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Volunteer of the Week

Learning the Hard Way

by Maria McGeoghan

"A LARNG bsabed abull well lav exetm biffcitly rebnp in a tinb station for three name resons."

Wondering what on earth that is all about? Can't make head nor tail of it?

Well spare a thought for dyslexics, who have to cope with such jumbles every day of their lives.

Their minds transpose letters and scramble words and numbers, making even the simplest of sentences difficult.

For those of us who have never come across dyslexia, it looks like bottom-of-the-class' stuff.

But a quick look through the list of famous dyslexics shows us that they are in illustrious company and far from stupid.

  • Inventor Thomas Edison was unable to learn in his public school so his parents withdrew him. His mother took on the slow, pains-taking job of teaching him the three R's.

  • Genius Albert Einstein did not talk until he was four nor read until he was nine. He was placed in a special school where he began to achieve good results, but teachers at his first school considered him backward.

  • Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States did not learn his letters until the age of eight, or learn to read until he was 11. Letters from relatives commiserated with the parents that the lad was so "dull and backward."

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When Joan Esposito left school in Liverpool her report said: "Joan is very neat and tidy and comes from a very honest and good family."

With that sole reference she headed for the American dream and married wealthy literary agent Richard Brand. It was only then Joan realised how good she was at bluffing.

With a lot of entertaining to do, she got round the problem of not being able to read cookery books by going to cookery classes the same day and reproducing the meals at night.

"I remember - when my son Joel was little and Liza Minelli came round to the house," recalls Joan on a trip back to see her family in Liverpool.

"He kept asking me to make popcorn for him, but I couldn't read the instructions so I said I would do it later. In the end Liza made it for him."

Coping

In 1980 the marriage ended in divorce, but at the same time Joan was coping with disturbing school reports on Joel. He went through a series of tests and was found to be dyslexic.

Joan also went through a testing programme and was found to be more dyslexic than Joel, but more important they showed that she had above average IQ.

"Dyslexic children - always know that SOMETHING is wrong but they don't know what it is," she says.

"There are at least 40 different terms for dyslexia. It England they call it dyslexia, in California it is a 'specific learning disability.' In Texas it is dyslexia or 'small motor problems'. This makes it all the more confusing.

"It all depends what country you are in, where the specialist trained and in what year."

In an attempt to try and cut through the confusion and mystery surrounding dyslexia, Joan found out about the Orton Dyslexia Society - an international organisation which sponsors annual conferences to inform educators, parents of dyslexics and dyslexics themselves on new teaching techniques and discoveries.

And she is now director of 'Project Heroes' in the Santa Barbara region of California, which sends dyslexic adults 'into school to tell children of their experiences.

Realise

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Often this is the first time that some youngsters realise that there are other people with problems like them.

"Dyslexics are like snowflakes - no two are alike," says Joan. "We used to be able to hide it and bluff our way through, but you can't hide in today's world.

"We need to get more awareness about dyslexia into the schools. Children are entitled to an education, and we need to be able to get teachers trained to recognise dyslexia."

Despite his initial problems, Joel now attends the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he is assistant editor on the University newspaper. Using a computer keyboard to write he can assimilate words and letters more easily than having to write in longhand.

Dyslexics have to cope with other problems as well as their - difficulties with words. They find it hard to concentrate, sometimes cannot tell their left from their right, get numbers mixed up and find it hard to work out time.

"Even now I can't take phone numbers down properly. My mind always seems to put them the wrong way around. When I need to know my left from my right, I feel for my wedding ring," says Joan.

"There's a saying: 'All my friends think I'm a prince, but inside I think I'm a frog.' That describes how dyslexics can hold themselves in low esteem," says Joan.


* Still trying to work out the first line? It reads: "A learning disabled adult will have extreme difficulty reading in a timed situation for three main reasons."

Leonardo Da Vinci, Hans Christian Andersen and Albert Einstein had more in common than their brilliance. Studies of their work have revealed that they all suffered from forms of dyslexia. For Liverpool-born Joan Esposito the confirmation that she, too, is a sufferer has made her determined to educate others about this learning disability...


Originally published in The Liverpool Echo

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