I was recently commissioned to write a short version of my dyslexia story for Metro.co.uk and that can be read here.
After doing well in school, Paula Ugochukwu, 21 from London, was part way through a Journalism degree at a Russell Group university when she was diagnosed with a learning disability.
At the ripe old age of 21 years, 8 months and 20 days old, I was told I have a specific learning difficulty. I was in the final year of my four-year Journalism Studies degree at the University of Sheffield, just nine months away from graduating.
“How come I’m only just finding this out now.” I asked the university disability advisor, Phil after a very uncomfortable pause settled that September afternoon. I had spent the better part of two decades in the British education system and never had anyone ever suspected I was dyslexic.
Except me, of course. I had suspected it and had I been more honest with myself, I may have been tested and diagnosed a lot earlier.
When I was nine, in Year Five, my class teacher gave us weekly spelling tests. We went home every week with a list of 10 words, varying in difficulty, that we were supposed to practise and learn how to spell perfectly. I remember really struggling to spell these words and very early on in the school year, I decided spelling was not for me. And so, I gave up. Every week I failed the class spelling tests.
Had my teacher known I’d failed the tests, perhaps we would have had a conversation that would have led to being tested for learning difficulties. But, the early 2000s were a time of packed classrooms and overworked teachers.
Each week my teacher would ask us, the children, to self or peer mark our spelling tests. Each week I would rub out my incorrect answers and neatly print the correct ones – at that time I had not graduated to a handwriting pen and was still writing in pencil – before giving myself a nice big tick. Each week she would ask for our marks without checking our spelling books and each time I would make up a number, usually between six and nine, because I knew a 10 was too obvious.
“It seems your brain subconsciously developed coping mechanisms,” the disability advisor Phil said, “so you were able to mask the signs of dyslexia and dyspraxia.” He was smiling one of those sad smiles doctors reserve for their patients.
I could not understand what about the situation warranted smiling. He had, essentially, just confirmed my worst nightmare. Something I had always secretly suspected but never dared to breathe out loud; I was not as smart as everyone always told me I was.
Dyslexia is a learning difficulty that can affect how well a person reads, writes and spells words. People with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties can struggle to recognise the sounds made by different letters in words, do sums in their head or manage their time for tasks.
There are many different symptoms of dyslexia in adults, including struggling to meet deadlines, forgetting PIN and phone numbers and avoiding reading and writing. For me, dyslexia manifested itself through my poor working memory, fumbling when trying to say common everyday words out loud and struggling to spell.
My Road to Damascus moment that finally pushed me out of my delusional bubble that dyslexia was something I would ignore and eventually grow out of was when a colleague commented on how poor my memory is. She was not being malicious when she turned to me and said, “Paula, why is your memory so bad?” She was genuinely concerned.
I was presenting in a video and kept on forgetting my lines, seconds after reading or being told them. The strangest thing about it is that I had written the script myself, so surely I should have been better at remembering it?
Unlike me, Carly Thompsett, director of Welsh clothing company Anaphase Store, was diagnosed with dyslexia and dyspraxia as a teenager. “Dyslexia is different for everyone,” 29-year-old Carly says, “and it’s fascinating, talking to people who have the exact same dyslexia as you and then others who are completely different.”
According to the NHS, one in every 10 people has some degree of dyslexia. It is a specific learning difficulty which affects individual elements of the ways a person learns and understands information. It is completely separate from academic ability. Dyslexia can be diagnosed in early childhood, within their first or second year of life, when children begin to learn how to make sounds and interpret language.
“Wait, does this mean I’m dumb, Phil?” I asked the disability advisor that day, on the verge of bursting into tears. “I have always been an A student and I love reading books. How can I be dyslexic?”. I wanted Phil to look back at his laptop again and say “Oops, sorry! My mistake. You don’t have dyslexia. That was someone else.” Because it had to be someone else.
It may seem like I was being melodramatic, but at the time I felt like I had completely lost all idea of who I was.
My intelligence has always been a defining aspect of my personality. The first thing my parents would say when they introduced me to someone was: “This is our daughter Paula. She’s so bright, top of her class. Yes, we are so proud of her.” Friends and classmates always asked me for help with school work: “Paula, can you help me with my essay? I don’t know what to write and I know you’ve done four pages already!”
Phil tried to reassure me: “No! You are not dumb, Paula! Dyslexia has nothing to do with intelligence and is just about how your brain processes and understands information.”
The way a dyslexic brain processes information is very different to how schools measure educational attainment. Remembering and regurgitating facts and figures in timed exams, reading out loud and mental arithmetic were examples of the darkest form of torment to me when I was at school. But they are also the most common forms of assessment.
Everyone I knew who was diagnosed with dyslexia at school was in the bottom set for every subject and were repeatedly told they were “just not academic”. And that is exactly why I refused to get tested. I did not want to be limited in what I could do.
Seemingly dyslexics have no chance.
Yet I left secondary school with 6As, 2 Bs and a C at GCSE and sixth form with 2As and a B at A-Level. I surpassed the grades needed to get into the best Journalism course in the country. And now, the same Paula who has a weak working memory and poor literacy skills, particularly in her reading accuracy and phonetic awareness, is a trainee journalist – a profession based around the reading, speaking and writing of words.
Carly says: “I struggle with words. Sometimes I am sending an email and I need the word ‘the’. I can say it and I know I need it but I have no idea in that moment how to spell it. I can’t seem to work out what letters I need.
“I’ll stare at my phone or computer chanting the word to myself and have to finally ask my boyfriend how to spell ‘the’. He would look at me like I’m crazy before saying T, by which it would suddenly come flooding back to me.”
I often have the same experience as Carly where I draw a blank on everyday, easy-to-spell words. I can see the word I am trying to say and I know how to say it, but as the word comes out of my mouth, I say a completely different word. Sometimes the only relation the new word I have said has to the word I was trying to say is that it starts with the same letter. But as you can imagine, the words dog and diphenylhydantoin are very very different. And no I cannot say diphenylhydantoin.
I have got a bone to pick with the person who chose dyslexia as the name of the learning difficulty. Dyslexia is Greek for bad or abnormal speaking which is fairly accurate, but it is also a word a lot of people with dyslexia struggle to say and spell.
Who thought that was a good idea?