Dyslexia goes much beyond letter recognitiondavide vizzini

You always overestimate the amount of work you can do in a day. Yes, I definitely have the ability to read 100 pages of War and Peace a day, while also doing the rest of my work (a goal I once set myself while doing my A Levels. Unsurprisingly, I only read around 100 pages altogether). Yet, this is made so much more difficult when you can only read about 10 pages in half an hour, even less if you happen to have chosen a particularly dense book.

Dyslexia is different for everyone. Last year someone wrote some code which supposedly shows an ordinary reader what it is like to be dyslexic, the letters and words constantly changing and moving around. I have never in my life experienced this, but I can’t really know the experience of someone else because I only live inside my head. Perhaps the best way I can sum up dyslexia is that it is frustrating. It’s frustrating to have been treated like you were stupid for most of your life. It’s frustrating that I can never, no matter how many times I try, spell the word ‘alcohol’ the first time I write it, especially when I’ve had some. It’s frustrating to have to explain to everyone all the time that I’m dyslexic (and dyspraxic, but that only matters if you have to read my writing or want me to dance with you). It gets exhausting. 

When I got to Cambridge, I was retested for dyslexia, so that I could still qualify for extra time. Anyone who is dyslexic will tell you that those tests are just horrible. You get taken into a room by an apparently lovely and sweet person, who then goes into testing mode and proceeds to torture you for three hours. Of course, it’s not meant to be torture, but the tests are designed to be things you struggle with. You walk out feeling useless because it took you three minutes to copy the shape from the picture using coloured blocks and a child could have done that quicker.

“It’s frustrating that I can never, no matter how many times I try, spell the word ‘alcohol’ the first time I write it, especially when I’ve had some.”

I also don’t want to rely on my dyslexic diagnosis. This is especially because in the past, as soon as an educator has found out that I’m dyslexic, they have started to patronise me, even if they don’t mean to. At my school, there were extra classes on offer for those who might need some extra help. When I was 14, I went to the first one of that year and found that now a different teacher was taking it. This wasn’t a problem until the teacher produced gold stars and a castanet to count syllables (note: this is how I initially wrote syllables while writing this ‘sybables’). I then stopped going to these classes and quickly got in trouble for ‘mitching’ class, because I am very cool (I am not).

I’m not saying that dyslexia comes even close to a physical disability. I don’t even like to describe myself as disabled. I was immensely uncomfortable when I had to put down that I was ‘disabled’ on my UCAS form, because that is the only option given. But dyslexia does affect my everyday life.

Dyslexia is often misunderstood as simply a condition that affects only your reading, but it actually has a much wider scope. It also affects a person’s memory, especially short term. In a lecture I will struggle to remember what has just been said and I’m always a bit embarrassed about it – that’s why I have to record all my lectures. It is harder to learn languages, because you will not be able to differentiate between sounds as well. Generally, though, it just means you take longer to process things.

This doesn’t mean that dyslexia is removed from literacy. It’s very much connected. This is most amusing when you misread a friendly message as a nasty one. I distinctly remember a time during my first term at Cambridge. The previous night I had helped a girl who had fallen off her bike, she was a bit distressed and drunk (as was I). The next morning I got a very nice message from her apologising and saying she probably seemed at bit crazy. That is not how I read it. I managed to read that she had called me crazy. I reacted as such. It wasn’t until I read the message aloud to a friend later that I realised my terrible mistake, and apologised profusely. This kind of social confusion has happened to me quite a few times, and I’d like to put it down to my dyslexia rather than to my quick temper.

Considering all the effects that dyslexia has, I did very well at school, especially considering that I did all essay subjects. It was only when I got to Cambridge that I fully realised the depth of the problem. In the past, I had even convinced myself that I wasn’t dyslexic, that I had managed to fake it when I was tested as a child. After all, back in school I wasn’t dyslexic, I had a ‘minor phonetic reading disability’ and problems with ‘processing speed’, as if I were a computer (although, to be fair, if I were a computer, I would be pretty terrible. I’d be that awful laptop my mum still caries around that hurts her back).

But the reality is that I just can’t read that much in a day and be able to process it well. I know there is no such thing as enough work but I can never get close to enough. It’s not just the reading, there is also the writing of essays. Due to all the essay writing, I now have new fears: one of them involves a supervisor informing me that they think I meant to write ‘coke’ instead of ‘cock’ in an essay. This particular nightmare has yet to occur, but there have been plenty of confusing mishaps. There is, of course, the common statement that all my supervisors make at some point: ‘this is not a sentence.’

How do I cope with the combination of Cambridge and dyslexia, then? A lot of it is living with it, and helping myself as much as I can. This often means that I have to make sure I sleep enough and have enough time to work – which is why I didn’t go to a club at all last term. Also, because I don’t like clubs: they are generally awful. That has nothing to do with dyslexia, mind you, just handing over some truth.

The point here is that Cambridge is hard. It’s harder when the main and most basic task you do in a day, reading and writing, is itself a struggle. It’s not unmanageable, though, and quite often my mistakes can be funny. Things just have to be taken a little slower. The main point of this is, please don’t laugh at me: it’s the dyslexia

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