Victoria Atanda is Project Support Officer for ARE’s Moving on Up Programme. In this blog she reflects on her journey with dyslexia, and how she’s navigated its challenges as a Black woman of Nigerian heritage.
Being a Black dyslexic from a Nigerian background has presented me with several difficulties throughout my life. However, when you search for renowned dyslexics, you often don’t see a lot of Black people represented on the list.
Take for example the website, Famous Dyslexics: From Walt Disney to Jamie Oliver – Health, Brain and Neuroscience (yourbrain.health), which features several well-known dyslexics but only names three notable Black dyslexics, despite the fact that many more people could be included, including Steven McQueen, Octavia Spencer, and Benjamin Zephaniah.
Additionally, and perhaps most significantly, race or ethnicity are rarely discussed as an additional or intersecting difficulty associated with dyslexia.
This was a phrase first coined by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw back in 1989. The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as “the interconnected nature of social categorisations such as race, class, and gender, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage”.
Intersectionality acknowledges that everyone has their own unique experiences of discrimination and oppression, and that race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, physical ability etc all combine in inseparable and multiple ways to shape how we exist in the world.
Dyslexia in the Nigerian community:
Dyslexia is a term that is both unfamiliar and uncommon among the Nigerian community, making it difficult for people who suffer from the condition to receive the help they require.
Nigerian culture places a tremendously high value on knowledge, education, and on children aspiring to greatness. This is observed in all aspects of life. But, many teachers and parents in Nigeria not know about dyslexia, making it harder for dyslexia to be detected in children let alone to be talked about. This is an issue when the best possible form of support comes with early intervention.
Resha Conroy, African American founder of the Dyslexia Alliance for Black Children, a non-profit organization in North America, also states that “Black children with dyslexia are under-diagnosed or misdiagnosed, and receive no intervention, or late intervention…the consequences are dire. The consequences are unforgiving.”.
(You can listen to Resha Conroy talk about this in a podcast.)
I’ve experienced these consequences myself because my dyslexia received late intervention. One of the key reasons I didn’t even want to admit that I had a problem was that, like many other Nigerian children whose parents had immigrated to the UK for a better life for them, I had an internalised pressure to achieve, and this led to a fear of disappointing my parents.
Even though I had difficulty with reading, spelling, and identifying right from left, among other things, I would quickly overlook and dismiss them as succeeding was far more important than admitting that I had a condition that was stopping me from accomplishing.
It is highly typical for Nigerian parents to boast about their children’s accomplishments, thus when a child does anything deemed dishonourable or humiliating, it is not just their fault—their parents are also caught up in blame.
Those who are not achieving according to Nigerian standards are seen as “dumb” and are referred to as “olodo” or a ‘dullard”. I vividly remember one instance where a relative referred to me by this term and questioned what my parents were teaching me at thirteen when I couldn’t tell the time accurately to her. I recall feeling stupid and dumb because not only had I embarrassed myself but I had humiliated my family.
Since that day, I developed a crippling sense of social anxiety, fearful that if this scenario occurred again, I’d be ashamed and labelled for the rest of my life.
So I did what most Black dyslexics do: I dealt with and managed my challenges as best I could while suffering in silence. This was owed particularly to the fact that I felt no feeling of solidarity within my community, and I did not see dyslexics who resembled me as a Black woman. I believed that I would not receive assistance particularly within predominately white institutions such as university.
Dyslexia and Blackness:
According to expert Jannett Morgan, the majority of young Black British people in the UK do not acquire a diagnosis until they are in university and are pushed to their limits. I did not receive assistance until I was in college because I did not want to be further identified and labelled as dyslexic on top of the label of Black, of being a woman and from a Nigerian background. I decided to stay silent for as long as I could.
Dr Morgan captures this feeling in her poem:
In other words, when discrimination already exists due to a visible difference such as race/ethnicity, a hidden difference such as dyslexia or another form of neurodiversity can compound difficulties. This was my experience. And early research into neurodiversity was notable for ignoring intersections with race. As Professor Amanda Kirby writes, its gaze was focussed more on white males, with many females and those from Black, Asian, and other minority ethnic groups, totally missed or misdiagnosed.
Neurodiversity describes the idea that people experience and interact with the world around them in many different ways; there is no one “right” way of thinking, learning, and behaving, and differences are not viewed as deficits.
In the institutions and workplaces, it extends ideas of inclusivity to neurological differences, including hiring and retaining talent with neuro-variations such as autism, ADHD and dyslexia.
Additionally, even though discussions about neurodiversity and women have been growing, especially in light of autistic women like activist Greta Thunberg, there still isn’t enough discussion concerning racism and neurodiversity specifically.
Without these discussions, Black dyslexics and female dyslexics will continue to face problems, at home, in school and the workplace, even though there are different ways they can get help. As various researchers have made clear, we know there are challenges relating to understanding neurodiversity in relation to attracting, hiring, and retaining talent, however it is important we continue to support our intersecting identities, otherwise our communities and institutions would look and feel less rich if we didn’t.
So, I end with this: do not wait to seek help if you feel you may have dyslexia. Get help as soon as you can, because it will make your life easier.
And let us continue to celebrate our heroes such as renowned scientist Maggie Adrein-Pocock and keep speaking out!
You can find further support or learn more about dyslexia with the following resources: