Audio Journalism Learning Disabilities

How Dyslexia Brought Me to Audio Journalism

When learning about a disability, there is an inevitable search for others who had or have it. Did you know Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald are said to have had dyslexia? I sought these names in high school and college, when I needed to remind myself that I — like them — could find success in writing despite my learning disability.

When I was diagnosed in the third grade, though, I did not care who else had it. I simply wanted to rid myself of the hot panic that descended whenever teachers called on me to read. Sitting at my plastic desk, my heart would thump, palms sweat, and stomach ache. I attempted to pre-read and memorize the paragraph I would be called to read aloud, but I always tripped on multiple words within the first sentence. How could I read a whole paragraph? Both the teacher and I would become frustrated, and they would feed me words when I paused.

Help did not arrive until the seventh grade. Before then, I had never successfully read a book alone. By definition, dyslexia is a learning disorder that impacts areas of the brain used to process language. Dyslexia presents itself in a plethora of ways; for me, I inverted, added, and dropped words while reading aloud. Decoding (sounding out) and comprehending text proved even more of a challenge. When reading silently, I could retain more — but often even that task stood too steep.

Growing up in the mid-2000s, news was changing. Accessibility to information through YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter coincided with my eagerness to learn despite my disability. I changed my morning alarm to the voices of NPR news anchors and dove into the online archives of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Any ounce of information I could consume without text became my raft in the unsteady waters of a learning disability. At home, while my peers read books like Captain Underpants and Junie B. Jones, I watched stories about the Egyptian Revolution, Wall Street’s meltdown, and cyber security. Had I the privilege to choose at the time, though, I would have read the books.  

After long, seven-hour school days in the seventh grade, my mom would drive me to Central Michigan University’s Learning Acceleration Clinic. Jealous of my siblings, who were eating snacks at home, I spent two hours four days a week undergoing intensive psychological intervention with a phycology PhD candidate. After grueling work, she gave me access to the elusive books read by my peers. For the first time, I could choose, comprehend, and retain information from written words. One of the first books I grabbed was titled Impossible Odds: The Kidnapping of Jessica Buchanan. The story had been featured on 60 Minutes. At the time, my enthusiasm for my newfound ability to comprehend text blinded me from noticing how slow I read; a single page took me several minutes to read and comprehend.

Neuroscientist and dyslexia scholar, Guinevere Eden, understands the brain is malleable:

Imaging has shown us areas in the brain…after [reading] intervention has occurred and after [one’s] reading has improved…increase in brain activity and other areas are compensating and helping-out to make that person a better reader.

I compensated with strong verbal skills to make-up for my slow and confused reading. While I never received a brain scan, psychological testing proved Professor Eden’s thesis to be true for me.

While my peers read, I developed the ability to communicate and retain information orally. This skill set led me to WCMU and WUOM (Michigan Radio) — NPR member stations — where I wrote and produced audio stories. I continued to feel profoundly self-conscious about my reading, spelling, and grammar, but this clashed with my drive and desire to tell stories. Luckily, I could avoid some of my dyslexia provocations in radio journalism, since audio stories are told at an elementary reading level to help listeners consume complex ideas over the airwaves.

Journalism values creativity, curiosity, and content, and my unique perspectives as a dyslexic individual have led to unexpected storytelling. In one story, I described how climate resilience is being taught in a southeast Michigan high school; I thought it would interesting to insert multiple perspectives on whether people learned about climate change in school, since I know everyone does not learn the same way. In another story I produced about criminal expungement reform, I interviewed a woman who would benefit personally from new legislation. Her voice broke and carried emotion like no book I had ever read could do. I know the value of a raw auditory story, and the interviews I conduced and stories I told would not have succeeded had I not developed skills to listen.

My plan to avoid my disability in newfound workspaces did not come without error, though. Stories cannot be developed only in one’s head; they need to be written, edited, and rewritten — often again and again. Only then could a story be told orally. I continue to struggle, primarily with time, since it still takes me twice as long as my peers to read materials. Punctuation and syntax also present salient challenges.

I know the value of a raw auditory story, and the interviews I conduced and stories I told would not have succeeded had I not developed skills to listen.

Like anyone with a disability, I have learned skills to continue to compete with other writers. When a story requires more than a single page of text, I bring my own computer — which contains text-to-speech technology — to the office. I also rely on the Voice Dream app on my iPhone, which can recite any PDF I upload. If I need a book, Bookshare likely has the text and can read it to me aloud. If those options do not work, I use the Read&Write literacy software.  Strong editors you can trust — Vince Duffy and Rebecca William at Michigan Radio, my sister Katharine Janes, and mother Dr. Patricia Janes for any freelance pieces — make a world of difference. 

Today, if I don’t know how to spell a word, I say it into my iPhone. This method is certainly not foolproof, though. This morning, I did not know how to spell the word corroborate — I kept typing coberate, to no avail. I verbally asked Siri “How do I spell corroborate?” to which she responded, “This is how you spell cooperate.” My alternative route was to Google the word “coberate” which spit back “showing results for corroborate.” Finally.

As Stella Cottrell suggests, and I have experienced, many people with dyslexia get more worn out from a day of reading and writing than non-dyslexic people. It makes sense — our brains are doing a lot more work. When working at Michigan Radio, to build in a break to my day and receive some emotional support, I brought my dog to work. I would leave my desk every few hours to take him out and give my eyes, brain, and emotions rest. There are resources other than dogs for people with dyslexia too — specific fonts, colored overlays, quiet workspaces, graphic organizers, and many books. And while we are our best advocates, sometimes we don’t know about resources, until we do.

I did not have access to text-to-speech technologies until my sophomore year of college at the University of Michigan. It was amazing; for the first time, I did not have to simply read online summaries of a book but could wear headphones and sit with my peers to follow along with the text. Thanks to text-to-speech technology, I could major in English. What’s more, I could become a journalist.

For a long time, I would not tell my peers I was dyslexic. Sitting in the first days of any class in college, when instructors had yet to receive my individualized educational plan (IEP), I still felt like my younger self—afraid to be called to read, questioning if I belonged in this space. These same anxieties arise with a new article pitch or job interview. I internally debate: How long until I share my disability?

As my voice has developed as a writer, so have I as a person with a disability. Dyslexia did not stop authors like Agatha Christie, William Faulkner, or F. Scott Fitzgerarld—it perhaps even contributed to their success. This reminds me that my voice, too, deserves space, and I can use my unique lens to tell my and other’s stories.

Lauren Janes is a freelance writer and audio producer based in Washington D.C. Previously, she worked for the NPR member station Michigan Radio reporting on education, politics, and climate change. Check out more from Lauren at Find her on Twitter at @laurenejanes.