Harry Belafonte and Other Successful People Bring Awareness to a ‘Hidden’ Disability

By Ann-Marie Adams, Staff Writer

NEW HAVEN, CT – When Harry Belafonte attended school in Jamaica, he was an unruly child.

He was constantly disciplined in a strict British school system that introduced him to Latin at the age of seven. And with no system to prepare him for his unexpected and difficult encounter with reading, Belafonte instead learned how to read his teachers. Most importantly, he learned the art of seduction, which served him well as America’s first black matinee idol and the first—before Elvis—to sell 1 million albums in a 1950s segregated society.

Jim Crow America and the daily indignities it spawned on black people was Belafonte’s primary motivation to triumph over social inequality and dyslexia. The social interaction with the likes of Sidney Poitier, Martin Luther King, Jr. and other social activists “nourished my appetite for social justice… and that pushed me to excel,” Belafonte said in an intimate conversation facilitated by Rev. Keith Magee in the Linsly Chittenden Hall at Yale University on Monday.

There, Belafonte joined a small group of educators, legislators, journalists  and gifted students who learned how to navigate the difficulties of dyslexia, a disability that prohibits clear reading comprehension compared to level of intelligence and education.  About 10 million children in the U.S. have dyslexia, and it accounts for  80 percent of learning disabilities.It crosses racial, class and cultural lines. And it is hereditary. With evidence-based instructions and accommodations, dyslexia can be remediated.

In an effort to transform the lives of children and adults who are dyslexic, the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity was founded in 2008 by Sally and Bennett Shaywitz, professors of learning development and dyslexia. They honored Belafonte and other attendees, including Daymond John of ABC’s Shark Tank, Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Victor Villasenor and space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock, all of whom are dyslexic. The symposium was a part of the Center’s Multicultural Awareness Initiative created to provide “awareness of dyslexia communities of color and those of Latino heritage through dyslexia-focused advocacy, education and knowledge-sharing with the student, parent, education and legislative communities.”

This symposium was needed to “dig deeper into a broader conversation,” said Carmina Taylor, a public education advocate and former president of the parent teacher council at the Wissahickon School district in Montgomery County, Philadelphia.

“So many of our kids are put into special education because of behavioral issues. And this was eye opening to me,” Taylor said. “We have to get to the root of why our children are not performing. They could be misdiagnosed or under-diagnosed.”

harry belafonte--yale-hartford-guardianAwareness is also tied to funding, said Barbara T. Bowman, the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Development in Chicago, Illinois. There are not enough resources allocated to these schools for intervention.

“It costs money for those tests and other interventions. And that’s why most students don’t get tested. Their tests are delayed. And then next thing you know, they are out of school and haven’t been diagnosed,” Bowman said.

BET Personality Jeff Johnson said he was in denial when he learned that his son might be dyslexic. After his denial phase, he had to “rob Peter and Paul” to pay for tests because his son was in a private school.

The cost of a test to determine whether a child has dyslexia varies in public schools. Some schools have their own psychiatrists. Other schools have to contract out that service. A test can cost from $100 to $600 for each child, depending on how complicated the issue. Once a child has been referred for testing, school officials must comply within 48 days.

If a child doesn’t get diagnosed, then that child would not receive an Individualized Education Program, which allows therapy and other interventions, Bowman said.

And many of the students who don’t receive help “just give up on learning to read,” Bowman said. “When they are told that reading would help them succeed, they respond by saying that they know people who can read and don’t have a job. Many students are surrounded by unemployed people with degrees. So they figure … why bother.”

Another dimension is the stigma attached to being dyslexic.

dyslexiaAttorney Rebecca Aragon said she was afraid to reveal her issue with dyslexia. That’s because it was just another layer of shame on an already painful reality of being Mexican because she ate tortilla and spoke Spanish.

“I felt like I was being punished for speaking Spanish and eating tortilla,” she said. “So I hated being Mexican.”

And if that wasn’t bad, try being a dark-skinned black woman in London, said Aderin-Pocock.

“At first it was painful. In school, you feel dumb,” said Aderin-Pocock, a scientist at University College London. “It’s only after I became successful I could say it. I am dyslexic.”

And that becomes a challenge, said Young, co-founder of For Us By Us, a clothing line also known as FUBU.

“It’s about taking away the stigma. It’s about making it cool to be dyslexic. “Nobody is going to admit that they are dyslexic until they are successful….But first people have to know whether they have dyslexia. It’s all about awareness.”

October is Dyslexia month.  Dislecksia: The Movie, will be shown across the country to help bring awareness to this “hidden” disability.

Copyrighted Photos: The Hartford Guardian. Harry Belafonte and his daughter, Gina,  discuss the difficulties with navigating dyslexia.

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