More than Normal

By Christine Hemphill | 6th October 2017

Dyslexia Awareness Week is underway this week. I thought it would be timely to share some personal insights on dyslexia from my home, the over-rated concept of ‘normal’ and some tips for adapting to difference.

Normal is not always useful as a concept

The “New Normal” is that there isn’t a very useful normal. In most environments, people do too many different things, in too many different contexts, for too many different needs and objectives for normal to be easy to find or use. Businesses and governments use boundaries of norms – loosely to tightly defined, so they can solve for similar needs in that group. It is very difficult to create products and services from that suit everyone. Universal design aims to make things that work for many people “out-of-the-box”. This assists products and services be designed from concept onwards to be more suited to more people. However there will always be an element of needing to adapt what is there, to make it great for individuals. We all tend to be “more than normal” in at least one significant way.

A French village school

The story here is a personal one. It is about educational design and my son falling outside the fairly tightly defined and supported “normal” at the village primary school he attends in France. As parents, we have used some approaches to adapt to his different preferred learning styles. They have assisted us reduce the friction and barriers that his difference had created in this quite rigid environment. If there are things in your world where you or others you support are more than normal, then feel free to try any of our approaches to adapt to difference if you feel they may help in your context.

In case you don’t read further, the cheat sheet tips are: find a support team, get creative with adaptions and weave difference into your identity.

Now back to the story…In our house we have a fridge magnet that reads,

“Just remember, as far as anyone knows we a nice, normal family”

Of course, this is a joke as we are as about as far from normal as our small village in the French Alps accepts. In a valley where people from 30kms away are seen as outsiders, we are more like Martians from outer space. We are an Australian family with different accents, attitudes, jobs and interactions with the world outside the valley.

A magnet on a fridge that reads "REMEMBER as far as anyone knows.....we are a NICE NORMAL family"

Fridge magnet philosophy reminding us to laugh about being “normal”, or not!

My son would love to be more normal. It would make his life as a 10-year-old much easier. Instead he is a foot taller than the next kid in his class (he is both tall for his age and doubled a class a few years ago so is a year older), he is bilingual and dyslexic, and he ski races for the village 2kms to the south of us while he goes to school in the village 2kms to the north.

The school system here is designed to serve a very narrow band of ‘normal’. Kids also like to cluster in groups with strong sets of norms, even if they do change over time. Marbles this term, handball next. Despite there being 5 children with reading difficulties in his class, the school does very little to adapt lessons to these children’s needs, other than to ask less of them. Even the green paper (which makes text easier for Liam to read) that I buy for their printers, and my requests for larger font handouts, have gone largely ignored. How hard is it to adapt a little and change the print paper and font size for a few copies?

The answer is, very hard, when faced with the combination of:

  • a rigid state set curriculum, constraints and expectations
  • a disappointing level of school willingness or support to ensure the suitability of the education they provide to the full classroom of kids
  • a varying level of personal competence and interest in developing it

So what can help?

The answer for supporting Liam through school so far has included 3 approaches,

  1. Find the team that best supports the journey
  2. Get creative and find better adapted ways to solve problems
  3. Be proud of your difference. Make it a part of your identity

1. Finding the team

For Liam, we had to find and engage the people who could have a positive influence on both his confidence and competence. As this didn’t come ready-packaged in one person, we had to find the best mix of people available to help us. These included: making a change of school for better teaching staff, finding a wonderful private tutor / retired teacher who could start immediately and assist regularly, as well enagaging an orthophonist who specialises in reading difficulties where long waiting lists were involved and a more formal process. As parents, we help him as much as we can. We learn from those who are working with him as well as Liam himself, to constantly improve our skills, adaptability and support.

It took 2 years to get the right team in place, but it was well worth it. Now he has a supportive, trusted group that provide a range of spaces where he feels safe and confident to learn in a way better suited to him. He is also learning adaptive skills from his team that he can take back into the classroom.

2. Get creative

Liam prefers to memorise whole words rather than using a phonetic approach. He writes things in different colours, and sometimes uses Lego pieces to help him connect syllables or sounds. We make text coloured and in larger size for print-outs, and set his Kindle to allow him to view text the way he prefers. Rather than reading children’s books, he prefers technical ski or mountain bike magazines. He has got great at bluffing, guessing from the context, or using his EQ to get away with not reading and getting others to help him. These are the creative approaches he takes to solve the demands of learning to read.

Get around it, over it, under it or through it – whatever works. 

An 11 year old boy on a leather sofa reading a Kindle with a green screen and larger than standard font.

Liam reading his Kindle – adapted as he likes it. Green as a background is often liked by people with dyslexia.

If you are not comfortably chilling your heels in the centre of the normal curve in all aspects of your life (that is most of us), then there will be times that normal sizes, standards or approaches won’t be ideal for you. We are complex enough beings that we all tend to be significantly different to “normal” in some fundamental way.

“We are complex enough beings that we all tend to be significantly different to “normal” in some fundamental way. ” 

The earlier this lesson is learned and people start adapting creatively to their own specific requirements and preferences, the more effective it can be. I think this is one reason there is a high proportion of dyslexic people in the ranks of successful entrepreneurs. They learn from a very young age, that taking a different, more creative approach to problem solving works better for them. If reading, as one of the first taught skills, doesn’t seem to settle in their brains in the way it is taught in most schools, they need to get creative and adapt to thrive.

3. Building a different identity

Normal is boring. Unless you are a teenager at that very awkward age of 13 ¾ as beautifully depicted in the Adrian Mole books, who really wants to be remembered as ‘normal’? Difference is interesting and valuable. It offers colours and textures to groups, making them vibrant with insights, new perspectives and ideas, as long as the culture of the group can appreciate and absorb this.

As a pre-teen, accepting an identity that accepts and embraces difference is an ongoing journey for Liam. There are days he would love to be just like the more ‘normal’ kids in the playground. But he still wears his team jacket to school with pride despite being the only kid there in the rival village’s team. He is proud of an Australian heritage and being bilingual. And he is growing to understand that he can navigate the formal, relatively unadaptable learning environment he is stuck in through a mix of laughter, bravado and being cool on the surface while below the water line he is paddling like mad with help from his support team.

We also help him identify role models who are different in similar ways to him such as some of his sports coaches and local ski and cycling champions, entrepreneurs, business leaders or other stars of their fields who are dyslexic. They make a very impressive line-up including historic figures such as Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill to more contemporary identities such as Whoopi Goldberg, Orlando Bloom and Steve Jobs. If you are interested in seeing some more, please click the link provided here. Famous people who are dyslexic.

We also share role models who are different in other ways: culturally, racially, cognitively or physically. The message to him is simple: it is his difference that may well be the thing he will value most as he grows up. That resilience, adaptability and stick-to-it-ness that he is learning so deeply now will be his turbo charger – built, tested and ready to fire for his future endeavours.

“It is his difference that may well be the differentiator he will value most as he grows up”

Applying these insights in the workplace

Liam’s is a personal story, set in a classroom, school-aged setting, with dyslexia as a difference. However, the approaches could be equally adapted for a much broader audience.

In the workplace, the three key approaches noted here taken can also be effective. This is true whether you are an employee looking to be effective and thrive in your role, or you are a manager looking to ensure all of your team has their core physical, digital and psychological needs met set so they can be the best they can.

This can also be valuable in thinking of customers with more-than-normal requirements and preferences to ensure business products and services are reaching the broadest possible audience. Customer inclusion is big business as smarter organisations realise the value of attracting the “Purple Pound”. This is the consumer spend controlled by households where there is a person with a disability. In the UK it is 16% of total disposable household income – a very significant market segment.

Adapting to “the new-normal”

When you are thinking of ways to adapt to the new-normal that recognises and supports people’s differences as much as their commonality, please feel free to borrow the options we developed with Liam to support his learning if they are helpful to you in your work or personal situation.

Get a great team in place. Get creative to adapt to individual needs and preferences and be proud of your difference – make inclusion part of your identity.

Want more?

If Liam’s insights have been useful to you, and you would like more views from people who can clearly describe their needs and preferences, please contact us. We provide a broad range of research and inclusion awareness services for organisations via our user panel of over 350 people who have a wide range of disabilities of varying severity or are older.