Body & Fitness

Dyslexia didn’t stop me achieving my dreams

Now this father-of-one is on a mission to make sure other young Kiwis don't suffer like he did.
David Hammond

David Hammond

David Hammond was 8-years-old when ‘dyslexia’ was first uttered in relation to his learning difficulties.

But in early 80s rural New Zealand, many schools weren’t ready for such a label – and in fact, actively discouraged it, says David, now 42.

As a result, the point wasn’t raised again during Hammond’s Kiwi education, and there were only ever half-hearted attempts to help him with his reading and writing.

Despite being a bright kid, he became withdrawn, in the hope he’d avoid the routine wraps on the knuckles that often came when he got things wrong.

“When I had to read and spell in class, I just found it impossible. You couldn’t have paid me to do it,” he explains.

“As a result I was regularly a target of teachers who were convinced I was messing around or doing it deliberately.”

But everything changed when Hammond, who had always dreamt of going to a world-class university, was accepted on scholarship to the London School of Economics (LSE) at the age of 26.

“I had a first class degree from the University of Waikato, but the LSE really was a dream come true. I thought, ‘why not?’”

Despite struggling through his exams at school, Hammond had always managed to make up his marks with project work. And now a boy from Herekino was off to the big smoke, thousands of miles from home.

It was only once he was there that Hammond’s instincts were confirmed – he was diagnosed with dyslexia, a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, and dyspraxia, a developmental disorder of the brain in childhood causing difficulty in activities requiring coordination and movement.

“In the U.K. they were more open minded to those kind of conditions and how many people were potentially suffering with them,” Hammond explains. “I started to get the help I needed.”

After a year studying towards his Masters, Hammond graduated from the LSE in Industrial Relations and Personnel Management. He even made the minimum requirement needed for a PhD.

“That’s not bad for a kid who suffered learning difficulties, and managed to get this kind of result from a world class Uni,” Hammond, who says he got a huge confidence boost from studying overseas, says.

But now, he wants to give other Kiwi kids a shot at this feeling too.

That’s why the dad-of-one has partnered his company, FreshTake Publishers, up with SPELD – an organisation that helps children in New Zealand with learning difficulties.

By donating some of the profits of the calendars he sells to SPELD, as well as actively campaigning for others to donate, David hopes they can be a catalyst for change in New Zealand – and get every child that needs testing the diagnosis and support they need.

“Sadly, despite all the advancements we’ve had over the last 30 years – the experiences of kids suffering with these kind of disorders are very similar to my own,” Hammond says.

He says it feels like the problem is especially bad in New Zealand, where people still seem to be scared of the diagnosis itself.

“You need a proper diagnosis to find out why children aren’t learning; otherwise you’re not treating the root cause, just the effects.

“Dyslexics process words differently, and therefore they learn differently too. Once we know a kid has that particular disorder, we can sort out how to teach them in a way that makes sense, so they don’t fall behind.”

Hammond wants high-profile Kiwis with dyslexia to share their success stories, just as he’s doing, so that young kids know a diagnosis means they can still aim high.

“There are some successful Kiwis who I know are dyslexic, but instead of saying that they tell their audience: ‘I didn’t achieve at school because I was dumb.’

“That’s great for their personal brand, but it’s pretty irresponsible when it comes to future generations – it means kids who have learning difficulties grow up thinking they are stupid. They just aren’t.”

Guy Pope-Mayell, from the Dyslexia Foundation of New Zealand, said David is certainly not alone in his experience, and that more and more Kiwi adults are coming forward and looking to own their learning difficulties after all these years.

“Sadly virtually nobody back in the 80s knew how to diagnose and support these kinds of learning difficulties,” he says.

“Instead, it was assumed the student was lazy and stupid. The educational system was not friendly or supportive to these kinds of issues. And this would create huge self-esteem and behavioural problems, that would often affect that person’s entire life – not just their education but in terms of their relationships to others too.”

But what’s encouraging, he says, is that a lot has changed.

“There has been an attitude shift here in New Zealand, and parents and teachers are more aware of these kinds of conditions. There are options.

“But that said, if you are a young person growing up with dyslexia, your experiences remain harder than those growing up without it.”

Pope-Mayell reiterates that people with dyslexia and dyspraxia learn differently – and need to own this difference in order to move forward. Often, these differences can actually lead to an enhanced problem solving ability, but this won’t be realised until they discover the issue.

So where does New Zealand stand when it comes to dyslexia awareness and support?

“The UK and the US have dealt with the symptoms a lot better – the how to read and write part. We need to work on that,” Pope-Mayell says. “But what the New Zealand education system does very well is getting the student to relate to the way their mind works, knowing how to make education work for them, and also getting them to feel empowered in their difference.

“Dyslexia presents itself as a learning difficulty but it’s actually a whole different way of processing the world.”

“Change ultimately needs to come from above, and while there are great things happening in the education system, the government needs to make it a priority to drive that change.”

You can buy the calendar from David Hammond’s site Fresh Take Publishers here.

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