Remapping dyslexia: B.C. honours student won’t let learning disorder get in her way

Click to play video: 'Dyslexia Part 1: Children falling through the cracks'
Dyslexia Part 1: Children falling through the cracks
WATCH: In part one of our three-part series on dyslexia, Jennifer Palma reports on how some children go through the B.C. school system unable to read or write – Nov 7, 2017

Tannis McKay is a 16-year-old honours student and a dynamo on the soccer field. To look at her you’d think she didn’t have a care in the world, but behind her smile is a struggle. McKay has dyslexia.

“When I was younger B’s and D’s were just everywhere for me,” she said. “I couldn’t tell them apart for the life of me.”

Dyslexia is a learning disability that makes reading and writing very difficult. It’s also neurological and genetic.

McKay’s brother also has dyslexia. Their mom, Cathy McMillan, says she has the learning disability as well. McMillan is a strong parent advocate at Dyslexia BC, and says things have to change.

“With some other medical disabilities it’s in your face a bit more and you have to ask for help right away,” she said. “But with dyslexia there’s a lot of shame associated with it, because of the misunderstandings about it. People think that it means you’re not smart, that you can’t learn.

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“A lot of the community almost gives up on students or people with dyslexia before they’ve even started. It’s hard for people to come around to the idea that to succeed with a learning disability you need to be open about it, embrace it.”

WATCH: Dealing with Dyslexia

Both parents and educators say dyslexia is a word some schools don’t even like to use when discussing a potential issue with a child’s ability to read and write. The condition is prevalent, with many learning disability issues going back to dyslexia. The condition is more than mixing up letters: people with dyslexia see things the same way as others, but the information is encoded and decoded differently. Some symptoms include difficulty learning multiplication tables, rhyming, and comprehension.

Linda Siegel, professor emeritus in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Education and author of Not Stupid, Not Lazy, says “the effects of missing dyslexia can be very serious.”

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“First of all the children, and adults also, have problems with self-esteem. They think they’re stupid. Other people, parents, teachers, think that they’re lazy, that they’re just not trying hard enough. But the consequences can be more serious. We’ve studied adolescent suicides and found that a significant number of them have dyslexia or another learning disability and it hasn’t been properly treated or even diagnosed.”

Low self-esteem and anxiety are serious issues that can devour someone’s self-worth who has dyslexia. Even though McKay is now in Grade 11 at Collingwood School in West Vancouver, she can still feel the sting of dyslexia.

If you would like to learn more about what it’s like to live with dyslexia click on this link.

“When I was younger I didn’t really know what was wrong with myself,” she said tearfully. “I felt alone, but now it’s different, I know there [are] others, I know how I learn.”

McKay says her saving grace was a family that didn’t give up on her. They tried multiple types of specialized schools and tutors. She underwent a psycho-educational assessment, and has an individualized education program (IEP) that is tailored to her needs.

Educators have granted certain accommodations, like the ability to use technology and a scribe to complete assignments.

But her education costs around $35,000 a year, an amount many families couldn’t afford. McKay knows she’s lucky, but also knows her dedication and hard work helped her clinch a scholarship to an American university.

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READ MORE: This simulation shows what reading can be like when you have dyslexia

She hopes the public and school administrators get this message about students with dyslexia:

“Nothing’s wrong with them. It’s just a different way of how they’re learning. They’ve got to figure out ways… [to] support them at school, and find friends that support them too. And you know, work hard that’s the only way you’re going to get it done.”

Prominent public figures with dyslexia include inventor Thomas Edison, industrialist Henry Ford, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, artist Pablo Picasso and boxer Muhammad Ali.

The world needs people with dyslexia because they often think “outside of the box,” but they need help getting the world to understand them.

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