Our backstory: Fifty years ago, my husband was labeled as stupid or unintelligent. It was easier for him to become a class clown. Only one high school English teacher recognized his struggles and intelligence and encouraged him.
Twenty years ago, our daughter with dyslexia was labeled lazy by one of her teachers; the school didn’t recognize dyslexia as a “real disability” until we fought for her.
When I met my husband, I knew he wasn’t an academic. At twenty-two years old, he was a college dropout, had a job in construction as one of the youngest in the area that managed whole building sites and crews of men without a degree. I did notice, however, that in the house he grew up in there was hardly any reading material—not even a daily newspaper. I also saw he was one of the smartest men I’d ever met—still is.
By the time our oldest daughter was four, she was way off track for identifying letters, sounds, and the occasional word. She struggled to write her name more than the other children. All this despite reading to her, working to identify words, and other activities recommended at home 20+ years ago. In kindergarten, she fell further behind in reading, but verbally and socially, she was off the charts and doing well.
The school, a tiny K-12 district, was eventually willing to recognize her disability, and she was assigned to the reading specialist. With her, she received informal testing and entered the Reading Recovery program, a one-on-one phonics program. By the very end of first grade, she made it to a first-grade reading level. The second-grade teacher just said she was lazy. Again, there was recognition of intelligence but not the disability. We got her a tutor.
Our research showed us our oldest daughter has dyslexia. Before learning this, I was a frustrated mother when she didn’t want to “read” with me in those lower grades. The reality was she had trouble seeing all the words and letters on the page consistently, and from one day to the next she didn’t remember she “knew” a word. I left my job, which required much travel, to start my own small company, so I could work from home and be a bigger advocate for her and all of our children’s education.
Then, my husband took out this tattered pocket dictionary that I didn’t even know he’d had. He offered it to our oldest daughter and started teaching her some tips and tricks of his own that he’d shown himself over the years. He was teaching her how to compensate for her dyslexia right before my eyes. He’d never talked about his struggles; only accepted the labels put on him.
We realized he, too, was dyslexic.
So, here it is again: Fifty years ago, my dyslexic husband was labeled as stupid or unintelligent—by teachers and friends alike who didn’t know about dyslexia. He taught himself how to compensate for his challenges. Knowing his learning differences have a name now and that he could help his daughter have made all the difference.
Twenty years ago, our daughter with dyslexia was initially off the school’s radar and labeled lazy by one of her teachers; we taught her the work ethic she needed to fight her disability. The small, and still excellent, public school she attended listened to us and helped. Today, she’s a college graduate, working and living in NYC.
My greatest hope today and going forward is that our future grandchildren, who may have learning differences, will be recognized for their intelligence, for their differences, and be able to learn to read. Parents, teachers, advocates, businesses and organizations are working tirelessly to change these dynamics for this generation and generations to come through resources for teachers, schools, and ultimately students. I’m honored to be on the board of Teach My Kid to Read so that we can also be part of the solution by supporting and educating more teachers so that all kids learn to read.
Susan Simpfenderfer has two undergraduate degrees from Rutgers and has worked in educational publishing since 1985. For the last 16 years, she’s owned and is founder of a small edutech content company that provides educational content to the major educational publishers in the US.