ANDREW: Read between the lines

interview by alysia antonnucci

Is a label a help or a hinder? Andrew talks to us about how dyslexia has shaped the way he interacts with the world. 

This is the first interview we have done with someone who has approached us. What was it that made you want to talk with the team at Behind the Label?

I think so often a label can define us. So I like to seek out grey areas, the space between the labels.
Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with labels. I am dyslexic, so in one sense I have this label that can be utilized to explain how I process information differently. The downside is that for many people there remains such a level of ignorance and misunderstanding that labels can form a lens which only limits an individual’s potential. 
My experiences are different from that. I see the world from unique perspectives because I am dyslexic. I feel like I have strengths that balance out any sense of weakness.
Seeing the world differently is illuminating.
Really, I think the onus is on people to challenge their view of ‘disadvantage’, but not by ignoring disability. The challenge is to avoid an ‘inspiration porn’ narrative or the narrative of tragedy. I think instead we should proudly challenge preconceptions.

From what I know of dyslexia it is essentially a difficulty with words and those diagnosed have problems with reading and spelling, but not necessarily learning. Could you explain what your definition of dyslexia is?

Each individual experiences dyslexia differently. Someone with Dyslexia does not have a problem with learning, but they do learn differently. It is very common for young people who are dyslexic to go without diagnosis, the main reason is someone with a dyslexic profile can have a range of strengths that can often compensate. Sometimes it is assumed that a student is lazy and not trying hard enough, sadly this is where the schooling system lets many people down, because their ways of learning and contributing are not valued.

......I used to struggle with reading and writing the most. I had particular difficulties with spelling and grammar. As I have gotten older reading has become easier. Although when I have to do lots of reading I can get very tired, because my brain is working overtime to process text.

I avoid reading aloud, unless I have written it myself I find it hard to both process the text and speak simultaneously. I am prone to mixing up words and have a terrible short-term memory - I am so bad with names! But long term memory - watch out! I remember details that you probably want me to forget; my partner hates this.
On the flip side I am excellent with big ideas, new ideas, I am a pretty good writer, ironic really.

What was your personal experience of dyslexia? Was there a time when you can remember noticing a difference between how you comprehended words and how others were reading and writing?

I never realized I was dyslexic, for me I just comprehended the world differently. But even then I didn’t realize my way of doing things or thinking was unique–it was just who I was. I was shocking at reading and hated it, I was also not great with any written tasks. I was great at telling stories and making shit up.
I remember times at school when a teacher would ask you to spell a word out aloud, that was always very embarrassing. I also hated spelling tests, obviously.
I was officially diagnosed when I was in Year 9. A diagnosis helped to make sense of my strengths and weaknesses. It allowed teachers to better adapt to the ways that I learnt.  Some were great at this and for others teaching someone differently was a burden.

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It sounds like you have a ‘never say never’ attitude towards your goals. Do you agree? Has your diagnosis affected your process?

I am very stubborn and if I want something I will set out to do it. I won’t be limited by other people’s perception. My careers adviser in year 12 suggested that I wouldn’t get into University and that I should look at my TAFE options. TAFE for many dyslexic people is a great option because dyslexic people, myself included are kinaesthetic learners. But I wanted to study performing arts at University. Her assumption was based on the fact at school I was a C and B student. But let’s not forget the school system does not go out of its way to embrace different ideas or writing style. Exams as assessment are generally an unsuitable format for someone who is dyslexic; because to ‘write well’, is generally not achievable in a timed setting.

…..At University my essays were nearly always High Distinctions and I got the Prize for the Best written Honors Thesis and the highest Honors mark. Not at all to gloat… but it goes to prove that just because someone is dyslexic doesn’t mean they can’t write.

What has been the hardest aspect about being diagnosed with dyslexia?

For me there are as many advantages that come with being dyslexic, sadly the advantages are not recognized or hard to quantify compared to the more challenging aspects. The number of times I send an email or submit something with spelling mistakes are countless. We know that dyslexic people are strongly represented in all aspects of leadership, yet dyslexic people are over represented in prisons too. The world is very text focused and well, if words are not your strength it is hard to engage, finish school, apply for jobs….  it can be a quick path to marginalization.

I am a lover of books, but many of my friends prefer cinema - what creative outlets help you express yourself?

I am a lover of the arts. I am passionate about all the creative outlets.
I think that access to creative spaces are so very important for everyone especially for those that perceive the world “differently”.

My passion has long been in theater and dance, I am not a dancer!
I see lots of performances, this is where I spend a fair portion of my income!  I have just started a Masters in Cultural Leadership at NIDA and I am passionate about how arts can continue to maintain and re-imagine its place as a central aspect of society

Personally I think seeing the world a little differently can be a fantastic and a creative blessing! Are there things you wouldn’t change associated with having dyslexia?

To be perfectly frank I wouldn’t change being dyslexic. But yeah there are times when I am frustrated by it, like sending an important email that contains spelling mistakes. Like hell, it doesn’t worry me but some people get really hung up on that stuff. That can be really embarrassing, because the assumption is that you are lazy or stupid.
I would love to change some of the outdated ways of considering difference....But generally being dyslexic is a blessing, I often see solutions to problems or make links between ideas that others have not.  There are many incredible dyslexic people like Agatha Christie, Andy Warhol, Picasso, Steven Spielberg, Whoopi Goldberg, the list rolls on…

From someone who doesn’t have dyslexia, what is the thing you would want to help me understand about your diagnosis?

The label doesn’t describe someone’s strengths, passions, interests or even the things they find hard. There is so much more that takes place beyond a simple label. Using a definition of dyslexia to understand a person is limiting. I am interested in finding ways that we can express our strengths alongside the weakness. That said, the label has given me the ability to self-advocate and advocate based on what I need to succeed. Finding out someone is dyslexic is the start of a conversation, a conversation that can let you know how they tick.

What is next for Andrew?

I am currently finishing a PhD exploring the experiences of male dancers in contemporary dance in Australia. This has been a challenged and rewarding process, which is coming to a close - thank god! I have a book chapter that I am writing, a few conferences lined up as well as an article soon to be published in an international dance magazine.....I have a holiday coming up and a project I am starting later in the year that seeks to capture the diverse experiences of people who identify as dyslexic. I will be interviewing people who are dyslexic and creating some visibility around what dyslexia means and the ability to achieve personal goals.

I don’t think I need to wish you good luck, but let’s just say I can’t