Thu | Jul 20, 2017

Heather Christian | My invisible disability

Published:Saturday | June 10, 2017 | 6:05 AM

I have been hiding my invisible disability for most of my life. As the founder of the Jamaica Dyslexia Association, I work and serve on many boards with people who don't know I have a disability, a lifelong, inherited neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain known as dyslexia.

Dyslexia is thought to be a genetic condition that changes how the brain deals with information, and that it is passed on through families. According to the US National Institutes of Health, dyslexia is a learning disability that can hinder a person's ability to read, write, spell, and sometimes speak. Dyslexia affects people of all ethnic backgrounds and is not linked to a person's general level of intelligence. Studies have shown that people who are dyslexic are often highly intelligent and exceptionally creative with an extraordinary ability to strategise.

As a young student, although I placed top of my class and was told often that I was wise beyond my years. I constantly confuse 'left' and 'right' and find it hard to remember things in sequence. In class, I dislike reading aloud because I sometimes pronounce the words incorrectly. I did not like people to see my writing because I put letters and figures the wrong way round. Copying written language was not easy. Sometimes my handwriting is hard to read and I find it hard to see the mistakes that I have made in written work.

At the age of 14 while volunteering at Senior Center in Canada, I heard the word 'dyslexia' for first the time. A retired schoolteacher asked if I was dyslexic because I reversed several words when I wrote on the activity board. (e.g., 'tip' for 'pit'). I was diagnosed with dyslexia during my first year at the University of Toronto. I was told that, as a child, I had developed an amazing gift for solving problems, in particular for tackling challenges by creating coping strategies. Psychologists who analysed the mental make-up of business winners found learning difficulties to be one of the most important precursors of financial success in just about every arena imaginable. Albert Einstein, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Rockefeller, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Tom Cruise, Winston Churchill, Richard Branson, John Lennon and Jennifer Aniston, to name a few, are dyslexic.

The use of assistive technology was the support I needed to increase my opportunities for a university education, social interactions, and meaningful employment. Before I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I struggled with note-taking. Fortunately for me, during my university years, I was provided with a recording device to record class lectures. In addition, I got a computer that presented a good alternative and minimised the need for handwriting. The benefits of knowing that I am dyslexic and having the use of AT tools help me to be more aware of my strengths.

Research suggests that almost every workplace will have members who are dyslexic.

Although some dyslexic adults feel that the disclosure of their invisible disabilities would be a barrier to achieving their professional aims, disclosing my dyslexia to my employers was never a big issue because I knew that they wouldn't have employed me if they didn't think I was the right person for the job based on my education, years of experience, and my proven track record.

Disclosure of invisible disabilities can carry significant benefits for employers, as well as employees. This can promote diversity efforts within the organisation, encourage high comfort levels, and an open-door policy to discuss invisible disabilities.

Dyslexia doesn't just affect people's learning. It can impact their everyday skills and activities. Therefore, awareness is critical. In order for me to succeed as a professional and build strong working relationships, I learn to value myself and have a realistic sense of my own abilities and competence. Living with dyslexia is not a burden, but a gift.

Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jamaicadyslexiaassociation@gmail.com.