Overcoming Societies Labels: Being Successful in Academia with Dyslexia

Working with college students that have disabilities has been personally rewarding and emotional therapy for me.

The reason, I have dyslexia.

dyslexia-powerpoint-3-638I was diagnosed as a young child and I learned to become a master at camouflage.

I remember the day that the doctor told my parents and me the news. I just remember hearing “Learning Disability”, and I started to cry and shutdown, wondering how this will change my life. I don’t remember much from the doctors meeting after I heard those words. I understood at a young age that labels limit you. I was inquisitive and enjoyed learning new things so this was a cruel diagnosis. I was embarrassed and ashamed. Why me? What did I do to deserve this?

Over the next few years, I worked extra to keep up with my peers. I had a learning coach and spent a few days a week working one-on-one and I was making progress. I would cut my playground time after lunch at school and head to my English class early so I could practice reading that day’s assignment. I did not realize it at the time, but having dyslexia and wanting to keep up was building a work ethic in me that would be the foundation for my future successes.

Mastering the Art of Camouflage

By the time I was in middle school, I learned to camouflage my problems because I was able to memorize the material. I also started to have behavior issues, because I learned if I acted out, I would be removed from class and not have to worry about reading aloud or being called to the chalkboard to write. I was still working with my learning coach and she was no-nonsense. She quickly got me in line and I respected her enough to change my ways. She knew what I was doing and would not allow it. Looking back, she was my guardian angel. Mrs. Shelton, I hope I made you proud because you changed my stars.

Timed assessments were stressful and the worst for me. I always finished last, but I finished.

By high school I mastered the art of camouflage my problems. The fear of anyone knowing was always a concern. Hiding problems became more difficult as the rigor of academic expectations increased.

Words and numbers together have always been an issue for me. I played high school football and the X’s and O’s were also difficult to distinguish close together so memorizing my assignment occurred at practice by repetition and not by reading the playbook. My grades were average in high school, I did not apply myself and tried to fly under the radar. I did not have the athletic skills to play collegiate sports, and I had no means to pay for college.

Chasing My Dream

Coming from a military family, I explored opportunities to serve my country. I wanted to be a police officer. I was too young to attend the academy; however, by joining the U.S. Army, I could serve as a military police officer and learn the profession. No one knew I had dyslexia, no one asked, and I sure did not tell anyone.

downloadAt 21-years old, I was honorably discharged from the military after three years of service. I was now ready to chase my dream career and become a police officer. As my military obligation was coming to an end, I was also applying and testing to become a police officer. Two months after, I was discharged from the U.S. Army, I started the police academy. I was in my element and the physical part of the academy was no problem, which left me extra time to study and memorize material for upcoming exams. Many of the people in my academy class had attended college. Several helped me build good adult learning habits and in return, I helped them with arrest procedures, shooting, and driving range. As the academy was coming to an end, I was surprised by my classmates, and they voted me to give the class graduation speech.

Holy Cow……Now I have to read a speech that I prepared in front of hundreds of people at the police academy graduation. The immediate shock quickly wore off because I had time to memorize my speech. As part of giving the graduation speech, I had to practice in front of the Chief of Police, the command, and police academy staff. After I gave the speech to the leadership team of the police department, they said that I was impressive with the words I chose, with my eye contact to the audience, and my delivery tone. I had memorized the entire speech and only glanced down at my written speech so I did not give my secret away. As I mentioned before, I spent a lifetime camouflaging my dyslexia and played to my strengths.

Chasing My Educational Goal with Dyslexia  

Deciding to go back to school while working full-time as an officer helped. I only enrolled in one class at a time, and no one thought anything about it since they knew I was a police officer and just figured I was too busy with my schedule to take additional classes in the semester. By now, I was a mature learner and took my studies serious. Going slow helped me focus all my efforts on being successful one class at a time. I was in no rush, I already was working in my dream profession and knew that having a degree could open more doors and opportunities.

Several years later, I finally reached my goal of earning my undergraduate degree in criminal justice. I was on the long journey but I never got discouraged and stayed the course catching a class when my schedule allowed.

When I did graduate, I kept the news to myself. It was a personal accomplishment that I needed to celebrate alone. My parents were the only ones who knew my secret. I finished my undergraduate studies with a 3.8 GPA and I celebrated alone.

I have four daughters and I never even shared with them I had dyslexia. Only in the last few years, have I shared with them my story, my struggle, and my embarrassment. They never judged me as I was anticipating. They even teased me that it made sense now that I told them because I worked long hours reading and sometimes had typos which they thought was just because I was exhausted from working. Kids have a way of keeping it real.

My Unlikely Path to a Career in Academia

I never envisioned a career in higher learning. As I was working on my master’s degree, a police friend was teaching at a local community college and told me he needed a guest lecture for his criminal justice class. He told me the topic, and asked me to prepare a lecture and class discussion.  For some reason, when I was in front of the class, everything came natural. I had prepared a slide show for the class. The class was engaging asking questions and really getting into my presentation. At the end of the class, the students said they wanted me to come back that semester, and my friend scheduled me as a guest speaker later in the semester. Between my first guest lecture and my second, I graduate with my master’s degree in criminal justice.

During my second lecture, the criminal justice department chair attended along with several other criminal justice professors and they sat in the back of the classroom watching and observing. I was unaware that I would have other professors attend my lecture, but later I found out that they attended because the students were excited I was coming back and spread the word that I was entertaining and made learning fun.

Two weeks after my lecture, the criminal justice department chair called me. He offered me a job as an adjunct professor teaching in the criminal justice department. I was thrilled and accepted. The rest was history.

I continued my education so that I could become a better educator. I earned a second master’s degree, this time in education. I am an unlikely person to be an educator. The odds were against me because I was tagged with societies label of having a learning disability and not likely to be successful. I just learn differently than others and this seems to confuse many educators and even our society when tagged with a learning disability label.

For someone with dyslexia, my academic path has not been traditional and a person like me forces higher learning to rethink preconceived assumptions of who can be admitted to the club.

I have received a teaching excellence award and a creativity award from two different accredited institutions of higher learning. Teaching is an art and science. You cannot fake passion in front of students. Having dyslexia has made me compassionate and a better educator because I believe in my student’s success. If they put in the effort, we can get there together.

No Longer Willing to Camouflage Having Dyslexia    

My turning point on openly admitting I have dyslexia came when I wrote a college paper on my difficulties. My college professor asked if he could share my paper. A few days later, I received a call from Steve Jobs. Besides my parents, doctors and learning coaches, college professor, the only other person who knew my secret was Steve who encouraged me to help others. I still had my wall of security up.

A few semesters down the road, I had a student with dyslexia. The student approached me at the start of the semester sharing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) award letter and requesting I make reasonable accommodations to help him be successful. To see and hear the student light up when I shared that I also have dyslexia was not only a relief for him but a connection he said he has never felt with another professor. The student shared that many of his professors have not been willing to help or provide the extra resources when he has asked. All they have done is allow extra time, but that was it.

Working with this student changed my own thinking as an educator. I was not only in a position to help the student learn the course content and spark critical thinking, I was in a position that could share tips on how I turned off the disorientation when it comes to words blurring and stringing together. It was the first time that I was able to help a student like me who could benefit from my experience and knowledge of dyslexia.

I still was guarded and was afraid even after this to share who I was really and the fear of discovery soon came back. I went back to my comfort zone and living a secret afraid of sharing beyond what I have already.

My real breakthrough happened when I felt comfortable with a special person and shared my life secret. Her love, compassion, and openness made me view myself as a gift to others with dyslexia and she challenged me to help others. This woman has been a gift to me and her confidence in me has sparked a change within my thinking about getting involved and being a positive force and support to others.

Researchers/authors Ronald Dell Davis and Eldon Braun wrote a book titled The Gift of Dyslexia. I never realized or looked at dyslexia as a gift until I was able to help my student make progress and feel good about himself as an adult learner. People with dyslexia have different symptoms and no two dyslexics are alike. I still have trouble with spelling and syntax. It’s hard to fix, when you cannot distinguish or separate words. This has and will continue to be a lifelong challenge for me; however, I would not wish it away at this time. I have come to realize that me having dyslexia has been a gift and has shaped my work ethic and who I am as an educator. I know longer feel the need to camouflage my dyslexia to fit in.

imagesI truly believe, “if I can do it, you can to”.

You set your own limits and successes. You are only restrained by your own glass ceiling. Live your dream and go for it. It worked for me and it can work for you.

About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state, and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner Mark has earned a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college, and Mark is also a graduate facilitator/committee member in educational doctoral studies at another university.