Friday 18 July 2014

Word up

So here's something I've never spoken about publicly before. When I was 15 I had my IQ tested and was found to be in the upper 10% of the country for my age. That same year still aged 15 I dropped out of school with hardly any qualifications.

If life hands you melons!
If life hands you melons by snorg tees

From the moment I started school I know it wasn't the place for me, I was much slower at learning than everyone else, was constantly humiliated by teachers and teased for being stupid. This sadly isn't an uncommon story and I'm guessing it'll come as no shock when I say the reason behind it all is because i'm dyslexic (which by the way is a really hard word to spell). There is still debate over dyslexia being a real condition, I'm fully open to this discussion but for the moment no other term is available which better communicate my mental block when it comes to words.

Trying to explain what reading and writing is like for me is very hard. It is the only reality I have or will ever know. Put basically though I just have no understanding of the rules around letters. To me they are just abstract shapes with no sound attached, this means every time I think about a letter I have to step by step mentally recall what noise goes with it. I've gotten pretty fast at this over the years and if that was all there was to it i'd be ok, however as we know language is far more complicated than that. So over time i've taught my brain to remember words with no rules attached. This means I think of them as shapes that symbolise their meaning. I have hundreds, thousands of these committed to memory. This memory bank of words allows me to lead a pretty functional life. I'm not going to lie it is hard, people that really know me see how taxing it is on my energy and my time. My eyes now are practically burning through the computer screen because I'm so deeply focused. My work flow is always interrupted because I have to stop typing so frequently to google a word I'm stuck on. It's also hard because I'm a very rapid thinker and can't recall the memorised words fast enough to keep up with my brain. Often the speed at which I try and get the thoughts written before they are forgotten short cuts me recalling the spelling correctly. I more often than not have typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors in whatever i've written and the more tired I am the worse it gets. The other kicker is, when you can't read very well spellcheck is of limited use, I often get tripped up by spellcheck giving me totally the wrong word and of course I'm none the wiser.

So why write this now? Well it's come up a number of times this week, people have corrected me or rather my spelling on social media. I'm not particularly upset by this, I take it all with a nod, a smile and a wink usually in emoticon form. I do however, want to publicly explain why my spelling is more often than not pretty shabby. The thing is I know how much spelling means to lots of people. It's great to take pride in it. I understand how it makes things clearer, harder to misunderstand, look more professional but personally I don't care, I can't care. The mere fact I've pulled together a half readable blog post is something that would have been unimaginable for the 15 year old me. This takes more energy, reading and re reading than I want to go into. The thing is, though, I want to write, I love language and word play and telling stories. I don't believe because I can't always get this complex system of communication correct that I shouldn't have the same right as everyone else to use it. In fact in this age of social media it would mean me turning my back on a huge part of modern life and interaction. I also wouldn't swap my disability for normality, I strongly believe that what I lack in reading and writing skills I have made up for in other more unusual ways. I'm happy to keep my achievements and my bad spelling.

Just as a side note to any kids or parents with young ones living with a learning disability, it you're smart and dedicated you'll be ok. School kind of sucks for people like us but it gets a lot easier once you leave that world behind.


  1. A lovely post. I'm not dyslexic but I do find peoples obsession with spelling challenging. I've always struggled with it, thank god for spell check. When you're at school they say you should read lots and this will help with your english. I've always been a ravenous reader and my spelling just got worse and worse I couldn't grasp grammar and I find writing makes me anxious because I hate that people judge me for not spelling correctly or putting sentences together in the best way. I've attempted to embrace my faults and I write online anyway. Thank you for the post. You are a fantastic designer and you should never have to explain yourself to anyone. Hugs.

  2. I loved your post, Colleen. One of my closest friends, Stefan Engeseth, is dyslexic, and he values it, because, in his opinion, it has allowed him to see things differently and be more creative. It sounds like the same applies to you with your work.

    Your analysis of seeing word shapes fascinates me as in my studies on typography, non-dyslexic readers apparently do this, too, but of course they will process them differently because of how they learned them. But the way you interpret written words might actually be instructive and potentially makes more sense—certainly to anyone who is Chinese who would read ideograms in the same way.

    Coming back to Latin, we apparently recognize word shapes, which is why blocks of text in all caps is hard to read, because the ascenders and descenders—the bits sticking up like on b, d, f and h; and the bits going down on g, p, q and y—are missing. You may find you are a better reader or writer than many people because of your dyslexia now as you’ve worked these techniques out earlier and applied them well, and you’re conscientious about your writing when others take it for granted.