What dyslexia is and is not
Donell Pons
October 12, 2016

For our honeymoon, my husband and I went on a skiing trip. I bought a book to read in the tent after a long day of skiing at the base of the Teton mountains. Little did I know as I handed the book to my husband to trade off reading responsibilities that he would proceed with a labored effort punctuated by dropped words and skipped lines. This was my introduction to dyslexia. I hid my dismay. This was the same guy who had been on the dean’s list in college.

When I carefully questioned him, he told me that reading had always been hard. He got through college by doing five to six hours of homework a night. Eventually, he became so frustrated he dropped out -- never realizing he could have been receiving much-needed accommodations. It wasn’t until nearly two decades later that my husband fully realized how much he had sacrificed because of undiagnosed dyslexia.

I see my husband and people like him -- bright, engaging, ambitious and dyslexic -- as survivors. They have hidden in plain sight in every classroom in America. Their anxiety-ridden educational years are a poor reflection on all of us, and I intend to do everything I can to stop it. 

I also have a son and a daughter who are dyslexic. My daughter’s dyslexia is mild, but my son’s is more severe, which led him to exhibit anxiety and aggression as early as first grade. I remember going to his teacher in desperation and saying, “I know there is something wrong with this boy. You have got to help me.” The school moved him into special-education classes. After years of personal education, I came to realize that the reading intervention my son needed was not to be found in special education.

Having a diagnosis of dyslexia for my children has given my family a place to put their struggles and a clear understanding of what dyslexia is and is not. Dyslexia is not reading words backwards. It is a language-processing disorder. It impacts accurate word recognition, and includes poor spelling and decoding abilities. It is inherited.

I’ve become well-versed in the language of learning disabilities out of necessity. I have volunteered in countless classrooms across my city, gone back to school and received dual master’s degrees in education and teaching with a certification in special education, read hundreds of books on the education system and learning challenges -- yet I still feel at a loss when my son starts a new school year with a different teacher who doesn’t understand what it takes to engage this boy.

The biggest systemic issue I’ve faced is that for years in special education, we were discouraged from using the term “dyslexia.” Instead, these students were classified as having a specific learning disability (SLD) or learning disability (LD). In my home state, it wasn’t until 2015 that Decoding Dyslexia Utah succeeded in convincing the legislature to pass SB117, funding five school districts to improve screening and intervention for students with dyslexia.

To advocate for passage of this legislation, my husband, my son and I joined hundreds of children and adults with dyslexia who stood on the steps of the capitol rotunda in Salt Lake City so that state leaders could see how many of their constituents were dyslexic. The pilot program is a good start, but in a world where 1 in 5 people are dyslexic, nothing short of universal screening for dyslexia will do.

I currently work as the literacy and reading coordinator at the American International School of Utah (AISU), a school where students receive excellent reading intervention and are celebrated for their other talents. Students with dyslexia often have strong visual, artistic and kinesthetic abilities, to name a few.

As for my husband, he has participated in every reading remediation program I’ve investigated. He has spent countless hours practicing his reading as our children have grown up. No one would know he has dyslexia if you heard him read aloud. One of the biggest turning points for him was on the capitol steps that day with all of the other bright, intelligent dyslexics. When my husband reflected on how he finally raised his hand in the air to declare that he was dyslexic, he said he was watching our son. “I couldn’t let my boy do that alone,” he said. “I had to raise my hand, too. He gave me the courage.”

Donell Pons is a certified dyslexia screener, consultant and tutor. In her work at AISU, she uses Reading Horizons. She can be reached at donell.pons@aisutah.org.

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