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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.
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.
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."
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.