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Q&A: I Have Dyslexia. What Does That Mean?

By: Liana Heitin

Dannenbergs

When her 5-year-old daughter began struggling with letter recognition, rhyming, and sight words, Shelley Ball-Dannenberg - an experienced teacher - suspected a reading disability. Turns out she was right. Ball-Dannenberg took it upon herself to become the best advocate she could for her daughter and began by traveling from Ohio to California for a graduate course on diagnosing dyslexia.

Four years later, her daughter, Delaney, has a formal diagnosis, receives one-on-one tutoring, and loves school. Ball-Dannenberg runs a private company that offers diagnostic testing for dyslexia and research-based tutoring. She's a member of the International Dyslexia Association and speaks at public events to raise awareness about dyslexia.

In her new book I Have Dyslexia. What Does That Mean? Ball-Dannenberg describes what it's like to have a learning disability through her daughter's eyes. LD OnLine talked to Ball-Dannenberg about how she wrote the book with her daughter and what she thinks everyone should understand about dyslexia.


Why did you decide to write this book?

I wrote this book in an effort to raise awareness about dyslexia and to give parents and teachers a teaching tool to discuss dyslexia with their children. After my daughter, Delaney, was diagnosed with dyslexia, I wanted to be able to talk with her, her teachers, her classmates, and even her coaches about what was happening with her learning.

I searched for a children's book that was appropriate for Delaney's age and reading level. I found many wonderful books written for parents and older children, but nothing for elementary school kids. So this book was really written out of the necessity for age-appropriate material to discuss dyslexia with young children.


How much collaborating did you do with Delaney? What was the creative process like?

As Delaney became more comfortable with her learning disability, I would hear her describing dyslexia to other people in her life. I began to write down what she was telling them and how having dyslexia makes her feel. The words in the book are really Delaney's words. Actually writing the book was very easy and natural. It is truly a story about her life as a dyslexic child.


Who is your intended audience? How do you hope the book will be used?

I really hope that parents of dyslexic children will find this book helpful in discussing dyslexia with their family. It is imperative that a child with the diagnosis of dyslexia has an understanding about how they learn and why they may struggle with certain subjects. It's also important for dyslexic children to know that they are not dumb and to realize that with tutoring and support in school, they can be very successful.

I also hope that teachers will read this book to their students in an effort to create classroom acceptance for all learners. Classmates of dyslexic children can actually be helpful and provide support for their friends who may be struggling. Once children have awareness about a disability, they tend to be more accepting and understanding of differences.


How many of the details are based on the real Delaney? Did she really make an invention called a "plant pull" to help you with yardwork?

All of the details in the book are based on the real Delaney. She is very creative, witty, and extremely empathetic to others. One day I was working in the yard and planting flowers in large pots. I was having a difficult time moving the heavy pots from the front yard to the back yard. The next thing I knew, Delaney appeared from the garage with a "plant pull" that she had engineered by attaching a boogie board to an old bike handle. It was ingenious, and it worked beautifully!

Creativity, artistic ability, empathy, and athleticism are often common strengths for dyslexic children. We try to support those strengths and offer Delaney opportunities to be successful at those things. Therefore, the focus is not always about her weaknesses: reading, writing, and spelling.


The book begins with "My name is Delaney. I have dyslexia." Why did you decide to tell the story through Delaney's eyes?

I felt that telling the story through Delaney's eyes would help to give other dyslexic children a voice about their disability. We realized that the more we were open and honest with Delaney about her learning differences, the more comfortable she became with herself. She is not embarrassed to ask for someone to read directions to her, or she will let a substitute teacher know that she has an accommodation plan and needs more time for a task.

With this awareness of her learning strengths and weaknesses came self-esteem, and I hope that Delaney's story will help other children with dyslexia realize that they, too, are valuable. There is no shame in learning differently.


What do you hope other children with dyslexia will learn from the book? Parents? Teachers?

After reading this book, I hope that children who are diagnosed with dyslexia will understand that they are not alone and that they are not dumb. hope that dyslexic children will gain a voice and be able to advocate and speak for themselves when they are confused or need help. Dyslexia runs in families. So often times there is a parent, grandparent or even a sibling who is also struggling to learn to read. Children with dyslexia usually have average to above average IQ, so there is nothing wrong with their cognitive abilities. I also want children who are diagnosed to realize that while school may be difficult, with proper tutoring and classroom accommodations, they can be very successful.

I hope that parents and teachers will gain an understanding of what life is like for a dyslexic child. Homework time and studying can be torture! So I need to remind myself and keep in perspective that Delaney really does need extra time to think, or have things read aloud, or scribe for her, and that she is not lazy or unmotivated. She has a neurologically-based learning disability.


The main character in the book describes homework time as the "worst part of the day." She says: "Compared to my friends it took me forever to finish the assignments. My mom would try to help, but I would get frustrated and angry with her." This is something that many students with disabilities and their parents struggle with on a nightly basis. What does your family do to make homework time more bearable?

By the end of the day, Delaney has worked so hard at school that homework is the last thing she wants to do. I am in constant communication with her teachers. We have all agreed that homework can be modified for Delaney. She is still responsible for assignments, but perhaps she completes fewer problems, or I scribe for her, or we "team read" chapters.

We also have a quiet, distraction-free zone to complete homework. We take several mini-breaks, and I make sure she has eaten something. We still have difficult days, but with those accommodations in place and the support of her teachers, we get through it.


The book comes across as very honest. Did Delaney have any apprehension about telling her story so candidly to the public? Were you worried about this?

The book is definitely an honest portrayal of what Delaney's life with dyslexia is like. We discussed the importance of talking about it in order to be able to help other children, parents, and teachers. She has a voice about it, and she is confident enough to speak to others about dyslexia. Our hope is that by being so open about dyslexia, we will help to raise awareness.


What kind of response has the book received so far?

So far the book has been very positively received. One little girl, who is Delaney's age, said, "I feel like I wrote this book!"

Parents are saying that they appreciate having a tool to use to discuss dyslexia with their children, and teachers are thanking me for opening the door to be able to talk about dyslexia with their schools.

Heitin, L (2009, September 24). Q&A: I Have Dyslexia. What Does That Mean?. LD OnLine.