Discovering the 'gift' of dyslexia at 42

Ottawa architect Andrew Reeves was on vacation in the Caribbean a few years ago when he had a revelation about why he experiences the world differently than many people.

Andrew Reeves realized his learning disability gave him a different view of world

It wasn't until Andrew Reeves was 42 years old that he discovered he had dyslexia, a learning disability that affects a person's ability to read accurately and fluently. (Submitted by Andrew Reeves)

Andrew Reeves was on vacation in the Caribbean a few years ago when he had a revelation about why he experiences the world differently from many people.

The Ottawa architect and owner of Linebox Studio is sharing his experience about discovering he lives with dyslexia, a language-based learning disability that affects a person's ability to read accurately and fluently. 

Reeves, 45, gave a talk at TedxKanata and spoke to CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning host Hallie Cotnam about the condition he sees as a gift.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

What happened while you were on vacation?

We were playing a card game with a bunch of friends and family and I did my little tips and tricks and avoided some topics and some long sentences. But shortly after the game, another player approached me and said, 'Hey, my son also has dyslexia. I wonder if you could help him out. You've done well in life and I think he'd appreciate it.'

My inside voice was like 'lay off the rum, my friend, I don't have dyslexia. I don't see things backwards,' but my outside voice was like 'of course I'd help him.'

Then I started to research and it seemed very obvious that, yes indeed, at 42 I found out this is what I have. 

So when this guy used the word dyslexia, assuming that you knew you had it, you must have been stunned.

He did it in a very nice way. Obviously he was concerned for his son who was 13 at the time and struggling a bit in school. So he obviously reached out hoping that I'd help him and comfort him and maybe have a chat.

I ran off after that meeting and went to my hotel room and started to research. It started a kind of giant wave of my upbringing, school and testing and all those struggles that came with that. So it was quite the night.

What are some examples of things that started to make sense to you once you realized that you had dyslexia? 

I would say it was a bunch of different things. It's not better, it's not worse. It's a different way of seeing the world and it's very powerful. What I want to get across is it's more of it's a gift. It's not a struggle. It's not a disease. It's not a thing that prevents you from doing well in life.

You just have to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and the things that you have to work, frankly, twice as hard at as everybody else is to be average. You have to understand this is a part of your life and figure out a way to adapt and get around these things and do the best you can, but then back up and recognize the skills and the mindset that you have that others do not and exploit and take advantage of those things. 

That's your perspective as an adult. What was your experience as a kid? 

It was frustrating. Obviously, our school system, especially 30 years ago, was set up in a very traditional model. You get a grade and that translates to how smart you are and also your success, if you can make it to university. So it definitely was a confusing time when you felt half of you is extremely smart and brilliant at certain things that aren't being tested, while your peers are high-fiving and getting "good grades." 

As a child, it's definitely confusing, but it's also empowering, because the way I saw it is these other people had skill sets that I did not. So I almost admired them for what they had and how they saw the world, but also staying confident. I never really felt that I had something that prevented me from doing anything. It was more so being aware that I had a certain skill and so did other people.

Why did you say yes to talking publicly about your experiences at the TEDx Kanata talk? 

It's been an interesting journey. In my research, I didn't find a lot of content on the internet that talked about dyslexia in a storytelling type of way.

I hope that in doing so, that 13-year-old child can have a different mentor or a different story to listen to. That, I hope, helps open their eyes and give them more confidence.

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