Dyslexia comes in many forms

Photo Olof Näslund
Ulrika Jonson – Photo: Olof Näslund

Ulrika Jonson runs the company Kasam Education, where she teaches, among other things, how to make life easier and learning more accessible with digital support tools. Although she has been working on it for many years, it was only in her fifties that she came to grips with her supposed reading and writing difficulties. It turned out to be dyslexia. Her story is about how she managed to get through school through hard work and unconventional solutions and has succeeded well in working life. But also about how much easier, it becomes when you have the right tools. TorTalk got an interview with her.

Where did it start? How did school work for you?

– It went quite well at school. I had some problems with reading and above all with writing. I was terrible at spelling. There were vision checks and examinations of eye alignment and some extra reading training. It was easy to pick up what I needed in the lessons; I was highly verbal and good at oral presentation, so the writing problems never became a big deal. Math was worse. I have trouble with numbers and could not learn the multiplication table. With help from home, it went pretty well in primary school. But studying took a lot of time. I didn’t have any spare time.

And in high school?

– It was shocking. Suddenly I got a lousy grade in Swedish, a second! My Swedish teacher wondered about the big difference between my performances in speaking and writing. So I must acquire a better knowledge of Swedish; if I just got a proper run-through of the basic rules of how it should be, I’d probably be fine. So everything a person who doesn’t know Swedish at all has to learn. So I took an evening course in Swedish for immigrants.

Swedish for immigrants! Did you figure it out yourself? Were you accepted?

– Yes. It was an ABF course, and it was okay to join in. It helped a lot. But the math didn’t work, so I had to give it up. I studied math afterwards to be able to apply to university.

You have to plough through a lot of literature at university. How about your reading speed?

– It is slow. I read about five to six times slower than the rest of my family. But I’m good at listening. I have a thick black book on pedagogy on the bookshelf. When I tested it at the teacher training college, I hadn’t read it, but the teacher had gone through the content in his lectures. I passed the exam.

So actually, you have managed quite well without a diagnosis and aids?

– Yes or no. It has taken time and energy. And sometimes, it hasn’t gone well at all. I was appointed to write an extensive assignment for a government agency on a subject I have a good command of. I accepted but said an editor would be needed to finalise the text. Turns out I was right. It was hard to realize that I couldn’t perform as I wanted. But they, as well as I, had seen me as the competent person I am and appear to be, but I should have clarified that writing is not my strong point. After editing, it turned out to be excellent articles.

When did it become clear to you that you have dyslexia?

– I received the diagnosis as recently as three years ago, i.e. after I turned fifty. And there was no doubt about it. A lot became clear then. My parents, who stood up and helped me with schoolwork, probably felt they should have understood. But no one did. Because I was considered gifted and “talented”, no one thought in terms of dyslexia at the time. But I realize now that I had to work unusually hard to pass school.

How does it work now?

– Good. After all, I have access to all kinds of tools and use them to the maximum. Different types of speech synthesis for different contexts, math programs such as Excel and Numbers. But I also like books and read fiction in book form, with my eyes, from paper. It will be mostly on vacation because I read so slowly. However, I wouldn’t say I like fiction as audiobooks because I want to create my world from the book, not the world that the reading actor creates.

When and how do you use speech synthesis?

– To read quickly, to get through technical texts, to skim through a text to find facts I’m looking for. But also to check what I wrote, including spelling. Spell checkers might be good, but they can go wrong, and I overlook a lot. If I have my text read out loud, I can hear where it went wrong.

What do you think is the difference between reading with speech synthesis and reading “as usual”?

– Speech synthesis improves reading comprehension. When I read with my eyes, too much brain power is used to decode the text down to individual letters. Since decoding is not automated when you have dyslexia, the brain has to work with that rather than reflect on the content. It’s tiring to read in that way. With speech synthesis, I can read much more. At the same time, speech synthesis gives me a chance to think while reading, take in and process the text.