Updated: Mar 30, 2022
Image courtesy of Scientific Animations.
For accessibility purposes, this article is accompanied by an audio recording by the author which can be listened to here:
To begin this article, I thought it pertinent to define what dyslexia is, as many people I have communicated with lack an accurate description. We should not vilify anyone who cannot define dyslexia as it is an extremely complicated learning disability that occurs in a myriad of ways in each person it affects.
One main misconception is that dyslexia is an issue simply with reading and spelling, but these are only a few common manifestations that surmount a far more elaborate condition. Dyslexia is best explained through the definition adopted by the British Dyslexia Association:
‘… Characteristic features of dyslexia are difficulties in phonological awareness, verbal memory and verbal processing speed. Dyslexia occurs across the range of intellectual abilities. It is best thought of as a continuum, not a distinct category, and there are no clear cut-off points. Co-occurring difficulties may be seen in aspects of language, motor co-ordination, mental calculation, concentration and personal organisation, but these are not, by themselves, markers of dyslexia’
My dyslexia is a good illustration of this ‘continuum’. It originates from the discrepancy between my superior verbal comprehension and cognitive abilities, and my inferior processing speed, working memory and phonological coding skills. Although this does manifest itself in my abilities to read and write, those issues spawn from the underlying cognitive limitations which impact my capacity to organise, store and utilise the data I have accumulated. Indeed, my limitations with the normal levels of reading and writing have mostly been ameliorated through consistent practise of both; an experience which is quite common amongst high functioning dyslexics.
The challenges I currently face can be better explored through a recent example. In my notes for this article, I initially spelt ‘portrayal’ as ‘port rail’ as I simply could not remember or ‘sound-out’ the term. Although some would suggest this occurred only because of my observable phonological inabilities, I have come to learn that in my case it is likely the result of a combination of these deficiencies and a cognitive delay. In essence, the part of my brain which suggested ‘portrayal’ was processing at a faster rate than the part that stores and recalls how the word is spelt, and then this is compounded by existing phonological limitations which could not decipher the word to begin with.
Experiences like these have made researching medieval academic texts, which are inherently macaronic (frequently switching between English, Latin and other relevant languages) very challenging. Beginning as an undergraduate, having to read and digest very niche terminology or foreign languages is a serious challenge for all students; but as a dyslexic, having to struggle to read even the simpler portions, only to then be confronted with ever more esoteric schema, can be mentally overwhelming.
The level of challenge only further increases the higher one progresses. When I started my MA, I felt that I had only just overcome the herculean task of reading secondary literature and the primary sources in translation. Then, I was faced with the reality that I would have to add transcribing original medieval scripts to that list, whose frequently abbreviated and cryptid letterforms posed significant pitfalls for my dyslexic mind.
The process of having to transcribe a pre-modern text as a dyslexic requires many additional steps. Since my brain has difficulty phonologically deciphering words, it instead often interprets them by their shape and pattern. When both are removed in a pre-modern script, the necessity is then to work in reverse and compare the Latin term and its pattern, whose acquisition is also made difficult by the dyslexic constraints previously discussed. Through continuous practise of the common abbreviation forms (for example ‘DNM’ for ‘Dominum’ or the e caudata for the ‘æ’ diphthong) and gradually learning one’s chosen script, my heightened perceptual reasoning skills can usually work around the deficit, but once the script alters or a new style appears, the almost Sisyphean process begins afresh.
I have no doubt that the process just described is somewhat relatable with many non-dyslexic researchers, but the heightened barriers put in place by my dyslexia creates a further problem; that being with time. In Janet Godwin’s Studying With Dyslexia, she recommends that dyslexic students map out the ‘estimated time’ a task should take and the ‘actual time’ it has taken. I utilised this method myself when studying and I came to realise that it took me (on average) double the time to do the same as my classmates. Having to dedicate those additional hours to produce the same work was always a struggle at university and is even more difficult now that I research whilst working full-time.
The amount of time needed and that which I can dedicate is often beyond my control. Disregarding the obvious constraints of modern life, often the institute or archive one is researching in deliberately caps one’s time. Canterbury Cathedral Archive, for example, only opens on a Wednesday and Thursday between 10.15AM and 4PM, with an hour break for lunch. When approaching studying manuscripts there, I would have to plan beforehand what I could potentially do within half of the morning and afternoon slots, and then spread that workload across the two days available. What others might have done in one day, instead would always take me two; and even when I would push to do more, I would often find myself rushing and missing crucial details, which went against the very purpose of being there.
For many modern materials, one can mitigate the detail issue by taking photos and reviewing them later; however, for most original historical items, photographs are usually unavailable without paying substantial fees. This is absolutely no fault of, or indeed an issue isolated to, the Cathedral Archive as my individual needs are not their responsibility to manage. In fact, the extensive generosity and support I have received from the Cathedral Archive team has gone far beyond that which is expected. Nevertheless, these brief windows of time do place many dyslexics in precarious positions as they must now anticipate dedicating additional resources that many young researchers do not have.
The greatest problem these constraints can generate, which I believe exceeds all others in importance, is one that deserves more recognition; that being self-esteem. When I came to realise in early childhood that technical work was always going to be an up-hill battle, it was debilitating. Seeing my peers advancing at (what appeared to me) neck-breaking speed, whilst I stayed firmly rooted in the lowest sets for most subjects, instilled an underlying sense of inferiority. At around the age of 12, due to my sub-par performance in History class (which at that stage largely consisted of reading comprehension), I was told I could never pursue the subject. The irony of this statement now is not lost on me, but the impression this left in my formative years was supremely disheartening. Due to the excellent resources I was otherwise given whilst at school and later at University (notably DSA funded support), my most severe methodological deficiencies have largely been ameliorated; but the ingrained conviction of one’s own inadequacy is something that cannot be as systematically alleviated.
With skills like reading or writing, the results of one’s improvements are physically tangible; you can measure your success by proof-reading or testing your words per minute. However, to prove to yourself that you can overcome your own innate barriers is something that takes far longer to develop. I only came to terms with my own capabilities at university after several years of creating well-received work. Since I always anticipated there would be unconscious flaws, I would often choose to overlook the positive feedback for the negative, as I was always trying to find something to fix. Focusing upon one’s flaws and disparaging one’s own brain naturally leads to negativity and self-criticism, and for me, it established this self-flagellating cycle which further substantiated my self-reproach and bred even greater insecurity.
It was only once I began to embrace my dyslexia and to consciously work with it that I began to appreciate the benefits of my condition. Despite all the negatives previously illustrated, I now do genuinely believe that my dyslexia is a gift. For one thing, it has imbued me with a developed sense of perceptual reasoning and spatial awareness. If my mind did not operate with this unique composition, then I doubt I would have discovered the previously unnoticed internal organisation in DDC-CCA/Register/E; a late 13th century cartulary that was the focus of my MA dissertation.
By physically mapping Register E’s foliation, rubrics, scribal hands (and their absences) against the Canterbury Cathedral Archives privately held calendaring, I came to realise that each gap occurred at the end of a collection of charters. This suggested, and helped to prove, that perhaps upwards of 40 additional folios had likely been left blank in the original manuscript. Since they were never filled with their anticipated content, it became fair to assume that they were removed and recycled later on, likely once high-quality vellum had grown sparse due to the numerous famines in early 14th century Kent. Since the original folio collation was eliminated by an 18th century rebinding, this discovery may never have occurred if I had not thought about the manuscript laterally.
In addition, by colour-coding and geographically visualising the topographical arrangement of the charters, I came to discover a deeper level of organisation. It became clear once the calendaring had been illuminated, that in each section charters would be ordered either around their contents or familial relationships, which indicates both a method of internal navigation and correspondence with the physical single sheet charters. It also indicated even deeper memorial and administrative functions within the design of Register E, which is potentially reflective of a more creative management style not commonly associated with its pragmatically minded commissioner, Prior Henry of Eastry. If it had not been for the years of dyslexia study sessions, where mind-maps, coloured text and creative approaches had been reinforced, I am sure I would not have experimented and recognised these elements.
Above all else, dyslexia has taught me valuable lessons about life. It has instilled within me the importance of perseverance and hard-work. Since putting in the extra effort has never been the exception, but instead always the rule, I have learned that to truly succeed, you must continuously push yourself to learn and grow. It has taught me the value of thinking critically and with care, and to collaborate with others whenever possible. If it had not been for the decades of support I received, I would never have been a researcher and I would not be writing this article. It has taught me to have gratitude for those around me and has developed a resilience that I hope will prove useful in the tumultuous world of the heritage industry.
The earlier reference to Sisyphus was not unintentional as, in many ways, dyslexia is analogous to his toil. Like his rock, dyslexia is a burden we absurdly push against, knowing full well that regardless of our efforts the outcomes may never change. However, I choose to agree with Albert Camus’ commentary on the myth, that ‘there is scarcely any passion without struggle’; just as Sisyphus gains meaning from the rock being his alone to bear, I gain solace in knowing that my dyslexia is mine to do with as I please. Regardless of whether it is a help or a hindrance, it makes my experience of researching and living uniquely my own and it is thus a burden that I relish bearing.
Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, trans. Justin O’Brien (London: Penguin Books, 2005)
Eileen E. Cooper, Maryann Ness, and Mary Smith, ‘A Case Study of a Child With Dyslexia and Spatial-Temporal Gifts’, Gifted Child Quarterly (2004)
Ronald D. Davis, Eldon M. Braun, The Gift of Dyslexia: Why some of the brightest people can’t read and how they can learn, Rev. Edn. (London: Souvenir Press Ltd, 2003)
Liz Du Pre, Dorothy Gilroy, Tim Miles, Dyslexia at college, 3rd Edn. (London: Routledge, 2008)
Vicki Goodwin, Bonita Thomson, Making Dyslexia Work for You, 2nd Edn. (London: Routledge, 2012)
George Knight, ‘The ‘Great Cartulary’ of Christ Church Priory: Manuscript, Muniments and Memory’ (Unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Kent, 2021).
Gavin Reid, Dyslexia: A Practitioner’s Handbook, 2nd Edn. (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 1998)
M. E. Thomson, E. J. Watson, Dyslexia: A Teaching Handbook (London: Whurr Publishers, 1994)