For many dyslexics, the road to academic and career success isn’t off-limits but more about taking a different path.
VOICES OF DYSLEXIA: FOUR DIFFERENT PATHS TO SUCCESS
The spread of information and advocacy is increasing awareness around dyslexia, and many who have experienced reading struggles are beginning to find their way through school—and life beyond it—more easily.
Here are the stories of four dyslexic adults who found success in different ways. Notice how the themes of this guide have played out in their lives—by managing their anxiety and passing on their learning to support others with dyslexia to succeed; by advocating for themselves; by perfecting the art of listening; and by finding creative forms of self-expression.
DONNA GARGETT, SOCIAL WORKER, HEAD OF A NONPROFIT SUPPORTING DYSLEXICS, AGE 41
When Donna Gargett was growing up in California in the 1980s, she remembers watching an episode of the television show “The Cosby Show” where the character Theo realizes he has dyslexia. Gargett thought to herself, “that’s me.”
Now 41, Gargett is a social worker and head of a nonprofit that recruits and trains tutors in the Orton-Gillingham teaching method to help dyslexics in and around Jacksonville, North Carolina, where she lives. But even though she’s learned to manage her dyslexia over time, memories of reading and writing in school bring back anxiety. She often thinks about how she knew she had the same condition that Theo had, even though she wasn’t identified as dyslexic until college.
In grade school and high school, Gargett always felt “less than.” She struggled so much, once she even asked her parents if she was mentally disabled and they were hiding it from her. In elementary school, “I didn’t understand what was going on,” she says. “I was trying as hard as I could and still wasn’t getting it.”
Years of failure in school caused Gargett extreme anxiety, and she says it made her introverted. She spent most classes trying not to make eye contact with the teacher, hoping she wouldn’t be called on and instead would just “melt away.”
But Gargett found some relief once she reached college. “I found college to be much easier, knowing there wasn’t any reading out loud anymore was a huge relief for me personally,” she says. In college, she could record lectures and go home and listen to them over and over if she needed.
Gargett still finds it extremely stressful to read aloud, and avoids it at all costs, even in her work as an adult. Even though she finds it extremely rewarding to work with people who need help, the paperwork involved in social work case management is time-consuming and causes stress. She admits that she still makes a lot of mistakes, spells poorly, and takes a lot of time and energy to make sure documents are legible and correct.
But when both Gargett’s daughters, who are six and eight, were identified as dyslexic (the condition has a genetic component and tends to run in families), she knew she had to do something to try and change the stigma and provide an environment for them that didn’t contain so much anxiety.
That’s how she got started helping tutors get certified in Orton-Gillingham near her home. The tutors are able to help the students who are just like she once was—afraid that there was something wrong with them. The nonprofit, Blank Canvass, has spread to include Eastern North Carolina. Gargett is hoping that she’s breaking the stigma of dyslexia and dispelling the anxiety that haunted her.
“Parents come to me now, knowing that something is wrong, but they can’t put their finger on it,” Gargett says. “Because of my own personal story, and now as a parent, I can help guide these parents through the process. Self-esteem is the root of a lot of the problems caused by dyslexia, and [with the nonprofit] we are striving to build students’ individual strengths.”
MACKENZIE FANATICO, SENIOR AT ANGELO STATE UNIVERSITY
Mackenzie Fanatico remembers her early elementary years as “chaotic,” because all her friends could read, and she couldn’t. She believed there was something wrong with her, that she was “stupid,” until a third grade teacher at her public school in Philadelphia asked her mother whether Mackenzie had ever been tested for dyslexia. She finally got tested and was diagnosed with dyslexia.
But it wasn’t until the fifth grade, after she’d endured a long illness and her family moved to the suburbs outside of Dallas, Texas, when she finally learned to read. There, an in-home tutor came to her house as she recovered, and Fanatico finally received the one-on-one attention she needed to learn to read.
Even as her reading got stronger through middle and high school, Fanatico still required so much extra time to complete the same amount of work as other students, she realized that if she was going to succeed at all, she had to start talking to her teachers about what she needed to complete assignments and take tests.
She’d explain what was happening inside her dyslexic brain, and that she needed help taking notes by using a computer with voice-to-text and recording lectures so she could listen to them later. She needed lenience on hand-written tests, too, because she knew she would “butcher the spelling.” By forming relationships with her teachers, Fanatico did well in high school and made it to college.
Now a senior at Angelo State University in the West Texas town San Angelo, she has used the same strategy to succeed in college—by forming relationships with her professors.
“I still need a whole lot of repetition,” Fanatico says. “My friends might study two hours for a class, but it takes me four or six hours to be able to ‘get’ the same material.” She often arrived an hour early to her college math class to go over work with her professor. Then she’d also spend an additional two or three hours afterward with professors as well, if possible, to go over homework. Teacher relationships, she says, have become a vital part of her learning.
Fanatico also developed a close relationship with the learning disability center staff on campus, who helped her write a list of accommodations she could give to professors. Her college accommodations include permission to record lectures, take notes on a computer, lenience on spelling, and permission to use a special blue overlay on top of papers that helps her see letters and words more clearly.
Those relationships have helped her succeed: Fanatico earned straight A’s in both fall and spring semesters of her sophomore year of college. She plans to graduate with a degree in special education, hoping to form those special relationships with kids who struggle in school the way she did.
ERIC MCGEHEARTY, ENTREPRENEUR, AGE 41
Eric McGehearty says he has never once read a book with his eyes. Though the forty-year-old entrepreneur was identified as dyslexic when he was only five years old, the Dallas, Texas, native says all the books he has ever finished, he read by listening to audiobooks.
McGehearty says he figured out early that, for him, listening was the key to learning. He used audio books and listening techniques to complete his schoolwork, and eventually graduate from high school as class valedictorian.
“Audio books were a big piece of my success as a student,” he says. “Through Learning Ally, I’ve been listening to audio books a couple of hours a day, every day, for 35 years. I am a very good ‘ear reader’.”
Like many dyslexics, elementary school was difficult for McGehearty, and he called himself at that time a “depressed and unhappy little kid.” By middle school, he was beginning to catch on to how to learn, and by high school, he says, everything clicked— he began asking for what he needed from his teachers so he could get the material.
He says that unlike many dyslexics, recording lectures didn’t help his learning nearly as much as focused listening did. Through a lot of trial and error, he developed a ‘listening system’ that ensured he would remember what the teacher was saying. He did it by always participating in the conversation the teacher was having.
“If I speak it, I will remember it. In college, when the professor would get to the main idea, about every five to ten minutes I would ask a question, reframing the information in a way so that I would remember it,” he says. “I’d boil it down to the essential point. If the professor agreed, then I knew that I learned it.” McGehearty says that he raised his hand constantly in class so he could ask the questions essential to his learning, and some students teased him, accusing him of showing off. But he didn’t care.
“I’d say, no, I’m actually trying to learn today.”
NATHAN SPOON, POET AND TEACHER, AGE 45
Poet Nathan Spoon recalls always loving books and has special memories of sitting on his father’s lap in rural Tennessee, listening to his father read the Bible as he followed along.
Though he read constantly and loved his books so much he kept them in a special place in his room, he knew that something wasn’t quite right—his reading was slow and “the letters always seem to wiggle on the page.” School was difficult, and he had to repeat fifth grade. According to Spoon, his high school education was ‘saved’ by his high grades in art that pulled up his GPA.
Spoon wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia, autism, and ADHD until recently, when he was 44 years old. But his reading difficulties had never stopped him from devouring tons of reading material, which he’s not afraid to read slowly and often reads aloud to himself, which seems to help. And the difficulties never kept him from the poetry he’s been writing— he calls it ‘making language collages’—since he was seventeen, publishing in well-heeled journals and anthologies. He classifies his poetry as experimental, and instead of seeing his trouble with phonemes as a hindrance, he uses them like notes in constructing a piece of music.
The poetic form, Spoon says, especially modern and postmodern poetry, are perfect forms for dyslexics to work in, since they’re not bound by the rules of grammar or even syntax. In poetry, expressing emotions and the sound of the words provide the pleasure.
“Poetry is magical in that kind of way,” he says. “If a person writes two plus two equals green, then two plus two equals blue is a different kind of feeling.”
Spoon says his success in writing poetry, a field that requires so much reading and writing, comes from an extreme willingness to fail and defy stereotypes. “I think there are all kinds of ways to approach the learning process. Getting into poetry, there’s this notion that the autistic person can’t understand poetry, that they’re too literal and will miss the nuance. There may be some truth to that—but there’s also truth to the notion that there are all kinds of ways to write poetry.”
Recently, he also began writing for academia to explore the topics of poetry and neurodiversity, and how slow processing might benefit comprehension.
For both McGehearty and Spoon, there’s a theme having to do with the importance of art education—both say that art classes saved their schooling experience in more than one way.
For Spoon, when art became available at his rural Tennessee school, he found something he could excel in, and the A’s he received in art helped to boost his GPA. “My academic performance was always very mixed, and I always did the absolute worst in math,” he says. “I graduated with a C-minus GPA only because I made A-pluses in art.”
For McGehearty, his passion for art began with a fifth grade art teacher who he still remembers by name, Ms. Mary Dallas. McGehearty had just broken his right arm and he was unable to write because of the cast, but Dallas told him about artists who had great physical disabilities who learned to paint with their mouths, or their feet. These artists learned to express themselves despite their physical disability, Dallas told him, and he should try it.
“Every day, I went to that art class and made art with a different part of my body,” he says. “I made some of the coolest stuff. It didn’t look that great, but it was so much fun. And it was the greatest lesson to me, because I couldn’t read. And just because I couldn’t read didn’t mean that I couldn’t be successful in a different way.” That defining moment in McGehearty’s life changed his perspective, and he decided that he would become an artist. He took Ms. Dallas’s art class for the next four years and can’t thank her enough for her willingness to allow the open expression of his creativity.
“Art was a safe place for me,” he says. “I didn’t have to read.” McGehearty eventually earned a graduate degree in art and worked professionally as an artist for a decade before launching his own startup marketing company.
These four lives bring into high relief the main points of this guide:
SCHOOL IS CHALLENGING FOR THOSE WITH DYSLEXIA AND THEIR SELF-ESTEEM SUFFERS
• For Nathan, “the letters always seem to wiggle on the page,” and school was so difficult he had to repeat fifth grade.
• Donna felt extreme anxiety and became more introverted, trying not to get her teacher’s attention for fear she’d have to read aloud.
• Mackenzie believed that she was “stupid” and even with reading support, knew she had to put in a lot of extra time just to keep up.
• Eric called himself a “depressed and unhappy little kid” in elementary school.
EARLY DETECTION OF DYSLEXIA CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE
• Eric was diagnosed at five years of age. Although his elementary school years were difficult, he was able to discover ways to help himself learn effectively as early as middle school.
• “The Cosby Show” helped Donna recognize that she was not alone in her challenges.
RELATIONSHIPS ARE IMPORTANT BETWEEN STUDENTS, TEACHERS AND PARENTS
• Mackenzie got the one-on-one tutoring she needed as a child to learn to read.
• She developed relationships with her teachers and professors, creating a list and explaining what she needed to be successful.
• Mackenzie also got personal accommodations, such as lenience on spelling and extra time with her teachers to review her homework.
• Eric’s teachers accommodated his need to verbally communicate his understanding of lecture material by asking frequent questions.
• Donna’s daughters inherited dyslexia, so she has worked to provide learning environments without the stigma she felt as a child. • Donna now trains teachers and supports parents through the process of getting help for their children.
FINDING PLEASURE IN BOOKS, STORIES AND INFORMATION IS POSSIBLE FOR DYSLEXICS
• Nathan never lost his love for books that he learned from his father, and difficulties didn’t stop him from “devouring tons of reading material” in his own way.
• Eric found a way to read by listening all he needed to graduate at the top of his high school class.
TECHNOLOGY CAN SUPPORT DYSLEXICS IN THEIR LEARNING AND ACADEMIC SUCCESS
• Self-advocacy allowed Mackenzie to get the technological accommodations, such as voice-to-text note-taking, lecture recordings, and blue overlays for reading texts.
• Eric’s teachers understood that he would be listening to all written material via audiobooks.
CREATIVE EXPRESSION HELPS DYSLEXICS USE THE POWER OF THEIR RIGHT BRAINS WELL
• As a poet, Nathan has found a good match between the way his brain loves to use words and writing poems—his “language collages,” in which he can loosen the rules of grammar and syntax.
• Eric found art as early as fifth grade as a way he could “go with the grain” of his brain in expressing himself visually.
THOSE WITH DYSLEXIA OFTEN “GIVE BACK” TO SUPPORT OTHER DYSLEXICS TO REACH THEIR POTENTIAL THROUGH ACTION AND ROLE-MODELING.
• Donna has created a non-profit called Blank Canvass which supports parents and trains teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method, which gives learners with dyslexia the one-on-one, intensive attention many have found effective.
• Nathan has begun doing academic writing about the relationship between poetry and brains that exhibit neurodiversity, such as those with dyslexia.
• Mackenzie intends to get her degree in special education, so that she can support other children who learn differently.
• Eric has found success as both an artist and an entrepreneur.
These stories offer a window into the complex inner and outer worlds of people with dyslexia, and each story proves that what Sheryl Rimrodt-Frierson said can indeed be true: “No one with dyslexia needs to sell themselves short, because there is a world of possibilities.”
“What is dyslexia” TED-Ed video by Kelli Sandman-Hurley
HBO The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia
Unlocking Dyslexia by NPR
Decoding Dyslexia – Grassroots Parent-Led Movement for Dyslexia
Dyslegia.com – dyslexia laws from state to state