodate for and celebrate the contributions of all (dis)abilities. Starting today to make your places of influence more accommodating will pave the way for your child(ren) once they exit the classroom and take their unique gifts into the broader world.

Junia Howell, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh. She has used audiobooks since elementary school (when they were on cassette tapes) and continues to use them to read about and conduct her own research on how public policies can be altered to foster racial equality. Learn more about her work at www.JuniaHowell.com  

Benetech would like to thank Junia for sharing her story in recognition of Dyslexia Awareness Month. Learn more about how Bookshare can help students with dyslexia and other reading barriers.