In the U.S., 10 percent of adults live with an invisible disability, impairments that are not apparent at first glance or even to long-time friends and colleagues but present difficulties in day-to-day life. Dyslexia is one such disability that storytelling coach Anna Willis-Collier speaks about as a person living with dyslexia. Willis-Collier has often found herself feeling “less than” in situations when those around her have not stopped to think about what they said.
Willis-Collier, who mentors storytellers on the WORLD Channel series Stories from the Stage through her organization Tell&Act, told her story about coming up against the intolerance that people with dyslexia unfortunately encounter. Rather than shrink away from small-minded thinking, she confronted it, and now continues the work every single day to spread awareness and understanding of dyslexia.
WORLD Channel: What do you wish people understood about living with dyslexia?
Anna Willis-Collier: Like life, dyslexia is a spectrum – we’re not all the same. Many of us don’t even know we are dyslexic. What I find to be the most difficult aspect of dyslexia as an adult is the intolerance of others. When I make mistakes in written texts, I often experience a huge level of intolerance; people tend to think of me as being less intelligent. All of a sudden, no matter whether they understand the meaning of my text, nothing matters apart from the fact that I’ve become defective, and I’m not worthy, in their eyes, of contributing.
There are so many untruths held by the non-dyslexic community. Our culture is such that there’s a widely-held belief that if you can’t write perfectly, with perfect spelling, grammar, use of vocabulary – don’t bother. People take pride in being pedants. There’s a lot of ignorance there, because our culture-at-large is not aware of the potential negative impact that that can have on people that aren't perfect. We’re all human, and none of us are perfect. The Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity believes that as much as 20 percent of the population is dyslexic, [and] there are many statistics that share that as much as 60 to 80 percent of inmates are functionally illiterate, and that could be for many reasons, but the most common reason is dyslexia. And, conversely, there are vast realms of dyslexic outliers, such as Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Charles Schwab and Octavia Spencer.
WC: How can the stigma around dyslexia be eliminated?
AWC: Since I’ve been doing this work, lots of people have come forward around the world and said, “Oh my gosh, I’m guilty” and, “That was me.” More people need to be aware. We have to stop this belief that if you’re smart, you can spell perfectly. And if you cannot spell perfectly or use perfect grammar, you are stupid. We have to change this widely-held belief that’s just purely based in ignorance.
[To those with dyslexia], I would love to say please try and help all of us by educating others. If they find some level of discrimination – STAND UP and TALK. But I also know the reality is that it’s really not that easy, and until we make sure the rest of the population knows about our struggles, and how their intolerance and ignorance affects us, things aren’t going to change. I found the courage, but it wasn’t easy, and I was 42 at the time. The more traction and exposure these issues can have, the better.
It’s a great honor to not only share my story to educate others, but also hopefully inspire more dyslexic people or people that suffer from problems with literacy to tell their story. I kind of feel gleeful that finally the world is such that there’s a glimmer of hope, like the door is being pushed open and we can see the light. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we have to crack a few eggs.
WC: How is storytelling as a platform important to the dyslexic community?
AWC: I work on ‘Stories from the Stage’ as my passion, not just to tell my story, but the stories of others. Many people that struggle with literacy can use their voice, and often it is said about the dyslexic community, “Oh, but can they speak.” We have developed this tool to express our ideas and wisdom, and I think we’ve refined it almost even more than our skills of literacy, because we have to communicate somehow.
I’ve worked with people who work as cleaners, who have been incarcerated, and I’ve also worked with people that are scientists and retired medical doctors; the one thing that brings me so much joy is to help them with their ability to communicate and share their story in a way that’s succinct, compelling and authentic to them. It’s like sharing the empowerment, giving them a platform to raise their voices.
It was incredibly cathartic to be able to tell my story...because I’d felt so squished, muted, humiliated and ashamed all these years. I had finally gotten to that point where I had to get it out. It was unbelievably empowering to be able to tell that story and make a difference. If anything, I have more fire in my belly than when I first did it.
‘Stories from the Stage’ offers a platform where people tell their own stories. Often, so many issues are written about by other people, but in this way, people get to tell their own, authentic stories from their own mouth and mind and circumnavigate the bias of the writer. I love that. We've helped to provide this platform and assist other people in being able to tell their own true stories. It’s so powerful.
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