After 34 years of struggling with reading and writing, a diagnosis of dyslexia came as a huge relief to Golden Bay dairy farmer Kirk Harcourt. He told Anne Hardie of his challenge and how with support he is overcoming his self doubt and working towards achieving qualifications in an industry where he has many other strengths.
Stockmanship is second nature to Kirk Harcourt. The cows know it too and crowd around him in the paddock. He’s just as comfortable spending a day fencing or any other physical job on the farm. But get him to read or write anything of any length and it’s a hellish task for him as his dyslexic brain struggles to make sense of words.
An estimated 10% of New Zealanders have dyslexia and up to 15% in the primary sector – often the kids who have struggled at school and headed off to a physical job.
Kirk was one of those kids at school, copying the words down off a mate’s work and generally ignored by the teachers when he wasn’t getting into trouble for disrupting the class when he was bored and frustrated.
In fact, people with dyslexia have normal intelligence and have skills that can flourish in other areas, with numerous big names proving it doesn’t have to be a hindrance. It’s just that the brain of a person with dyslexia processes language differently.
For Kirk, school was a confidence destroyer. All those years sitting in classrooms struggling to make sense of words and being treated like a dumb kid led him to believe it.
“A lot of my teachers just didn’t care about the ones that struggled. I was always copying off my mate’s books and I got really good at writing without knowing what I’d written.”
Understandably, he couldn’t wait to quit school and at 16 he joined the workforce, gaining skills in the butchery trade and dairying so he got a pretty good handle on both meat and milk industries.
A polytech course was a prerequisite for gaining skills in the butchery trade, which could have been his worst nightmare except a tutor recognised his difficulty with words and read the theory side to him.
“If I hadn’t had the reader I wouldn’t have got through the theory. But give me the knife and I was one of the best ones there.”
Today he is second-in-charge on a 260-cow farm at Rockville in Golden Bay where he lives with his wife Lydia and young daughter Essie.
Most of the day-to-day jobs on the farm are so familiar to him that he does them automatically. Making mental notes of jobs to do and cow particulars can be a challenge though, because poor memory is common among people with dyslexia. The whiteboard in the dairy is well-used with reminders and figures he needs to remember. Another challenge can be the dairy docket, with all those words and numbers often causing frustration.
But those with dyslexia are usually good problem solvers. Kirk says there’s usually a way around problems and it’s never held him back in the day-to-day work in the dairy industry. It hasn’t held him back from gaining qualifications either and he’s now working toward the Primary ITO national certificate in dairy farming at level 3.
Where it has held him back is in his own confidence. Years of struggling at school and a continuing battle with words and figures caused a lot of self doubt along the way.
“You doubt yourself I guess. You’re reading the bits of paper and there’s one word you don’t understand so you can’t work out what it all says. It frustrates you to hell and I get headaches looking at words.
“And then I get quite angry and have to stop.”
It was that frustration that prompted him to find answers and led him to Primary ITO which offers a free testing service for dyslexia. He was so determined to find out that he flew to Wellington for the test after being unavailable the day tests were done in Nelson.
The test involves about 10 assessment activities. It takes about 40 minutes and enables a trained assessor to identify if someone has dyslexia. Once identified, Primary ITO can then offer supportive tools in the form of software and the amazing Smartpen which can remove huge frustrations for those with dyslexia.
Mike Styles is the national literacy and numeracy adviser for Primary ITO and he says the common response from those taking the test is “ultimate relief”.
“They realise they’re not thick and stupid – they just think differently.
“One of our strategies is to encourage people to own up to their condition. They’ve spent their life hiding it, but it isn’t a disability – it’s a difference. And their boss can benefit from some of the things they can do that others can’t do.”
Despite far greater awareness of dyslexia today, Styles says many schools still don’t know how to help students identified with it, and direct them to reading recovery which doesn’t help dyslexia. That means many still struggle at school and leave early for physical jobs such as those in the primary sector.
The good news is that there are useful tools for adults with dyslexia. Through Workbridge, Primary ITO has funding to help people with dyslexia by providing reader-writers for training.
There’s also technology like the Smartpen, which acts like a sophisticated dictaphone, but with more functions. Until technology such as the Smartpen, seminars and training forums have been nightmarish for those with dyslexia. They’ve been a mass of information overloading the brain and a struggle to take down the necessary notes – basically a headache.
With a Smartpen, you only need to make a scribble on the paper, a letter or a word and it will start recording with a link to the scribble or word. Back at home, show the pen what’s written and it will play the recording.
“You might struggle to make notes while you’re listening, so with a Smartpen you can put a scribble or the first letter as bullet points. Then at home you turn on your smart pen and hover over that scribble or letter and everything that was said on that topic is played back to you. The information is stored inside the pen and it will store about 400 hours of text.”
Another handy tool is a software programme called Dragon which allows you to dictate what you want and words will appear on the screen in front of you. A second package, Rewrite Gold, reads out the text, while cellphones can be reconfigured to let the user dictate a text or email message.
Tools such as the Smartpen and cellphone adaption can be used around the farm to help record information, Styles says.
“People with dyslexia can have a jumble of ideas in their head but can struggle to organise them. So there’s now mindmapping software called Inspiration. And there’s more technology becoming available all the time.”
An organisation that has fought hard to help dyslexics for more than 40 years is Speld NZ. Until a few years ago it was still battling to even have dyslexia acknowledged, but in 2007 the Ministry of Education recognised dyslexia as a specific learning disability and began targeting funding to help students as well as referring families to Speld for assessment.
Speld NZ executive officer Jeremy Drummond says the organisation is getting more and more enquiries from adults wanting to find out if they have dyslexia, including people in their 90s who want the relief of knowing their brain simply works differently.
“Some adults just stop at the assessment. They’ve been made to feel stupid, lazy and dumb at school, but most people with dyslexia are above average intelligence.”
Others work through the training provided by Speld, which is targeted to the specific needs of each student.
“No two dylexics are the same, so you need an individualised teaching programme and the Speld teachers teach to the diagnostic report to turn those deficits around. We don’t have a generic programme because it’s targeting to the individual.
“Specific learning disabilities actually give people a whole lot of other gifts – that crazy inventiveness. The world would be a sadder place without those things. It’s just giving people the strategies to do all the things necessary in today’s society.”
Characteristics of dyslexia
Most dyslexics will exhibit some of these traits, but they can vary from day to day:
- Bright, intelligent and articulate but unable to read, write or spell well.
- Confused by letters, numbers, words, sequences or verbal explanations.
- Letters or numbers reversed or confused.
- Excellent long-term memory but poor memory for sequences, facts and information that has not been experienced.
- Poor sense of direction.
- Reluctance, embarrassment or avoidance about reading out loud.
- Misunderstanding or misinterpretation of manager’s instructions.
- Difficulties managing time.
- Talented in areas such as art, drama, music, sports, mechanics, storytelling, sales, business, designing, building or engineering.
- Learns best through hands-on experience, demonstrations, experimentation, observation and visual aids.
- Prefers face-to-face meetings and phone calls rather than written text.
Famous dyslexic people
Albert Einstein, Robin Williams, Fred Astaire, Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, John F Kennedy, George W Bush, Will Smith, Alexander Graham Bell, Keira Knightley.
Visit www.speld.org.nz for more names.