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Visions Journal

The Battle with Dyslexia

Allen Tysick, BSc

Reprinted from the The Many Faces of Neurodiversity issue of Visions Journal, 2023, 18 (3), pp. 26-27

Stock photo of older man standing against a brick wall

Six famous figures learned to overcome their struggles with dyslexia and harness their strength to be leaders among us:

  • Cher: entertainer, actress
  • Anderson Cooper: journalist
  • Robin Williams: comedian
  • Keira Knightley: actress
  • Whoopi Goldberg: comedian, actress
  • Allen Tysick: not too famous, but asked by a dear friend, Dr. Trudy Norman, guest editor of this issue of Visions, to write about my lifetime battle with dyslexia

When you are in a wheelchair or walking with crutches, a cane or a walker, others can see and, in some ways, understand your disability. Dyslexia is an invisible disability. Others cannot see it and therefore do not understand it.

Am I just being sacrilegious when I write, “I worship Dog”? Am I stupid when I write, “selery,” “sentipede,” “sircle,” “sirus,” “sity,” “symbal,” and “sent” instead of celery, centipede, circle, circus, city, cymbal and cent? Just think about the word “fone” (phone). All of us with dyslexia would love to meet the person that came up with that spelling in a back alley.

Let's talk about being embarrassed. I wrote a very public dissertation paper for McGill University’s School of Religious Studies and a sentence read, “We are going to have an erection. We can use a hand.” Yes, the word misspelled was election. My college still reminds me of that spelling mistake 40 years later.

In kindergarten, I had to put on the dunce hat and sit in the corner for refusing to read aloud and being laughed at by the class. Someone would make fun of my reading or spelling, and I would crack their nose open. Someone in the schoolyard would call me a dummy and a fight would break out no matter how big the other student was. My nose was broken more than once, but overall, afterwards, I was still standing over my opponents.

Now, remember: we’re talking 65 years ago. Dyslexia was not commonly understood as a disability. At that time, everyone was expected to read, write and spell. It was a requirement of our education system. The school eventually determined that because of my “violent outbursts,” I would be transferred to a boys’ vocational school—a place for the academically slow and boys with violent records.

On the first day at that school, I found myself in the principal’s office. I broke the nose of our football team captain. He pushed a much smaller student down to the ground. I saw it happen. I just hit him once, and he fell down with a broken nose.

I spent more of my time at the Broken Qu pool hall on Preston Street in Ottawa than I did in class. I got pretty good at the game. Trigonometry became my friend, and I began to see math rather than learn in the classroom. Math, in some rare cases, is not learned. It is felt and understood logically. Despite my spelling and dyslexia, I loved solving and understanding math problems.

The word “dyslexia” tries to put all of us in the same box, but the truth is that dyslexia affects different people in different ways. In the more severe cases, letters and numbers are reversed and there are no spaces seen between the words. For some, math and numbers cause a big problem. Yet for myself, math was just part of who I was.

Fighting was pretty standard in the pool hall, and I never backed down. It was one Saturday when a much larger boy called me an idiot. I flew across the pool table at him and the fight was on. Flying pool sticks and pool balls went across the room. Then I landed a good one and he hit the floor. I jumped on him and continued to pound him. I was pulled off by three others.

There he lay, unconscious in a pool of blood, and I saw him for the first time that night. I knelt beside him, wiping the blood from his face. I helped him to his feet. “You are damn tough,” he said. No longer, I promise you that, I thought. I will use my brain, not my hands, from this day on. That was the beginning of my academic uphill battle.

When I graduated from vocational school, I was sent with other kids to Ottawa Technical Secondary School for two years of occupational training. At the high school, the Grade 9 academic class was called 9 AB; my class was called 9 OZ. That put it very clearly: they were the brains and we were the dummies.

I worked very hard at school—twice as hard as the other students—and I graduated with honours. If one has any handicaps, school can be very challenging. A classmate and good friend of mine who had dyslexia committed suicide the day we got our report card telling him, once again, he was stupid.

I had the academic qualifications to get into Carleton University’s bachelor of science program. However, I had to meet with them due to my dyslexia. I was questioned to see if I could handle the academic qualification. I quickly answered: “My marks from high school say I could.” It was at Carleton that I met an English professor. She was the first English teacher to say to me, “You are very intelligent.” She asked if I would mind going for some tests to determine if I had dyslexia, which she suspected. Now, just think about the spelling of the word “dyslexia” from the viewpoint of someone who cannot spell. REDICULOUS!!!

I went for the test and found out I had dyslexia. This gave me a much better understanding of my disability, and for the first time I could say to myself: I am not stupid. I graduated with honours and went on to work at the National Research Council in Ottawa.

I received a calling from God to become a minister for the United Church of Canada. I applied to McGill University for religious studies and was accepted. This was a very tough go for me. McGill University had high academic standards, and I had to push myself day and night, never taking a holiday. I graduated and was ordained by the United Church. I worked as a minister for 10 years at the Brinston and Hubert-Valley United churches.

For all who have dyslexia, you stand among many intelligent people. Yes, you will have to work much harder than most, but you will also achieve more than most.

About the author

Allen grew up in a poor Catholic family and struggled in school due to dyslexia. He persevered and graduated from Carleton University. After a career in engineering, he studied religion and was ordained by the United Church of Canada. Allen will soon publish Muddy Waters, a non-fiction book about his 30 years working with homeless people

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