Growing up, I was the apple of my mom’s eye. I had a spring in my step and not a care in the world. Then I went to school. In 1966, when I was six years old in first grade, at Hawley Elementary School in Newtown,Connecticut, I remember my teachers having a private meeting about me. “He can barely write his first name,” said Mrs. B. “I noticed he doesn’t know how to hold his pencil,” said Mrs. W. They didn’t know I was listening, or maybe they did and didn’t care. But I did hear them.
That was only the beginning of when I started to feel a little inadequate to my fellow classmates. On my report card, one teacher noted, “You’ll find Harvey an alert, cooperative, interesting, bright, happy child who contributes much orally to the class. He does exceptionally well on a one to one basis, but is completely lost in group instruction.” My mother knew I was smart, but most teachers did not see that, and my mother worried a lot.
My parents had me tested to find out what was wrong. In second grade, they found out I was dyslexic. Little was known back then about what to do with a dyslexic. Testing continued on me, year after year. Testing never ends when you are dyslexic. I learned to read outside of the school system through a series of one-on-one tutors. In 1977, I graduated fromNewtownHigh School. My class rank was 275 out of 325 students. Perhaps I should add that I just barely graduated. Of course, the teachers had passed me along to get rid of me, but I had few skills to survive in the real world.
During one of my attempts to go to college, it was confirmed that I was not college material. My English professor excused me from class permanently when he learned that correct spelling and grammar didn’t exist in my writing. My ideas were not judged, but my lack of structure in writing was. “Those skills should have been learned prior to entering college classes! You may be excused now, Mr. Hubbell,” he grumped.
Years later, it became apparent to me that I was born at the wrong time to get help with dyslexia in school. It wasn’t until 1975, a few years before I graduated from high school, that the first laws were passed to identify students with learning disabilities and to support their rights to education. It was too late for me. At sixteen years old I was already considered damaged goods. I felt that my teachers and others did not understand me. If I had been born later, maybe I would not have had to go through all of the pain and struggles that I experienced in school. Instead, I would close my eyes and daydream. I’d bury my face in my arms on the desk and invent movies.
Being a visual thinker, I gravitated toward the film industry. For years I worked on any TV show, feature film or commercial that would have me. Sometimes I worked for just food, shelter and even clothing. Eventually, through hard work and determination, I started telling my own stories through movies. It turned out that people liked them, and I got some awards. So I made more films and got more awards, some of which turned out to be Emmys.
In 2003, my crew and I decided it was time to make a film about dyslexia and show how things had changed since I was in grade school. We were anxious to get answers to all of the questions swirling through my head. What are educators doing today? How do students with dyslexia get treated in school now? Since nearly one in seven students has a form of dyslexia, teachers must have new ways of teaching, and the world must be a better place…right?
Our movie started in New York City interviewing people on the streets and asking the simple question, “What is dyslexia?” Quickly we learned that most people have no idea what it is. Some even thought it was a sexually transmitted disease; others thought it was a condition where people do not sleep. Public awareness on the subject was low. It didn’t take long to discover that the same apathy on the subject was the norm within multitudes of school systems. Although many are making changes to help dyslexics, too many aren’t doing anything at all. There are even school systems that are in legal battles with parents who want their dyslexic children educated. Instead of paying for teachers to learn new methods to teach dyslexics, schools are using their funds to oppose parents and advocate that they are doing “enough.”
Ever since I met Editor/Producer Eric Gardner I knew I wanted to work with him. Eric is one of the best filmmakers that I know. In his spare time, when he is not working on the TV show Survivor, I roped him into shooting and writing with me. Research on the topic started in depth with longtime writer, fellow dyslexic and Fulbright Scholar, Jeremy Brecker. We wanted to find the best of the best in the field of dyslexia, but would they talk to us? So we researched and interviewed experts in their field. My schtick was carrying around a plastic brain, telling them that I was dyslexic and that I had to make this film.
Eventually, either for their amusement or their sympathy, they gave me their support. Together, we built an advisory board. We talked to the people at the IDA (International Dyslexia Association), including their past and future presidents. We met with educators and brain scientists, both traditional and maverick (including one who used to be a monk), who were studying how students learn to read. We also found schools on the cutting edge that were operating specifically for dyslexic students, like the Foreman School and Kildonan Schools. Furthermore, we met moms and dads, advocates for their dyslexic children, challenging public school systems to do more.
We met with the brilliant people at the Haskins Laboratory at Yale University who are studying the science of the spoken and written word. Georgetown Imaging was on our “to do list,” as they are brain scanners, who of course had to check out my dyslexic brain and explain what they knew about dyslexia. We learned of important scholars in the field of dyslexia such as Dr. Gordon Sherman and the late Roger Saunders. The experts introduced us to Peter Wright, Wrights law Special Education advocate, who is teaching parents how to advocate for their children and get the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that they deserve. And sadly, we learned that not so much had changed since I was in high school.
It is my mission to raise awareness on the topic, and to help dyslexics to get the education they need by offering the movie as a tool for advocates who work to get laws changed. Why is it that some of the most brilliant people in history including Einstein, Thomas Edison, Beethoven, Leonardo Da Vinci, Charles Schwab, Walt Disney and Picasso are thought to be dyslexic? We recognize them for their brilliant ideas, and they were lucky; they somehow found a way to get their ideas out. Yet many of today’s dyslexics never make it to success. Right now in America, one in five adults are functionally illiterate. That’s 60 million people – equal to the entire population of California and Texas combined. Eighty-five percent of the prison population in our country reads below a sixth grade level.
Dyslexics may feel insecure about themselves because of poor reading or writing skills. How many Einsteins have we squashed? Within our rapidly changing times, it’s time for the world to recognize cerebral diversity and allow dyslexic people their rightful place in society, instead of ridiculing them for their weaknesses.
Harvey Hubbell V