Success stories like Tiffany Sunday’s help parents see how diagnoses of dyslexia and dysgraphia do not limit a child’s potential. Tiffany is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who is also raising an entrepreneurial son who has dyslexia.
When I was in third grade, I was diagnosed with dyslexia and dysgraphia. Few teachers were aware of dyslexia, and even fewer had training on how to help dyslexic students. I did not receive accommodations until my sophomore year of college.
My parents did not fully understand dyslexia. My mother was a teacher and did her best to help. School was not easy. I was always bouncing back from failure, defeats, and mistakes.
With each failure, I would think of a new way to learn. I developed strategies and work-around solutions to overcome the many obstacles I faced reading, writing, and spelling. With each challenge I encountered, another layer of resiliency was added. I refused to give up even when others doubted my abilities. As a result, I became very tenacious.
For example, I cannot process the sounds of languages. For me sounding out a word or reading a new word I have not heard is impossible.
I memorized or created unique stories or sayings to remember every spelling and vocabulary word. Memorizing the information helped developed my visual learning skills that were used to recall class discussions and notes written on the whiteboard. I still rely heavily on my visual skills today.
As a teen I had defined dreams and goals, which gave me the determination to move past the obstacles. These goals helped soften the embarrassment of misspelling words on the whiteboard for the whole class to see. To this day, as I write this article, spelling is difficult. I did not allow this weakness to prevent me from achieving my goal of becoming a published author.
School became easier in high school as I perfected my problem-solving and learning adaption strategies. My confidence increased as I had more opportunities to use my talents and strengths. One of my talents is public speaking—no spelling required! I volunteered to present our group projects instead of writing the report.
I met with the high school counselor and she told me to not to get my hopes up for the future. My SAT and ACT scores were low, and I knew my college entrance strategy would be different from my non-dyslexic friends. The summer semester following high school graduation, I took an English class at a community college so I could transfer the credit hours instead of the grade.
In the fall, I attended a small university and focused my efforts on attending Texas A&M University the following year. The summer between my freshman and sophomore year I attended summer school again and met with the A&M admissions director. He was impressed with my grades as compared to my low SAT and ACT scores. I was accepted and graduated with a B average.
After three years of corporate employment, I applied to Southern Methodist University (SMU) to obtain a master’s degree in business. I have a liberal arts undergraduate degree. Even with accommodations my GMAT score was rock bottom. SMU was a harder sell and after two rejection letters I convinced the admissions director to let me attend two semesters. If I maintained a 3.0 I would be accepted into the program. I met the requirement and obtained an MBA.
I knew I could obtain a degree if the school would just let me in!
With all the pain, frustration, and tears I would never trade my dyslexic brain. The ability to solve my own problems and learn to overcome failure has been invaluable to me as a business owner and entrepreneur.
Seth Goldman, co-founder of Honest Tea, stated in an article some of the prized traits of every entrepreneur most dyslexics acquire during school—“dealing with adversity, bouncing back from failure, seeing existing structures from a completely different perspective, and being persistent at finding solutions.”
Multiple academic studies continue to demonstrate the link between dyslexia and entrepreneurship with over 35% of the business owners being dyslexic. (Click here for a review of the research.)
As a teen, no one told me that my experiences as a dyslexic student would benefit me later in my career or even give me an competitive edge. Today, it is important to share this information with dyslexic teens—to let them know these traits and skills have value regardless if they become a business owner or not.
To help your teen learn more about dyslexic entrepreneurs and business ownership, search for articles online. Often a dyslexic business owner will discuss in an article how dyslexia helped him or her succeed in business and in life. The Dyslexic Advantage YouTube Channel is another good resource for interviews.
The most important thing to remember is each dyslexic person thinks and learns differently. We each have different strengths and talents. Brainstorm with your teen on how they can combine their innate talents, strengths, and dyslexic brain into a powerful asset.
I know from personal experience that when you are inside the thunderstorm it can be hard to see the silver lining and sunlight below the storm. When it feels like the rain will never end, remember it will. Each day, I tell my teen son, who is dyslexic, to have faith in his abilities, never settle, and, most importantly, never give up.
Tiffany Sunday is a TEDx Speaker, entrepreneur, and author of Dyslexia’s Competitive Edge and You Posted What!?
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What makes a person a champion? Is it when a person gets an A+ on a tough exam, or is it always knowing the answer when the teacher asks a question, or is it when an athlete scores a touchdown to win the big football game? If these are what makes a person a champion, then some would say that I am a failure.
For many of my years in elementary and middle school, I thought that these characteristics were what made someone a champion and in doing so, I felt like a failure. I rarely succeeded in school during those years, and I often struggled with my schoolwork. I always had the messiest artwork, and had trouble reciting my alphabet, spelling, and cutting out shapes. By the time grade three approached, I was told that I was at a reading level of a grade one student. I had trouble with tying my shoes and would charm the girls in my class so they would tie my shoes for me. Despite my kindergarten teacher reassuring my parents that no one goes to junior high unable to tie his shoes, I did. When I was 13, I began to play football and still couldn’t tie my shoes. Unfortunately there was no cute girls on my football team, and I sure wasn’t going to ask one of the big offensive linemen to do it, so I’d often have to sneak out of the locker room before games to go find my mother to tie them for me.
Other aspects of education that I struggled with growing up included telling the difference between left and right, rhyming, reading, writing and concerns with letter and sound connections. Due to these issues, many teachers believed that I was lazy, and some even suspected that I’d never graduate from high school. I was labeled as lazy, but they did not see the struggle I had in trying to read books or remember sequences. My classmates also labeled me as the “dumb kid” in the class, and over time I began to believe that I was “dumb.” When it came to group projects, I was often discriminated against in the class, as no one wanted “the dumb kid” in their group. This brought my confidence to an all time low, and I began to accept my fate as the “dumb kid.” I was destined to fail.
My fate quickly changed when I entered the fifth grade, and I met my new teacher, Charlie Siegel, who proved to be catalyst for change. He looked past all the previous labels people had given me. I had a strong interest in creative writing and newspaper writing at this point in time, and he let me create and become editor of our class newspaper.
This was a huge risk as my teacher was letting the student who everyone labeled as dumb run a monthly newspaper at the young age of ten. This was the first time that I felt like a leader to my peers. I was more confident than ever and it was all thanks to this one teacher for believing in me. I owe him a lot. If it were not for him, I may have never learned to believe in myself nor graduate from high school.
The confidence that I had discovered in the fifth grade followed me into middle school, but middle school meant a whole new set of challenges, such as learning how to use a combination lock, exams, difficult course loads, and doing math without a calculator. My confidence began to quickly drop again and my parents fresh from learning my younger brother had dyslexia decided to send me to a specialist to get some insight as to why I was struggling. I had seen specialists quite often during my early years, but it wasn’t until grade 8 that they discovered that I too had a learning disability. My parents sat me down and told me that I had dyslexia and my reaction to them was, “so you mean I’m not stupid.”
For the majority of my life, I had felt stupid. I knew I was different from my peers, which made me feel that I was not as good as everyone else. My mom showed me a list of famous dyslexics, and I was surprised to see how many people I recognized on this list including Jay Leno, Albert Einstein, Tom Cruise, and Walt Disney. I felt that if these famous people could succeed despite their dyslexia, then I could too. I discovered that being dyslexic didn’t mean that I couldn’t learn, it just meant that I had to take different approaches to learning. I am an auditory learner, which means I learn better through listening to a good speaker or through film.
Discovering I had dyslexia helped me gain self-confidence. As I was going through the assessment, I was also in the process of applying to St. Paul’s High School, a Catholic private school. I managed to work my way through the grueling entrance exam and got an interview. Me applying for St. Paul’s was no secret to my classmates, so during one my basketball games, my mother was discussing the application process with another parent. During this conversation, an eavesdropping mother in front of her turned around and looked my mother dead in the eye and said “Matthew is applying to St. Paul’s?! He will never get in. St. Paul’s isn’t a place for a kid like him.” I was not about to let this rude, insignificant woman shake my confidence. Just because I had dyslexia, didn’t mean I couldn’t do things; it just meant I would have to work that much harder to do them.
I was accepted to St. Paul’s High School, where I was greeted with caring and supportive teachers. They allowed me to embrace my dyslexia, rather than hide from it. I was given permission to write my exams on a computer so that I could organize my thoughts better and not have to deal with my fine motor difficulties. I was given more time on tests and exams, so that I could put more time and effort into my work. I was told that I was one of the first students with a known learning disability to be admitted to the school. During my time at St. Paul’s I was never an honor role student, but that didn’t mean I didn’t succeed. I was given a lead role in a musical at St. Mary’s Academy where I was given the challenge of learning over thirty paragraphs to recite — quite the challenge for a kid who had trouble reciting the alphabet during my early years of education. In my senior year of high school, I was in Advanced Placement English. The “dumb kid” who was told might not make it to high school, who was at a grade one reading level in grade three, and struggled with writing, succeeded in Advanced Placement English and ended up with a mark in the 80s!
When I was in the second grade, a girl punched me and knocked me out. I fell and smacked my head on a planter, and cut my face open. I had to get several stitches, and ended up looking like Sloth from The Goonies for a few weeks. However over time it healed, and all that is left from that fateful day is a little scar above my eye. Being labeled as the dumb kid left a lot of wounds at the time that have become scars. The interesting thing about scars is that they’ll always be with you, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t healed, in fact some of them make great stories.
Our society today is so based on success that we never really take a look at the scars of our failures and what they have to teach us. However, Life is often measured on how many times you fail and overcome that failure. When my favourite teacher, Charlie Siegel was retiring, I had the opportunity to publically thank him for teaching me to overcome failures and learn from them, and part of my speech has stayed with me over the years:
Beethoven’s music teacher told him that he would never succeed as a composer. Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Albert Einstein’s teacher told him that he was so stupid that he should quit school. Almost every publisher in Great Britain and the USA rejected J.K. Rowling’s book, Harry Potter.These people were all told they would amount to nothing; they were labeled as failures but they did not let these labels define them. They worked through their hardships and became some of the greatest success stories of all time.
Dyslexia is a gift. If you are struggling with dyslexia, keep on going. Don’t use it as an excuse to not do something, because with hard work and faith in yourself you can do anything. Don’t let others ruin your confidence. Dyslexics have a unique outlook on the world. Just like how we learn differently, we see things differently. We are the future success stories of the world.
My advice to parents who are worrying about their kids with dyslexia is to believe in your children. They will get through this. If you are feeling guilty about not discovering your child had dyslexia sooner, you need to stop beating yourself up about it. You discovered it now, and all you can do is continue to support your children. My parents wouldn’t accept that I was “lazy” or “dumb” and worked with me tirelessly all through my struggles. I was blessed to have the parents I have, and I know that I owe them a lot because without their faith in me. I would not have succeeded. My mom has often said that she felt so guilty that no one had discovered that I had dyslexia sooner, but it’s not anyone’s fault. I am happy now. I am confident now. Every great epic has obstacles to get to the happy ending.
Did I ever get an A+ on a tough exam? Rarely. Did I always know the answer when teachers were to ask me a question? Sometimes. Did I learn to tie my shoes? Eventually. Did I graduate from High School? Yes. In fact I recently just graduated from University and I’m now pursuing a career in both film and education. I spent a year as the Senior Stick (Student Council President) of St. Paul’s College, where I was able to re-launch a college newspaper, co-organize a quarter of a million dollar renovation, as well as many other successful projects. This June, I spent a few weeks working as an Educational Assistant where I had the opportunity to prepare struggling learners for their exams. I was elated with their success because it was not all that long ago that I was in their shoes. If all goes as planned, I hope to one day be back in the classroom as a teacher where I can be a Charlie Siegel to kids who need someone who will believe in them.
I may not consider myself your typical champion, but I am in no way a failure!
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