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Personal Stories

Making the Transition

By: Emily Staats
Emily Staats

I feel sometimes that I am the queen of transitions. My name is Emily Staats and I have made many transitions in my life and many of them were emphasized or caused by my dyslexia. In this first person, I would like to talk about these transitions, how they affected me, and my unhelpful and eventually helpful compensatory strategies.

The Undiagnosed Years

I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, and attended public school K-12 and as an undiagnosed dyslexic, I read so slowly that I began to think that the only explanation for my slowness was that I loved words. I loved them so much it was hard to move away from them and follow them to the end of the sentence. What was really happening is that I couldn’t decode, or break down words. I compensated for this weakness by using my gifted visual memory to remember what the word looked like by memorizing its spelling and attempting to attach that word to a meaning. This was a long process and it slowed me down. It became even more difficult as the words got longer and longer. Reading silently went much faster than reading out loud and as a result I cowered within the classroom. I hoped not to be noticed or asked to read aloud. My shy behavior routine worked. It worked so well that although I knew that I had reading issues I hid them from everybody and diverted attention by being a wildflower in the back of the classroom.

During the elementary years my reading rate wasn’t as much of an issue as it became in junior high. I couldn’t finish reading assignments during class in the time allotted and because of this I would begin to panic even before the article was passed out in class. I missed the instructions and I still didn’t finish reading. As a result of my inability to read as fast as everyone else, I became really good at faking that I had read the information by picking out an idea from the reading and asking a question or making a comment about it.

I started to realize how big this reading problem was in junior high, but I was too scared to tell anyone about it. I was afraid that I might be ridiculed or made to look stupid even when I knew that I wasn’t. This fear decreased one night when I was home watching the Cosby Show. It was then that I learned that Theo, the eldest son, had dyslexia. During the thirty-minute segment, I watched him walk through the stages of denial, understanding, and acceptance of his reading problem and through his struggles I realized that I was just like him. I was having the exact same problems as he was. This realization gave me sense of inner peace. From that point on I wasn’t as afraid to be so different but I still kept to myself the fact that I couldn’t read well.

During these years, I anticipated transitions by going to the new school before classes started, talking to people about the classes that I was about to have, agonizing over choices of electives, and continually rearranging my schedule. My world was turned upside down after every semester and my anticipation of the transition was the only thing that I could count on. This routine gave me the structure in the chaos of secondary school. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was at the point of complete emotional and physical exhaustion. After 11 years in school, I had grown very tired of hiding my problems from teachers, family and peers, diverting attention, and anticipating transitions. Although I desperately wanted to go to a good college, I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep up my elaborate compensation strategies and still succeed. With this attitude, I took the Academic Achievement Test, ACT and bombed it. I took it under the traditional timed conditions and did so horribly even my academic counselor knowing that I had a 3.8 GPA was awestruck. Tired and scared I told my mother my score and many tissue boxes later, we decided to try to find an answer.

The Diagnosis

My heart skipped a beat when I walked into the Dyslexia Institute of Minnesota. I remembered the long since forgotten episode of Theo’s struggles and two-four hour sessions later I confirmed my original idea that I was dyslexic.

The diagnosis happened the second semester of my junior year in high school and during that summer I retook the ACT under untimed conditions and scored much higher. The extra time made me feel like for the first time in my life I actually showed what I knew on a test. That feeling helped me begin to pick up the pieces of myself and begin to accept my disability.

The College Years

I made many transitions in and out of colleges. When I had my diploma in hand I had gone to four schools in five years. My first experience was at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, IA. This is a small liberal arts college where students take one course every three-and-one-half weeks. I loved to be hyper-focused on work and thought that this way of learning would accentuate my learning style but I was wrong. I just couldn’t read and write fast enough to keep up. After a psychology professor told me that he didn’t believe in learning disabilities and that I was dumb and not worth his time- I left and found Landmark College.

Landmark College in Putney, Vermont is the only school in the nation designed to teach LD students how to succeed in college. When I was there in 1995-1996, there were only 200 students on the campus, but each had a learning disability. Although adjusting to the small community of learning disabled students was hard at first, I learned to love my peers for their differences. Every student had their own story about how their LD had affected their lives and what they had done, both good and bad, to compensate for their weaknesses. I found strength in these life stories and this strength, along with the compassion of the Landmark faculty, helped me begin to break down the ineffective, time consuming compensatory strategies that had gotten me through high school and to rebuild more efficient ones.

When I left, four semesters later, I felt armed with the resources, tools, and study skills I needed to succeed in any school. I moved on to a community college in Vermont to save money and to figure out where I was going to go next. It was during that semester that I visited many schools and at each school I interviewed the LD staff to see if they would be able to help a student like me.

The University of Vermont was a good fit for me. I moved to Burlington, Vermont the spring of 1997. With the skills that Landmark helped me attain, I was able to explain my disability, my strengths and weaknesses, my learning style, and best of all I knew ways that helped me facilitate learning even if the teachers were unable to modify their teaching style. After 2 and one-half years, I graduated with an Individually Designed major in American Cultural Studies as well as an Individually Designed minor in Educational Studies.

I was glowing on the day that I got my diploma. I was proud of myself for not giving up during those long 5 years and even more elated that I had overcome so many obstacles. Some professors said that I couldn’t do it and they were wrong!

My love for the learning disability field and the LD community kept me driving forward in my educational career. That next fall I was accepted to American University’s Master’s of Arts program in Special Education-Learning Disabilities program in Washington, DC and became an Intern at the Lab School in a small classroom of 9-11 year-old students. I loved the kids I worked with, but I yearned to explore more about the LD field and help teachers and parents to better understand LD and AD(H)D.

In Conclusion

Whenever I look back on the transitions that I have made in my life, I realize how I have grown from each one and each one has taught me something new. After I was diagnosed with a learning disability, I sat on informational panels and talked about my learning disability to students, teachers, parents, and administrators. My eyes still get teary as I express the love for my disability. I don’t consider dyslexia to be something that I’m ashamed of; in fact I feel quite the opposite. I think that my dyslexia is a gift. It has helped me learn more about myself-my strengths and weaknesses, and to face challenges. My disability is the reason why I have passion and interest in this field. I am intending on using that energy to move this field into an even brighter tomorrow. After years of transitions, I have found that my learning disability was really an "ability in disguise" and I challenge you to find those abilities, too.