Welcome to the first episode of Hidden Heroes, a series about celebrating the strengths of learning disabilities and mental illness. In today’s video, we are exploring the experiences of people with dyslexia as well as some of the hidden advantages that we may not see at first glance. We hear today from three different people. One is Dr. Ari Goldstein, a psychologist working with people with dyslexia or ADHD. Another is Mr. Dean Bragonier, founder and executive dyslexic of a nonprofit called “NoticeAbility” which aims to aid and empower students with dyslexia. Finally, we have Ryland Gordon, engineering major, operations analyst of a solar company, and owner of a YouTube channel where he gives tips for people with dyslexia. And, of course, we’ll also be meeting today’s Hidden Hero.
First, we’ll spend some time learning a bit more about dyslexia and how it affects the lives of those who have it. Then, we’ll meet today’s Hidden Hero before leaving you at some final parting words. Let’s get into it!
[Dr. Goldstein]: So, the term dyslexia itself means “Trouble with language” from Latin and there’s no actual diagnosis category in the DSM or the ICD, which are the manuals that psychologists use for making diagnoses, there’s no actual diagnosis of dyslexia. It falls under the diagnosis of reading disability and when someone has things that are associated with true dyslexia, there’s either some form of auditory or visual processing dysfunction that’s causing them to have difficulties with decoding and encoding words. Oh, they’re flipping letters, right? Or they’re flipping numbers. That’s actually a normal developmental step in reading and writing until about second grade. So, if someone in first grade is still flipping letters and numbers, okay. You know, they’re a little behind in development but it’s not really, that’s not dyslexic, okay? I often see dyslexia misdiagnosed when in fact, it’s ADHD because what’s happening is the students are not putting the level of effort in and they’re not applying strategies. Like I’ll have a student who can- who will read a list of words for me, regular words, and they’ll bomb it, but then they’ll read a list of nonsense words, totally made-up words where they have to sound them out, and they’ll crush it and this is a kid who was diagnosed with dyslexia. Well, I know that’s an executive functioning issue. They clearly have that skill they’re just not taking the time to slow down and apply it. And so, I see a lot of that, sort of, misunderstanding and misdiagnosis with dyslexia and in fact, most people don’t know that it’s not an actual diagnosis. It’s in the DSM or ICD that we use to make these diagnoses.
[Mr. Bragonier]: In early elementary, we do just fine, right? We can finger paint with the best of them, we can do hopscotch ’till the cows come home, but it’s when you introduce reading that we start to stumble and the way the individual reacts to that frustration, that inability to grasp something that everybody else seems to pick up quite easily, can be internalized in myriad ways. Frustration, like I mentioned, anger, animosity, embarrassment, shame, all of these and you got to remember that we’re introduced to reading at around now, seven, eight years old, and so those are pretty heavy emotions for a young child to experience, but not just once. Every single day. And so, by the time students get into middle school, they seem to have gone a handful of different directions. If they’re lucky enough to get a diagnosis or they were lucky enough to have a teacher that noticed their struggle and got them what they needed in terms of reading remediation and encourage them and support of them, you get an individual who hopefully says, “I’m going to muscle through it. I’m going to get through this school thing and I’m going to prove to everybody that says I’m stupid that I’m not”. But, far too often, those emotions can be very detrimental and deteriorating to our self-esteem. And so, a lot of us will start to try on these different personalities. “Well, what if I’m the class clown, right? Then everybody’s laughing at my jokes but they’re not seeing that I can’t read or that I’m doing badly in school.” Or how about the disengaged cool kid, right? The “I don’t care!” kid, right? “I don’t care I failed, I didn’t even try!” kind of mentality.
Again, it’s a cloaking device to avoid people from understanding that we really do care and we are really trying but we’re not getting to where we want to be. Then there’s either the bully type, right? Because we know that hurt people hurt people. So, if we’re hurting, we may hurt others; draw the attention to somebody weaker than us. We may become incredibly withdrawn, right? Whatever we can do to please everybody, as long as they don’t see who we really are, so we’ll just go along with the crowd and sometimes that can mean going along with the crowd after school out by the bleachers and somebody opened some beers. “Okay, I’m going to go along with the crowd.” and all of a sudden you’re involved in drugs and alcohol or “Somebody says it’s going to be fun to put some bricks through window, I can do that. At least I’ll be accepted.” Well, we know where that leads. So, middle school is a really important phase because all of the ramifications present themselves in high school and with the exception of those students who say “I’m going to prove the world wrong!” or the ones that are lucky enough to be gifted athletes so everybody just says, “Aw man, you’re the best person on the football field or the field hockey team? I don’t care how well you do in academics, I’m going to help you because you are too valuable in the field.” Chances are, if you’re not those personalities, school becomes a nightmare.
[Rylan Gordon]: I faced a ridiculous amount of challenges, but the biggest ones were- first one was like, confidence in talking to professors and teachers, who in Physics particularly, they’re all terrifying anyways, so talking to them being like, “Hey, like, I have trouble reading.” like admitting that to like- somebody who is super respected or super-intelligent is pretty difficult to the confidence to do that. It was definitely hard. And then, the other biggest thing was getting information because a lot of times, people- teachers are giving you handouts of PDFs or different things and then you have to read it in a certain time period or they’re just giving you a textbook and so getting that information into your brain was like a huge struggle for me. So, a lot of times I just wouldn’t read those documents and I would just find YouTube videos or talk to friends about it and have to like, find other alternate ways to like absorb the information. So those are the two biggest hurdles that I had to jump over like on a daily basis.
[Mr. Bragonier]: It’s easier to navigate the world as an adult with dyslexia than a child with dyslexia. As a student with dyslexia, the world is fairly inhospitable. You are constantly being reminded of your learning difference. I don’t really think we’ve got a learning disability? I agree we’ve got a reading disability, but I think we might be a little bit dis- Uh, miscategorized, shall we say? But that’s a discussion for another time. As an adult with dyslexia, if you have been able to survive the academic process, you, by nature, have cultivated certainly a strong work ethic because you have to do things twice as hard as everybody else to achieve the same results, but you’ve also learned to identify certain efficiencies or what we might call hacks, in order to get the most amount of output for the time you spend doing something. But the last thing, and the best part of being an adult with dyslexia, is that you start to grow an appreciation for the cognitive advantages that your dyslexia affords you and as you start to recognize that these advantages are dyslexic-specific, that they are a result of the brain construction that we as dyslexics have, which is different than the neurotypical brain, you start to realize that you are sitting on what I would call, sort of, a superpower of sorts and being able to harness that and channel that superpower, it gives you a lot of gratification and can produce a lot of compelling results.
[Narrator]: So, we know more now about people with dyslexia and how it manifests in school and day-to-day life. What people generally don’t know, however, is that dyslexia also offers its own set of advantages. Growing up with dyslexia means having to navigate in a world that isn’t built to accommodate the condition. It means adapting and working twice as hard to succeed. It also means having a brain that works a bit differently. It comes with certain strengths, certain abilities, certain advantages and some areas that others may not see. These advantages make up our hero, Miss Lexia.
Maria Lucia Sierra-Velez is a college student majoring in Aerospace design. She’s a member of her university’s track team and spends much of her free time tinkering with projects in her campus’ Makerspace. She was tested for a learning disorder at the suggestion of one of her elementary school teachers and was told she had dyslexia at age 9. Middle and high school were a struggle. She had problems remembering auditory and verbal sequences, picking up concepts that her classmates seem to master, and generally not having a lot of interest in her academic work outside of her science classes. Miss Lexia is a fantastic big picture thinker with great ability to fuse together small, disparate pieces of information into a bigger narrative. She uses the power of her mind to fight crime. With her though, mind means two things: her brain, of course, and also an acronym that actually stands for something else. Mr. Bragonier can speak more about it in his discussion of a book called “The Dyslexic Advantage”.
[Mr. Bragonier]: If you were to give just one takeaway, dyslexics tend to be exceptional, big picture thinkers. You know, when you say, “Oh, I can’t see the forest from the trees.” right, we see almost exclusively the forest. Now, when you present to us, small pieces of information, what’s remarkable is our ability to fuse those pieces of information into a big picture narrative that allows us to see trends or markets heading in certain directions or customer behavior that we can address if we’re in that type of business. On a more detailed level, the work that we adhere to most, I think, the best articulation of these advantages, were outlined in a book called “The Dyslexic Advantage” by two neuroscientist named Brock and Fernette Eide and they have broken down these cognitive advantages into a four letter acronym M.I.N.D.. M-I-N-D. It stands for Material Interconnected Narrative and Dynamic reasoning. I’m going to be very, very succinct in my description. Material reasoning is our ability to sort of see 3D images in our mind’s eye and manipulate those images mentally so that when we open our eyes and we look at something like a blueprint, we can already see what that building would look like as if it were built in a virtual reality and we can actually manipulate the image of that built structure and say, “Oh you know what? We should actually add a door over here. That would be better.” still just looking at a piece of paper.
Interconnected reasoning: this is something that some of the great dyslexic entrepreneurs like Henry Ford are real standouts or Charles Schwab or Richard Branson. This is our ability to see material pieces of information, data points, that may seem completely obscure an unrelated and we can all of a sudden see a magical connection. So ironically, Henry Ford, who was the inventor, of course, of the assembly line, got the idea after visiting a slaughterhouse. Most people wouldn’t be able to make a connection between those two industries, but that’s actually how he contributed to his creation of the assembly line. The last two: Narrative reason and dynamic reasoning. Narrative reasoning is our ability to tell a story in a very compelling way, right? Rather than simply stating fact we tend to bring emotion and- and passion to what we’re saying. Now, when you amplify that skill and you look at the written word as a form of that narrative reasoning, you have dyslexics like Agatha Christie, who is exceptional at painting a picture, giving a really vivid depiction of an event or fictitious scenario. Or, on a practical level, you can look at major global change agents like Winston Churchill or John F. Kennedy, both of whom were dyslexic and because of their oration, their ability to articulate themselves, they could literally compel nations to join forces.
The last one is dynamic reasoning. This is probably the most difficult to understand, but when you think about things that have not occurred in your lifetime, let’s talk about the pattern of erosion, for example. We knew that, you know, during the Ice Age, these massive glaciers sweep through what we look at now as valleys and craters and we can almost imagine- we can fast forward “What will happen over the next few Millennia?” almost like a time-lapse video projecting into the future. And that’s a really extraordinary ability to have not physically witnessed something, but be able to predict what’s going to happen based on evidence that we’ve learned about from the past. So these are just a taste, just a glimpse of what these dyslexic advantages look like, but if you want to get a deeper dive you, there is an audio version of “The Dyslexic Advantage” to listen to or of course, a book to read.
[Narrator]: Maria’s experiences with dyslexia are definitely not representative of everyone and each person diagnosed with dyslexia moves through life differently. What’s more important to remember is that while her learning disorder has held her back in some ways, it’s also rocketed her upwards in other ways. With the help of her family, her academic support network or friends and her own tenacity, she’s able to be the Hidden Hero she is.
We asked Rylan, if he had any advice on how to reach the point of being competent enough to share about his dyslexia, we’ll end the video on his parting thoughts.
[Rylan Gordon]: That is where it comes into an individual journey and especially when you’re dealing with an invisible disability, where you don’t have to talk about it like dyslexia. Like, I have a couple friends who I know have dyslexia, so they’ve talked to me about it, but they refused to tell anybody because in, I mean, in academia, you look weak if you can’t read, right? Like that’s like the standard of which we test everything on, you can’t do it. So like, I understand how incredibly hard it can be, but like- I don’t know. People aren’t as bad as we think they are. We have the perception of like, people just being like- awful. People are really nice, just trust that people around you, especially your friends and family, like trust that they’ll love you and support you like no matter what. It’s who you are. It will become a part of you. Like it is a fundamental part of me introduce myself and I’m like “Yeah, like I’m dyslexic.” It’s so cool.
[Heroic music plays]
[Hidden hero animation is shown over a red screen. Screen transitions to credit roll. VA Harris PE logo is shown. Video ends.]