My Daughter’s Learning Disability Taught Me Something I Didn’t Know About Myself

By Elisa Makoon-Singh

My daughter started struggling with reading in third grade, or at least that was when I first took notice. She scored a 123 on a reading assessment when acceptable scores for her age group were between 500 and 800. As any concerned parent would do, I met with her teachers to figure out what was wrong. To my surprise, her teachers wanted to brush the whole thing off. They had retested her, and when the excerpts and questions were read aloud to her, she scored within the acceptable range. Not only that, but they said she was a very well-behaved student who was going to do fine. Of course, she’s both a genius and an angel, I thought. But it didn’t sit right with me that her reading score increased so dramatically when, by the looks of it, she had been tested on listening comprehension, not reading. I could have taken the easy way out and been gaslighted by the teachers’ assurances, but instead I dug deeper.

To paraphrase the musical “Hamilton”, I know my daughter like I know my own mind, you will never find someone who’s as bright. I also know that reading is not enjoyable or easy for her. We read together at night and I notice every time she says a word wrong, as if she’s guessing rather than sounding it out. I empathize with her because her struggles remind me of my own growing up. She’s like me and I turned out fine. If I managed to figure out this whole reading thing, surely my daughter would, too.

In my quest to help her become a better reader, I stumbled upon something I knew little about: Dyslexia. I must have been about seven years old when I first heard that word. It was the late 1980s and my mother, like all mothers then, had a crush on Tom Cruise. One day she told me she read in the tabloids that he was dyslexic. “What’s that?” I asked. The way she explained it was that he read everything backwards. I’ve since learned that this is just one of the many myths about dyslexia. But at the time I remember thinking how hard it must have been for Tom Cruise to learn his lines backwards. Beyond that, I never gave dyslexia a second thought.

Fast forward to me as a 36-year-old attorney, mother, looking for answers when I learned the following:

Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty with reading and is defined as “a specific learning disability that is neurobiological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and poor spelling and decoding abilities. These difficulties typically result from a deficit in the phonological component of language that is often unexpected in relation to other cognitive abilities…” Dyslexia is both familial and heritable.[1]

It was as though a lightbulb turned on. I cracked the code. I figured it all out. I am dyslexic and my daughter inherited it from me. Although this was a bit of a shock, it also felt like the answer to a question I had been too afraid to ask. I always knew I was a slow reader and I kept that secret hidden, at times even from myself. I always loved books and collected them, but I rarely read them to completion, and I was embarrassed.

It was no wonder it took me that long to recognize my dyslexia. The idea that I might have had a learning disability was simply not within the realm of possibilities in my parents’ house. They were the stereotypical hard-working, professional, nerdy, immigrant parents. Before moving to the states, my father went from Trinidad to Spain for medical school. He studied medicine in a non-native language. In Spain he met my mom who had skipped several grades and had become a school teacher by age 18. My parents are “smart people” and they expected nothing less from my sister and me. Immigrant parents do not exactly hold your hand through school, either. They’ll buy the supplies for the science project, but they won’t necessarily help you build it. My parents put our education on autopilot. They splurged on tuition for private school and college, but beyond that, it was on me to study and get good grades. At times I excelled, and other times I struggled.

As a student I often wondered, why did it take so long to read the shortest newspaper article for my current events report? Why did I read my English homework and have no idea what was happening in the story until we discussed it in class? Why did I devour movies, but never novels? Why did I flunk the bar exam on my first two attempts?

Part of the reason I made it through school without accommodations was thanks to private all-girls schools. There were no boys to distract me and classes were tiny, ten students or less. This allowed for one-on-one attention. There were opportunities to shine, beyond straight reading and writing. I figured out how to hide my reading struggles and work around them. I used multisensory learning before I knew it was a thing: flash cards, group study, memorization, and rewriting my notes over and over until the material was stored in the muscle memory of my left hand. Luckily, numbers didn’t stump me the way paragraphs did, so I was able to excel in math. Thanks to having learned Spanish at home, I was ahead of the curve in French class.

In college, I used my language skills to tackle the advanced literature requirement. English classes were always too hard; I didn’t think I could digest long, complex literary works. I perused the list of classes that counted as advanced lit and when I saw a Spanish language class called Latin American Poetry, I was sold. As a poli-sci major who had never taken a Spanish class in her life, on paper I had no business registering for the class. But I was also a bilingual in need of fulfilling the advanced lit requirement for graduation, so I had to throw my hat in for poetry. Literature in small spurts seemed manageable to me. After an interview with the Head of the Language Department, in Spanish, I got permission to take the class and even got an A. In a school system that relies so heavily on reading and writing, dyslexics must find ways to pivot and compensate for their difficulties. As I reflected on my past life as a student, I realized that even though I was undiagnosed, I had always been working around my dyslexia.

My daughter recently told me that ever since we started talking more openly about reading struggles, she has been more aware of her mistakes and is actually reading now. It is difficult, especially for young dyslexics, to simultaneously decode each word in a paragraph and understand the paragraph as a whole. She re-reads when necessary until she understands the meaning. She attends public school and there are thirty students in her class; individualized attention is not always possible. She needs the appropriate instruction and support, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure she receives it. Dyslexic students can benefit from things like researched-based instruction, audiobooks, assistive technologies, and additional time on tests. I don’t want her to struggle in silence like I did. I wish I’d gotten her the support sooner, but it was an uphill battle to get her school on board. Getting her diagnosed was the first of many challenges we will face until she graduates.

First, her school told us that her grades (including her artificially-inflated reading score) were too high and she did not qualify for a special education evaluation. To circumvent that barrier, we had to make the request for an evaluation in writing. After that, she was initially evaluated by the school psychologist who seemed to gloss over her reading struggles and instead concluded that her overall IQ was low. For whatever reason, her school seems to be allergic to the term dyslexia. He nevertheless concluded that she qualified for special ed, which felt like a win at first. But if the individualized education plan (IEP) was going to be based on his evaluation, I didn’t trust that she would get the appropriate accommodations. She’s an otherwise intelligent girl who struggles with reading, writing, and spelling. She does not struggle with understanding concepts or solving problems. She doesn’t need the entire curriculum slowed down for her. What she needs is reading support so that she can keep up with the pace. She is capable, we just need to level the playing field. 

The next step, instead of accepting the initial IEP, was to ask the school to pay for an independent evaluation. The independent psychologist gave a more accurate description of my daughter’s strengths and weaknesses. She was diagnosed with dyslexia, and having a proper diagnosis meant finally being able to formulate the best IEP going forward.

If I had known about my dyslexia, I might’ve been able to help my daughter at an earlier age, like when she had delayed speech as a baby. At that time, her doctors and I figured that since her dad spoke to her in English and I spoke and sang in Spanish, she was probably taking her time figuring out both languages at once. I wish I’d known then that delayed speech is an early warning sign of dyslexia.

In a way, though, I am grateful for my journey. I’m actually happy that it took me three shots at the bar exam and 36 years of life before I became aware of my dyslexia. Had I known, maybe I wouldn’t have pursued a career in law. I might’ve been turned off by the heavy reading that law school requires. I’m so grateful that I forged ahead, regardless of being a slow reader. Practicing law requires a ton of reading and writing, but it also requires attention to detail. Slower reading allows for deeper analysis. It might take me twice as long to read a legal document, but once I get through it, I am well-versed in each nuance and the multitude of ways it can be construed and interpreted. My dyslexia, as it turns out, is my secret weapon when it comes to reading the fine print. Most importantly, I’m glad I chose this path because no other career would have better prepared me to fight and advocate for my daughter’s education.

[1] from “The Education of Dyslexic Children from Childhood to Young Adulthood” by Sally Shaywitz, Robin Morris, and Bennett A. Shaywitz

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