Thursday, January 12, 2006

Dyslexia-Overcoming day-to-day challenge of living with learning disability

Wednesday Jan 12, 2000
By Janet Huck
Leader Staff Writer

Shelley Wolff, a single mother of two young boys, thought the only job she would be able to get was hanging clothes at a department store. "I wanted more, but I couldn't see how I could get a better job because I could barely write, and working a cash register was out of the question," she said.

But the 25-year-old woman learned to overcome her learning disabilities by working with Port Townsend's Melinda Pongrey, the owner of SISIUTL: New Paradigms in Learning. SISIUTL was names after a mythical beast which transforms people's greatest challenges into their greatest gifts.

Pongrey works with people from age 6 to 60 who have a range of learning differences, from dyslexia to spatial disorders. She provides assessments to establish learning profiles. Then she teaches one-on-one classes that show her clients new strategies to overcome difficulties.

"Just because we have learning difficulties doesn't mean we are dumb," said Shana Cannavaro. "We may be smarter, in fact."

Last Saturday, four of Pongrey's clients gave an informal talk about their achievements after working with Pongrey. The Upstage Restaurant had a full house.

"Many people who don't experience learning disabilities firsthand don't realize the problems exist," Pongrey told the crowd. "But the personal experiences of these four people can open up the world of learning disabilities and give us a peek into the myriad of daily challenges faced by people all around us."

The four speakers said they all recognized their challenges early in life, but they were rarely given help to overcome their disabilities. Wollf said she was having trouble in the second or third grade with reading because the letters were switching back and forth. "I told my teacher at the time, and she told me to flip them the right way," remembered Wolff. "I didn't even question her, but I had no clue what to do. I wished the world could read backwards like me, so it would be easier for me."

Melodie Haugen said she couldn't get the letters to stay still on the page in elementary school. But she was too embarrassed to tell anyone. Cannavaro said she was constantly in tears in fourth grade because no matter how many times someone would explain something, she couldn't grasp it.

And John Vass told how his third-grade teacher took away all his school books for the rest of the year because be couldn't do the work. "It was only January," he said. The teacher would taunt him in front of the other students, giving what, Vass thought, was covert approval for the kids to tease him. "I work every day on trying to forgive her, but sometimes I hope she ended up in teacher's hell," he confessed.

When the schools did try to help, they didn't always help the students overcome the problems. Wollf was in 10th grade when the school finally tested her for dyslexia. "But instead of teaching me how to get beyond my problem, they showed me how to get away with it," she said. "If I couldn't do something, then (instructions) were written to get me out of it."

After graduating from high school, the four found they were still failing. Haugen wanted a better career. When she started at the Port Townsend School of Massage, she found she couldn't pass the required chemistry course. "I was crushed," she said. 'I really wanted to do good."

Instead of giving up, she ended up at SISIUTL. Vass, too, found that SISIUTL was the first thing that helped. "When I found Melinda, it was life-changing moment No. 18," joked Vass.

The four clients had to work hard to learn "coping" skills. If they lost track of the math problems or stories they were reading, they learned to use cues to get them back on track. Wollf used index cards to write detailed notes and pictures to help her remember where she was. She also began using a pink overlay sheet that helps the letters and words jump out oat her instead of dancing all over the page.

Pongrey's instructions worked for these four clients. Wollf, who used to write backwards, found she couldn't do it any more. When she wanted to get her food handlers permit, she worked six months on learning the necessary skills for the test. The test was supposed to take 30 minutes. "I did it in 10 minutes and only got two wrong," said Wollf, who now wants to enroll in community college to get her associate arts degree.

Haugen can read with the letters staying still. "They don't swim around anymore," she said. She is getting A's and B's at the massage school instead of F's. "I keep plugging away," she said proudly.

Cannavaro plans to finish her program at Peninsula College. And Vass will take the last of his GED tests in the next two weeks.

"Nobody else should have to go through what we did," said Vass. "I hope these kind of problems are spotted early, so the kids get the help they deserve. They shouldn't fall through the cracks. I hope they throw out their arms like I did, so they won't fall through the cracks. We aren't the victims; we are the survivors."