Documentary and panel help unscramble the mystery of dyslexia

Photo courtesy of Shadow Creek Films

Photo courtesy of Shadow Creek Films

On Wednesday afternoon, students and panelists gathered on campus for a viewing of “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia.” The documentary was followed by a panel of students and faculty affected by dyslexia as well as a specialist to shed some light on what is often referred to as an “invisible disorder.”

The HBO documentary, which premiered at Sundance 2012, not only features high-profile people such as Sir Richard Branson and Charles Schwab, but also takes on a personal tone as director James Redford turns the camera on his own son, Dylan, whose struggle to overcome dyslexia led him to exceed the expectations of his teachers, his friends and even his mother when he started his college career. In the film,  Dylan relates experiences such as the embarrassment of being “functionally illiterate” in elementary school and not being able to unlock a locker in high school.

Scattered laughs of understanding came from the audience as interviewees told stories about getting words mixed up or, like Allison Schwartz, having to devise intricate systems of notecards or drawings to be able to learn, memorize and study.

During the panel that took place after the documentary was played, past students and faculty with dyslexia added their own experiences to those in the movie.

“When I watch something like that, it’s so personal” said Hospitality and Tourism Management Department Chair Robert Frash.

Skye Lucas, featured in the documentary, was asked to leave her school after being diagnosed with dyslexia (Photo courtesy of Shadow Creek Films)

Skye Lucas, featured in the documentary, was asked to leave her school after being diagnosed with dyslexia (Photo courtesy of Shadow Creek Films)

Panelists shared first-hand what experiencing dyslexia is like and how it has affected their lives. Psychoeducational specialist Julie Wood explained that dyslexia is not, as many still believe, a problem with vision or hearing, but with how the brain processes sounds or written words.

“Things just flip around,” explained Cassandra Caldwell, a College of Charleston student. Caldwell discussed how, as a theater major, she has to work extra hard to memorize lines, especially when it comes to Shakespearian dialogue.

Frash regaled the audience telling about a time when he had taught an entire class using the word “marijuana” when he meant to say “marinara.” “I hear the word properly in my head, but then I don’t say it properly,” he said.

However, both the documentary and the panel also emphasize the strengths that come from having dyslexia. The documentary explained that people with the disorder often have very creative minds and tend to be “big picture” thinkers. In the movie Richard Branson and Charles Schwab discuss how this and the desire to “simplify” things has helped them in their businesses.

Lauren Blake, a CofC alumnus who now works in real estate, could relate to this. She said that being able to simplify concepts like mortgage and interest for herself helps her to explain these things to her clients.

Despite advances in early diagnosis and understanding of dyslexia, “We still have a long way to go,” said Wood. People, especially students are still faced with stigma and misunderstanding from their teachers and their peers.

Students at College of Charleston with dyslexia or other learning disorders can seek out help through the Students Needing Access Parity (SNAP) program at the Center for Disability Services. Students or others wishing to contribute to the program can do so on the Center for Disability Services webpage.

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Following in the footsteps of many great authors before her, Carson chose to begin her writing career with journalism. She's been writing news stories since high school and now writes for CisternYard News. She came to Charleston as a transfer after a two-year sojourn in the icy mountains of Utah and never looked back. She keeps busy by reading, playing video games and working at the Children's Museum as an expert in cardboard swords, dragons and pirate adventures. After graduation she will be setting off on her own pirate adventure, conquering the globe in her trusty VW van.

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