The following was written by a very ambitious, intelligent, and confident dyslexic law student named Shaun Sanders, who got in touch with us via Reddit in May of 2013 and offered to share his remarkable story.
Early Education & High School Struggles
Like many with learning disabilities, I was not made aware of mine until much later in life.
As a child, I believed that smart kids—good kids—did well in school, and stupid kids—lazy kids—did bad. And the really smart kids? They were invited to join the Gifted and Talented Education Program (“GATE”).
I remember feeling crushed each year I was rejected. Instead, I was placed in special, remedial reading classes. School had become an unfortunate routine. I never doubted its importance, only whether it was meant for me. As I got older, I only became more frustrated.
Outside of school, I loved learning. I had an obsession with knowing why and how things work. Every toy I owned inevitably met its end as the result of curiosity and a screwdriver.
Access to the Internet only accelerated my information addiction. Yet each morning I woke up miserable at the realization I had to go to school. No matter how smart I may have felt—or how smart people may have told me I was—for five days each week I struggled to keep pace with my classes.
It was not until I transferred to a high school with higher than usual academic requirements that I reached my breaking point. Thereafter, I was briefly home schooled, returned to public school, and then forced to attend night school in order to raise my grades enough to graduate.
Fortunately for me, somewhere in the chaos of my final high school years, my mom was as desperate as I to find a solution.
Following a series of phone calls, doctors, examinations, meetings and discussions, I was diagnosed with dyslexia at the age of seventeen. I had no idea what the term meant, but I remember feeling a brief moment of shame followed by a sense of calm and relief.
After years of feeling like school was not made for me, it turned out I was right.
Schools have evolved through tradition and standardization to accommodate statistically ordinary students. As a result, students with any degree of an unconventional learning style are forced to adapt or fail.
Community College Success
In 2004, I enrolled at a local community college with an open mind and hope that I would figure things out as I went.
My first obstacle was learning how to handle the stigma of receiving academic accommodations.
Initially, I was hesitant to accept them out of fear that it would alienate me from my peers. People are generally more accepting of disabilities with physical manifestations—whether as simple as glasses or as severe as wheelchairs—than ones they do not see or understand.
The next obstacle was teaching myself how to better engage my studies by figuring out what worked best for me and others like me.
Learning more about dyslexia allowed me to learn more about myself.
I scoured the Internet for stories from other dyslexics and mimicked techniques and approaches that seemed to help them.
Some methods were more obvious than others, such as audiobooks, which helped to set a pace and allow me to read along more fluidly without jumping from line to line.
Other approaches were a bit more technical and costly, like having to mutilate expensive textbooks in order to have them digitized. This allowed my computer to read them aloud and provided a way for me to easily search through the book for specific terms hidden in its pages.
However, the most valuable thing I learned was how to accept my weaknesses and have more faith in my strengths.
Just about every bit of information worth knowing in the world is, at some point, encoded into—and later extracted from—text. This may be acceptable to many, but for me, attempting to be like the other students only resulted in staying up late to read and then re-read assigned materials.
Note-taking was even worse. I was completely conscious of the fact that the hours spent writing notes would result in a stack of worthless papers I would never read or review. But I did not know what else to do, so I continued to do so while experimenting with different methods my classmates used.
When my frustration finally peaked, I had accepted that I would never be as good at those things as the other students, but I also realized that there was an assortment of skills I seemed to excel at.
Finding Strengths Among Weaknesses
Like many dyslexics, I am a visual-spatial thinker. I prefer communicating with images and colors.
I spatially organize my thoughts and navigate them in my mind’s eye. I problem solve, troubleshoot, and develop ideas by drawing them out first in my head, then on paper and whiteboards in seeming chaos.
Even back in my early years of school, creative arts were the only thing I enjoyed or seemed good at. And, while I struggled to find my footing in community college, I found a market for my talents as a graphic designer, marketing consultant, and systems architect.
Realizing this, I took a chance and began to incorporate my habits and hobbies into how I studied.
The result? School became enjoyable.
Then, four years after I enrolled in a two-year community college, I graduated with an associate’s degree.
My books were filled with doodles, my stacks of notes were replaced with technology, and my grades had stabilized to a point that I had enough confidence to apply to university.
From 2008 until 2012, I attended a local state university and continued to utilize unconventional methods of studying that made sense to me even if they did not to others.
There was never any single, universal approach or method that worked for every class, but I had developed a level of self-confidence that allowed me to quickly abandon what did not work in order to find something new that might.
Some classes, like statistics and accounting, required online tutorials and YouTube videos where I could pause and rewind the instructor; others seemed to be better approached with infographics and associating complex terms with sketches I made in the book’s margins.
In the end, I graduated with a 3.975 GPA, a degree in Business, and enough momentum to convince me I could survive law school.
In 2012, I was accepted at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California; as of this writing, I have completed my first of three years.
Law school has pushed the limits of my ability to adapt. My books are thicker and more technical than ever, making it impractical to convert them to audio, and forcing me to refine my reading methods.
Methods of Learning at the University Level
Assigned material is read at least twice; once line-by-line using a notecard to keep my eyes from jumping, and one or more times with a highlighter and pens to mark up my margins.
For the sake of sleeping, time management is essential, as is discovering opportunities like listening to audio lectures while stuck in traffic.
Studying for final exams means covering my bedroom walls with whiteboards and converting notes into mind maps and illustrations, allowing me to pair important concepts with visual imagery.
WHITE BOARDS This was created for my first final, a legal memorandum. It was impossible for me to keep track of the various cases and relationships, so I borrowed my girlfriend's whiteboard and made this. I ended up getting the highest grade in the class.
INFOGRAPHICS & MIND MAPS Some classes were best handled with technical infographics or mind maps. It was a way to trick my creative side into obsessively working on an image that so-happened to be the notes for my final. The end result was a visual map I could better recall from memory during the exams.
DOODLES & IMAGES Other classes, with more technical concepts, were best handled by converting those concepts into images, scenes, and doodles.
At points, it was terrifying to invest so much time into so many methods that none of my classmates seemed to share or recommend. Yet, in the end, it has all been worth it.
I now rank within the top 10% of my class and have earned several academic merit awards. Most importantly, I am happy I stuck it out long enough to feel this proud.
Sage Advice from One Dyslexic to Another
Looking back at how I have gotten to where I am, the only advice I have for other students with dyslexia is:
- Figure out who you are and embrace it.
- Few may ever understand you, and many others may trivialize your struggles, but only you need to understand you.
- Find your strengths and bring them into every aspect of your life and studies, no matter how odd or unusual they may be.
- Be aware of your weaknesses and actively look for alternative methods to reach the same goal, even if they appear a bit out of the way.
- Most of all, though, find a foundation of support from others. Personally, I would have never made it beyond high school without my mom who believed in me more than I believed in myself. Reaching out to other professionals with dyslexia and learning disabilities also provided me with an invaluable source of encouragement and advice.
I know it is not always easy to take a first step, so if you are unsure of where to start, you are more than welcome to start with me.