By Claire Walla
Last week, the Special Education Parent Teacher Organization (SEPTO) was blatantly trying to make me mad.
And it worked.
I was jealous of the “smarty pants,” frustrated by my own inabilities and I harbored animosity for my instructors who, arguably, were just trying to do their jobs. Learning was not fun. I wanted no part in it.
But, that was the point.
At this SEPTO event, titled “Take a Walk in Their Shoes” and presented by Lynn Burke of the International Dyslexia Association, I, along with 48 other teachers and parents from across the East End, were put through situations designed to make learning tough.
“These are contrived circumstances,” Burke initially informed the crowd. “But, they’re designed to let people experience what it’s like to be dyslexic.”
I sat at a table with half a dozen others, including two out-of-work, recently certified teachers and two mothers from Southampton.
Knowing full well that the exercises we would be put through would be difficult — only moments before we began, Burke told me that a Sag Harbor teacher had become nauseous earlier in the day when asked to perform these same tasks — I vowed to remain calm, cool and collected.
I may not pass with flying colors, I told myself, but I would at least be able to avoid the onset of nausea.
By the time the first exercise — called the “unfair hearing test” — began, I could see how one could succumb to illness.
Seated around a standard boom box in the far corner of the Pierson Library, surrounded by other groups of highly audible people who made no allocations for the fact that we were actually being expected to decipher sound, our task was theoretically very simple: listen to 10 words as they’re spoken, then write them down.
The list was repeated three times, the words spoken at various frequencies, and, naturally, the recording was fuzzy — which became the blame for my utter ineptitude.
The first word, we eventually learned, was “fill.” I had captured the sound in my head as “arrow” at first, and then as “bill.” The second word, “catch,” I had heard on all three occasions as “cat.”
It got worse.
“Juice” had sounded at first like “sleep” and then as “tooth.” And the word “shows” sounded different all three times I heard it: “say,” “toes” and then — it horrifies me to admit it — “seven.” (I have no idea.)
It was a pitiful show. But at least I could blame my struggle on the ambient noise. During the next few painstaking stations, it was just me: my eyes and my brain.
At one station, we were asked to read a short paragraph out loud; but, complicating matters, of course, the words had all been written backwards, and we didn’t have mirrors. (Most of us — struggling to progress from one word to the next — failed the brief reading comprehension test at the end of the story.)
The mirrors were saved for another station, where were forced to trace letters while looking at our papers through a mirror reflection.
At this point in the evening, I was thrilled by the fact that my relatively squiggly pencil marks didn’t venture outside the generously thick, black letters on the page. In fact, I was doing pretty well until I got to the very bottom of the lower-case ‘q,’ right where the tail flips up. For some reason my fingers were paralyzed, my pencil refusing to veer ever so slightly right. My hand simply wouldn’t do what I was internally screaming at it to do.
But, as frustrating as it was, the coded reading station was the worst.
The first page of our story packet contained a simple sentence written in plain, old, regular English. However, various words were followed by random assortments of symbols. These codes, we learned, were used throughout the rest of the story in place of the English words they were associated with. The frequency of the coded words grew as we progressed through the story. Once I figured that out, all effort to engage in the text completely vanished.
And then I was called upon to read.
Others in the group had already pled frustration and passed. I figured I’d give it a shot. Staring at the page, I stuttered, pausing for what felt like minutes at a time as I flipped through the pages of the text, looking for the words I needed to decode the words in the sentence.
“The….” I flipped to the first page. Not there. Where was the damn word?!
“Books,” one girl in our group chimed in. She did this a lot.
“Good job,” our instructor praised. She then turned back to me, “How does that make you feel?”
I wanted to punch the table. I had never wanted to punch a table. But I did then.
According to Burke often times dyslexia either goes unrecognized or isn’t properly addressed.
“We’re about 20 to 40 percent of the population,” Burke continued. And while she estimated 60 percent of those who have dyslexia are able to conjure up a language that allows them to translate what they see into something they can understand, Burke said the other 40 percent “struggle.”
“Forty percent of kids in fourth grade are reading below grade level,” she added. “And once it gets to that point, it doesn’t change.”
After the excruciating bout of exercises that night, I spoke with Erin Albanese, a special education teacher who is currently working as a substitute teacher while looking for full-time teaching work.
“The students are frustrated all the time,” she said. “They’re lost in space,” she continued, and when they don’t have answers and can’t do their work, “they run to the bathroom, or to the water fountain. They have trouble expressing themselves.”
Our group eventually learned that the “smarty pants” among us was actually a reading teacher who said she used the various tools she gives her students to decipher the foreign words we encountered at each station. She knew the word I was searching for was “books,” for example, because the image associated with that page of text contained books.
Burke concluded the evening by stressing the importance of recognizing dyslexia and other learning disabilities and addressing each situation appropriately. Understanding what students struggle with is key, she added, because there are tools out there to help students learn.
“It’s important that you learn as much as you can about dyslexia,” Burke stated. “And try to spread the word.”