A Handicap or a Gift?

Our family was very poor. I was the oldest of four boys and my parents rented a house for $15 a month. It had electricity, but we didn’t have a refrigerator. We all used the outhouse equipped with last year’s Eaton’s catalog. We had no car, but dad got to his job by bicycle and supported the six of us.

Then my father was sent to the Arctic to work for a year. One year expanded into two, and when he was finally on his way home, the plane crashed and he was gone. I had just completed grade four. We moved to another small Ontario town closer to my mother’s family. Mom took in sewing to support us.

There was a silver lining, however, to this rather bleak beginning: I learned early on that having anything or doing anything was up to me. I mowed lawns at six and grew and peddled vegetables at seven. I worked five summers on an uncle’s farm, handling a team of horses during the haying and stoking sheaths during the harvest. At nine I drove the tractor pulling the combine. There were many jobs between age 6 and 18 when I went off to University. I made a job list once and it took a whole sheet of foolscap.

The gift was that I developed a strong work ethic early in life.

School presented other challenges. When I was in grades one and two in the four-room elementary school I first attended, the teacher labeled another boy and me as “the slow ones.” It was humiliating and frustrating, but I plugged along. Arithmetic and reading were hard subjects for us two. By grade four my grades were improving, although I still couldn’t add and reading was very difficult. Reading out loud was total humiliation.

By high school my grades were generally quite good, but in my final year of high school, grade 13, I was having some difficulty keeping up with the reading. As it happened, the town library had a new librarian who turned out to be a reading specialist. The school made an appointment for me to see her. She put me through a long series of tests, and in the end she said, “What are you doing in grade 13?… You are reading at the grade 4 level.”

After I graduated from university, I had an opportunity to be retested. I tested at the grade 10 level. It was a couple of decades later before the problem was diagnosed: I was extremely dyslexic. It was more than a decade after that before I found someone who was able to treat it. I am no longer dyslexic.

If you’re wondering how the reading disability of dyslexia could be a gift, I’m not surprised. I have spent a lot of my adult life reading… one word at a time. In school that meant I had to understand a textbook on the first read, because I would never have time to read it again. That’s been a valuable skill, but it was not the biggest gift.

The biggest gift from my reading disability was that I learned to listen. I got good grades because I listened to the teachers and professors, no matter how boring some of them were.

Now years later as a psychologist, I hear what people tell me; I know how to listen. For a long time I thought everybody could do this, but reports from clients and others have led me to suspect that the ability to tune in and listen is less than universal among helping professionals.

Incidentally, I met up with that other “slow one” years later. He told me that he and I were the only two from that class who went on to university. He was a professor of physics at University of Waterloo and I was a professor of psychology at Guelph University.

I invite you to look back over your life for your own handicaps or shortcomings, and for times when you felt handicapped. Then look for the gifts each may have produced in your life.

Dr. Neill Neill is a registered psychologist in Qualicum Beach. He helps capable people who feel stuck… trauma, relationships, addictions.