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Dyslexics Learn to Rearrange Lives in a World Seen Differently

March 12, 1987|R. DANIEL FOSTER | R. Daniel Foster is a Woodland Hills free-lance writer.

.ecnetnes siht--kaeps dna--ees dlouw htimS soleD yaw eht si sihT

The above is a mirror image of a sentence that reads: This is the way Delos Smith would see--and speak--this sentence .

"I finally decided that I do everything forward and you do everything backward," Smith, who is dyslexic, said at a recent conference for the learning disabled held at California State University, Northridge. "And that's very important for my self-esteem."

Smith, 51, told those gathered at the conference sponsored by CSUN's Office of Disabled Student Services that he has turned his disability into an asset in his role as a budget economist at the Conference Board, a business-supported New York research firm, and as author of "The Federal Budget Watch," an economic analysis newsletter distributed to government and businesses.

Although he has trouble with language skills, he said his dyslexia, in which the right side of the brain that thinks in images and symbols predominates, actually helps him to see the big picture in the federal economy. "You visualize the spending of a trillion dollars and see where it all goes," he said. "That's the fun of it."

Four hundred people attended the conference at Northridge, where 111 students--double last year's number--have been identified as learning disabled, according to Marshall Raskind, a learning-disability specialist with CSUN's Office of Disabled Student Services. The office sponsored the conference.

Raskind said the campus has attracted more learning-disabled students because of a $63,000 grant from the state Department of Rehabilitation, which enabled the hiring of two full-time learning disability specialists.

"Once you hang out a shingle . . . there's going to be a flood of people," Raskind said.

Dyslexics are included in the general category of the learning disabled, which constitutes from 3% to 5% of the general population, Raskind said. Among the more famous people with learning disabilities were the late New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner and actor Tom Cruise.

Smith, keynote speaker at the conference, is sponsoring a scholarship for a learning-disabled student at CSUN that is to be awarded March 27. Smith said he is giving the $500 award because he wanted "to ease someone's burden and inspire somebody because so many dyslexics are in incredible pain."

"I've seen learning disabled people with great talents who have spent their entire lives fighting society," he said.

Still Can Write Backwards

Being "very, very severely dyslexic," Smith said he spoke backward until he was 9 and still can write fluently backward. Dyslexic people sometimes reverse words or letters and are called "learning disabled," a group which includes those who have difficulty speaking, listening, reading and writing and performing mathematical calculations. Because of this, they often are mistakenly thought to be of lower intelligence.

Raskind said CSUN has one of the largest disability programs in the 19-campus state university system. This includes the National Center on Deafness, which has the highest deaf student population of any public university campus in the United States.

At the conference, Smith told learning-disabled students that language skills must be learned, no matter how difficult.

'Mechanics Can't Be Ignored'

"The mechanics can't be ignored because you pay too much of a price," he said. To refuse to overcome language difficulties in the non-dyslexic world can result in what he called "educational horror stories."

CSUN learning-disabled students shared some of their "horror stories" at the conference.

"The hardest thing was reading out loud in class," said Jeff Stein, 36, a graduate student in recreation. "The anxiety was just so high, I would make myself ill."

Stein has completed two bachelor's degrees, although he says his language and spelling skills currently are at a junior-high level and his math skills are at a fifth-grade level. He said his verbal and reading comprehension skills are much higher.

"I can't write the word 'right' to save my life," Stein said. "When a word has an i , a t or an h , forget it . . . There were times when my hand would sweat and stick to the paper. But if you asked me to talk, I would have blown everyone out of the water."

CSUN learning-disabled students also share fears of filling out forms where words "jump around on the page," chalk boards with writing that looks like "chicken scratches" and missed social cues.

Even the simplest tasks can be forbidding, many said. Dina Ackermann, 27, a graduate student in special education, said she has difficulty operating bank automatic-teller machines. "I keep pushing the wrong buttons," she said.

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