Local Lowdown: 1 in 5: The Face 
of Dyslexia 
in Santa Barbara
 and Beyond

Posted on Sep 26 by SEASONS Magazine


Joan, a 1961 graduate of Santa Barbara High School, has an IQ of 130, but didn’t learn the basics of reading until a high school teacher, Marion Whelpley, took her on as a project. She was so grateful she named her daughter after her. “I finally learned I was dyslexic when I was 64,” she notes, “when I was tested at Santa Barbara City College.” Photo by Monie deWit Photography.


For more than a decade, photographer Monie deWit and I have lived just a couple blocks apart in Bungalow Haven; raising our children in our quirky, old-fashioned neighborhood, we have often met for summertime picnics with a group of neighbors at Alice Keck Memorial Garden. 

We always knew we were kindred spirits, with our shared interest in historic preservation; what we didn’t know is that during the school years, we were both fighting the same fight—working tirelessly to get a proper education for our dyslexic sons, and advocating for others as well.  

When we finally figured that out, we excitedly shared ideas about a creative dyslexia-themed project each of us had always had in the back of our minds—only she needed a writer, and I needed a photographer. When we teamed up, something special happened. We’re now two moms on a mission to make dyslexia more visible and more understandable in a creative way that informs minds and touches hearts. 

The photojournalism project, “1 in 5: The Face of Dyslexia in Santa Barbara and Beyond,” is a work-in-progress created to showcase—in artistic photographs and personal reflections—the diversity of the dyslexia experience, which affects 20 percent of the population. In January, it was displayed at the Central Library, and we’ve been asked to photograph individuals in Orange County for a community event in October for Dyslexia Awareness Month.  


Ashley is a 2016 graduate of Dos Pueblos High School where she earned A’s and B’s on her classwork, but D’s and F’s on her test scores. Today she attends Arizona State University, majoring in journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and offers the following advice for other dyslexic students who want to attend college: “Do your research, look up schools and their programs. You have to put yourself out there, and you have to advocate for yourself.” Photo by Monie deWit Photography.


Dyslexia is not a mystery. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about seeing things backward, and does not indicate a lack of intelligence. It is a hereditary neurological difference in the brain that affects an individualís ability to read, write and spell (hence the meaning of dyslexia = trouble with words). This can be addressed with intensive one-on-one intervention, not commonly known by educators or adopted in our schools. 


Paul, an accomplished architect, shares his dyslexic experiences as a panelist in community discussions and encourages young aspiring architects with dyslexia. “One of the most important things you learn early on with dyslexia is resilience; you have to get back up and figure out workarounds. Technology is wonderful; I use spellcheck and dictation on my phone all the time to help me spell.” Photo by Monie deWit Photography.


If you’re not personally touched by dyslexia, you likely know someone who is: The child struggling to read; the teen feeling like school is a place for other, smarter students; the young woman in her first job, trying to keep her poor spelling a secret; the new father too embarrassed to read a book out loud to his children; the professional terrified to take a test required for career advancement; the senior citizen reduced to tears at the memory of elementary school shame endured decades ago.   

These unnecessary humiliations often overshadow the positive characteristics of dyslexia that include creativity, thoughtful problem-solving and outside-the-box thinking.  Count among accomplished dyslexic strengths the musical talent of John Lennon, the creativity of Pablo Picasso, the brilliance of Albert Einstein, the innovation of Steve Jobs, the athleticism of Magic Johnson, the entrepreneurialism of Sir Richard Branson, and the storytelling of Fannie Flagg. 


Lana acts in local productions, and attends drama and dance classes in Los Angeles. She listens to many of her reading assignments thanks to Learning Ally, and observes, “Being able to listen means everything to me. People have to understand that it’s not cheating, it’s just another way to get the information, through your ears instead of your eyes.” Photo by Monie deWit Photography.


Even more significant than the ever-growing list of famous and accomplished individuals with dyslexia is the wealth of information gained from personal insights shared by the cross-section of the population who deal with it every day of their lives. 

In our time in the studio and on location, we’ve met individuals whose dyslexic experience transcends boundaries of cultural identity, financial status, ethnic heritage and community standing. With grace, honesty and a spirit of generosity, they have shared their innermost thoughts, sometimes haltingly, often with great relief, frequently with tears, hugs and a warm feeling of connection with others. 

The result? Conversations we need to hear, images we need to see, compassion we need to cultivate, and changes we need to make.  


David, who loves soccer, riding bikes and scooters, is feeling better about himself since his mom found an advocate to help him get appropriate instruction. “I know I can learn to read,” says the rising third-grader, “I just have to work really hard.” Photo by Monie deWit Photography.


“1 in 5: The Face of Dyslexia in Santa Barbara and Beyond” is on view at the Book Den in October, with Cheri Rae signing her new book, DyslexiaLand: A Field Guide for Parents of Children with Dyslexia, on October 4. To participate in this project, contact TheDyslexiaProject@gmail.com. This project made possible thanks to a grant from the Kirby-Jones Family Foundation.

Cheri Rae

This story was originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.


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