School doesn't always bring back happy memories for those with dyslexia, but as ANNEMARIE QUILL discovers, with the right support, dyslexic people can achieve.

You would struggle to get a Christmas appointment with Corina Conn.

A popular Bay hairdresser, she has just opened her second salon in Brookfield. With black leather massage beds, a starlit ceiling, ceramic tiling and hanging copper lights, it gives any Auckland salon a nod and the phone rings constantly.

Mum of three young children aged 3, 6 and 10, at 31 Conn owns her own home in Welcome Bay with husband Damian. She manages nine staff, handles suppliers, orders, bookings, keeps abreast of latest hair techniques and is branching out into beauty services.

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But don't ask her to spell balayage. She can't spell, struggles to read, and GST baffles her.

A successful business woman now, Conn spent many of her school days hiding at the bottom of the field, too ashamed to attend class. She was "kicked out" at 15 with no qualifications. She is among the one in 10 New Zealanders with dyslexia.

"I hated school so much. I thought I was dumb. Teachers even told me I was dumb. I started college and I couldn't read. When it would come to my turn to read out loud, I was so embarrassed I would act naughty - start interrupting and calling out so I would get thrown out of the class."

Put in 'special' classes for slow learners, Conn felt frustrated.

"I went to a maths class at the beginning of third form. I looked at the board, and looked at my paper and just couldn't connect the two. Everything was moving on the page. At the end of that class the teacher kept me behind. I think he thought I was being lazy. I never went back to that class. I wagged maths for a whole year. I would go to the bottom of the field on my own and hide."

When her truancies were discovered, more detentions and other punishments were imposed. Eventually after a meeting with her parents, it was decided Conn would leave the school.

"It was the best thing I ever did."

Just 15, Conn wandered into a salon in the Mount looking for work.

"The owner was rushing out to lunch. While she was out I scrubbed and mopped the floors, organised the shelves, chatted to clients. When she came back she was so impressed she hired me."

This work ethic drove Conn to keep going, even when faced with seemingly impossible roadblocks. When she turned 16 she went to a hairdressing academy, but even though she excelled in practical work, she failed her theory.

"I was better than most at the actual hairdressing but some of the theory involved learning things like the names of the layers of skin. I just couldn't do it."

Abandoning the dream of getting officially qualified on paper, but still determined to become a hairdresser, she started at another salon where "they chucked me on the floor - I learned everything the hard way."

With stylists paid by paper qualifications and Conn with no credits, she earned just $4.25 an hour, and lived off eggs, noodles and Foodbank parcels.

When she first fell pregnant she carried on working until three days before the birth, not just in the salon by day, but as a juice packer by night.

At 22 she purchased her first salon in Otumoetai.

"The first five years were hard - I had to learn everything about running a business. I didn't pay myself anything. Damian was a great help. He would proof-read everything I did. I got an accountant to do the accounts - you learn to delegate."

Three years ago she eventually received her paper qualification, able to sit it orally.

"It felt amazing, but I don't think people should judge so much on paper qualifications. If someone comes to me for work, I don't look at that piece of paper - I can't read it anyway! I look at how they stick at things, use initiative, how they are with other people... school just teaches people one way; there was nothing hands-on for me. What I have done since school, it shows I am not dumb. I didn't fail school; it failed me."

Electrician Luke Garbutt is a successful business owner with dyslexia. Photo.Andrew Warner
Electrician Luke Garbutt is a successful business owner with dyslexia. Photo.Andrew Warner

SCHOOL DOESN'T BRING back happy memories for Welcome Bay man Luke Garbutt, either. The 34-year-old was a severe asthmatic as a child, he struggled to read or write.

Other children treated him like "not the full package" and he was relentlessly bullied and teased.

"They would call me names, like 'retard'. Pass notes about me behind my back. I would never be picked for teams. I felt left out. School wasn't easy. It was a rough patch in my life."

Garbutt was put in "the slow classes", even taken to a learning centre where he remembers being told to sit in a hammock and try to read.

"They treated me like I had a learning disability, but I didn't feel slow. I could understand. I just couldn't put it on paper. Back then, there was no mention of anything like dyslexia."

Dyslexia was only recognised as a condition by the New Zealand government in 2007 after lobbying by the charitable organisation the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand.

Esther Whitehead, managing trustee of the foundation, says the estimated one in 10 dyslexic New Zealanders includes 70,000 schoolchildren who "are still marginalised in our system," with key issues being under-identification, no funding for identification (diagnoses), lack of communication, lack of knowledge from teachers and school leaders, no point person and difficulty for parents to navigate the school system and external support services.

The result is children like Conn and Garbutt are leaving school illiterate, says Green MP Catherine Delahunty, who requested a parliamentary inquiry which is currently in progress.

Delahunty says the issue is far wider than education.

"Children are leaving school illiterate and some are at huge risk of becoming involved in the criminal justice system because they have no hope, feel labelled as stupid and become desperate. There is an unnecessary risk of a tough life with few options because the entire society does not recognise dyslexia and the importance of supporting diverse ways of learning at any age, but especially when students are starting school."

The Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand says British, American and Swedish research suggests 30-52 per cent of prisoners are dyslexic, and there is no reason to suggest the New Zealand incidence would be any different.

The current parliamentary select committee inquiry is focusing on students with dyspraxia, and autism spectrum disorders, as well as dyslexia. Of 430 submissions received more than half discuss dyslexia, says David Meek, Parliamentary Officer (Clerk of Committee) Education and Science Committee.

The inquiry will hear all the submissions by the end of the Parliamentary year on December 10 and a report with recommendations will be created in the early New Year.

Education Minister Hekia Parata told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend she was looking forward to its findings.

"It's important that all students have the opportunity to achieve to their potential. I look forward to the findings of the inquiry and will look at how they can be included in the wider changes that the Special Education Update is driving."

Delahunty says key issues the inquiry is looking at is failure to identify and support students with learning differences.

"Inclusion and bullying, training and funding are huge issues... families are having to pay for expensive testing and out-of-school learning support. Families with no resources cannot afford this. We are wasting huge potential by not training teachers on these issues and not providing specialist learning help when it's needed."

Many submissions mention the burden of cost on parents to receive a private diagnosis and pay for extra support for their children.

One of those submitters was Te Puke's Jodi Wichers. A teacher aide and mother of four, two of her children, 15-year-old Max and 9-year-old Lucy, have dyslexia. Wichers estimates she has spent more than $4000 so far on assessment and support - a figure that she says would be substantially more if she hadn't done a lot of the work herself, reading widely about the subject and how to help her children.

"You have to pay about $600 for a test. But then you get a piece of paper and say, now what? If it is picked up early you might get reading recovery in school, but anything additional you must fund yourself."

Wichers paid for an official diagnosis for Max and additional lessons out of school, but frustration with the system led to her pulling him out of school altogether.

"One day he was late because of one of his extra classes. A relief teacher made him stay in during morning tea, and do guess what as a punishment - write lines."

Now she home-schools Max, which she says has been the best decision - she told the select inquiry in her submission that "he would have been crushed in the current system".

Lucy remains in school, but Wichers said in her submission Lucy often says school is "pointless" due to the focus on things she is not good at.

"They get embarrassed and shrink inside themselves. Lucy wrote her phone number down for a friend and she had some of the numbers backwards. The girl told me I needed to teach her how to do her numbers. I replied 'that is just the way her brain works'. There needs to be more understanding. These kids tend to be quite bright, but because they're always failing the tests, they are left tired, feeling like they can't express themselves."

Wichers said with the right support, and by making accommodations in tests by introducing reader/writers (people who read and write the exams on behalf of the student) or removing timing from tests means dyslexic people can achieve.

Forcing a dyslexic child to read out in front of class is like being put on stage to sing if you are not a singer.

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Wichers now volunteers at Lucy's school to work with other dyslexic children. The sessions she holds are hands-on and interest-based.

"We explore by doing, and discovering, not writing. It is simple really, realising what they are good at and not good at. Forcing a dyslexic child to read out in front of class is like being put on stage to sing if you are not a singer."

Wichers told the Parliamentary committee that it saddens her that this is not part of teacher training, and worried her that children may not have parents as advocates who had the ability or financial means to support them.

"There are many who don't and remain lost and confused in the system."

Wichers' determination to keep her children engaged stems in part from her own childhood experience watching her two brothers drift through school, leave without qualifications - neither has a driver's licence, despite, Wichers says, both having strong creative gifts that were never nurtured.

"That insecurity, hurt is still there. I am not having that for my kids."

Neither is Corina Conn. When she noticed her son getting behind she took him for a diagnosis. Like Wichers, she could afford to pay - it cost $500 and she had to go to Tokoroa because private testers were so booked up.

Esther Whitehead of the Dyslexia Foundation says dyslexia is hereditary, and the foundation's definition is that it is a "learning difference which is constitutional in origin", meaning it has a "substantive neurobiological basis".

Brain research, including studies from Yale and Auckland universities, has shown people with dyslexia use the 'pictorial' right side - making them slower to process and understand language, but stronger in creative areas like problem solving, empathy and lateral thinking.


Tauranga's Judith Kramer believes that supporting people with dyslexia lies not in remedial reading programmes, which she says just offer 'more of the same' but in a more scientific approach. Kramer holds the license in Tauranga for Cellfield Intervention, a neuroscientific reading programme which looks at "changing neural pathways to use brain plasticity to encourage more effective language processing".

The programme includes an optometric test for foveal eccentricity - the part of the eye that helps process letters and words - often abnormal in dyslexic children, says Kramer.

At the end of 10 sessions of one hour Kramer says this can be returned to normal, and can stay at normal if the person continues reading at least 15 minutes a day.

At $2099 for 10 sessions it is not cheap, but in a New Zealand-first this year, the programme is being rolled out as a pilot at Tauranga Intermediate, in which the majority of the cost is subsidised by Golden Homes New Zealand.

Kramer says that by the end of the year, 24 students will have completed the programme. Of these she says, all but one has increased their reading age by at least 18 months, and some as much as six years. Next year Kramer hopes to accommodate 32 children in the programme and is in talks to roll it out to other Bay schools.

Another Bay teacher Charles Leota, 35, is also developing more resources for dyslexic students. Last week Leota received an AMP Scholarship for an app he developed for one of his dyslexic students that allowed the student to submit NCEA exams via a text-to-speech programme on a laptop. Leota has now started coding a phone app that allows students to write and submit essays using acronyms as a template, and has other apps in development.

"I wasn't that great at school myself as I was more of a visual learner. Luckily I got my act together after school, and as a teacher I am passionate about finding different ways to help people who learn differently."

Leota says the earlier teachers can help students the better and, like Judith Kramer, hopes the Parliamentary inquiry it will result in early screening of all students suspected of reading problems.

Green MP Delahunty says ideally there would be a complete overhaul.

"At the very least I am hoping that learning differences such as dyslexia will be addressed via better identification at no cost to families, teacher and teacher aide training, more funding for specialist help for children and for the best practice which exists to be universally adopted."

For mum Jodi Wichers early subsidised or free testing would also be the ideal, along with more in school assistance and teacher training.

"Dyslexia is a gift, but doesn't feel like it in school years. It is not until a child leaves school that they find something they can do, and no-one knows they ever struggled in maths or spelling."

Back in her Brookfield salon, as Corina Conn processes a payment she checks it on a calculator, then makes an appointment card for a client, checking the date carefully against the calendar and asking her to spell her name. The client doesn't notice - just admires her hair in the mirror.

Being dyslexic helps in business as you are used to thinking of different ways to solve problems.

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Business is also booming for Luke Garbutt who started up his business eight months ago, having been an electrician for 16 years. Although he struggled with theory like Conn, with help he eventually managed to pass.

"Finding something I could do, the frustration and humiliation of school fell away. No more name-calling. I was one of the boys. I was good at it."

He struggled with paperwork over the years but "winged it" thanks to the kindness of office ladies who would phone him up to decipher his writing.

"I used to leave notes saying sorry about my writing. It was no drama. We made light of it - no-one hassled me."

Like Jodi Wichers, Garbutt says he now sees his dyslexia as a gift.

"Being dyslexic helps in business as you are used to thinking of different ways to solve problems. Owning my own business has made me see my strengths - relationships, problem-solving, physical work, as well as my weaknesses - invoicing, doing quotes, paperwork. It is as simple as getting help in those areas."

Conn and Garbutt join the ranks of many successful business people with dyslexia, with Richard Branson a famous example. Esther Whitehead from the Dyslexic Foundation says international research on dyslexia is focused on the strengths that this atypical way of thinking can offer. UK research shows that 35 per cent of US entrepreneurs and 20 per cent of UK entrepreneurs are dyslexic.

Both Corina Conn and Luke Garbutt hope the inquiry will be able to make life easier for children with dyslexia so that they don't experience the bullying and shame they did at school.

Garbutt has a message for dyslexic children: "Don't beat yourself up. Look at what you are good at. Don't give up. There are different ways of dealing with things. Hard work always pays off. You may not get the exams first time but if you work hard people will help. Ask for help. No-one is good at everything. Don't be alone. As for bullies, it is not about you, it's about them. Don't take it deep and personal, don't let it stand in your way. There are great things out there for you."