Dyslexia Awareness

I rise to speak today on the hidden learning disability of dyslexia.

This month I will be wearing a ribbon for the Dear Dyslexic Foundation to show my support for people with dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, which are three hidden learning disabilities which make reading and written communication incredibly hard for those who experience it.

The coalition went to the last election with a commitment to improve literacy across Australia. The Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, has announced strategies to ensure teachers know how to teach literacy, including ensuring phonics can be incorporated into teaching accreditation standards across the nation. Teachers need to be able to teach the five fundamentals of literacy: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, reading fluency and comprehension. I'm helping all of my children, but especially watching my eldest daughter, learn to read at the moment. She's progressing as expected, getting the words right most of the time and sounding them out when she doesn't know them. Her confidence is growing with each book that she reads. But it's a different story for a child with dyslexia. It is estimated that one in 10 Australians have some form of dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a phonologically based learning disability that results in difficulties processing the sounds of language. People with dyslexia cannot read with speed, fluency and comprehension in the way that others might. Other forms of this disability include dysgraphia, which impacts writing—getting the words from the mind to the page—and dyscalculia, which impacts the ability to process maths and numbers.

In school people with dyslexia are often, and quite unfairly, labelled as lazy or stupid because they can't read. But what they see on the page is a scrambled mess or jumpy words which make no sense. Often a good kid with dyslexia is ignored and passed up when it comes to grades. A kid who is frustrated or embarrassed then sometimes acts out and finds that they will receive attention for doing so, and in some circumstances ends up being disciplined, even expelled, for their trouble. This was the case with Melbourne artist Vincent Fantauzzo, who admitted in The Australian in March this year that he was the class clown because he was covering for his inability to read. No definitive study has been done of the entire prison population across Australia, but in the few studies that have been done, up to 40 per cent of inmates have been shown to have a learning or language disability.

Dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia form a spectrum of learning disabilities, which means there are degrees of impact on a person with dyslexia, and they might also have issues with numbers and writing. In the modern workplace, dyslexia remains a very serious disability. When I think of the quantity of reading I do for work in this role and in my previous jobs, I can't imagine how hard it is for a dyslexic to read multiple emails, digest them and respond appropriately, particularly in succession. 'So they'll just have to get a job where they use their hands,' is the response. Well, it's not always that simple. Even in positions where the work is physical, there are times when reading is necessary for training or safety purposes. And we all know that manual jobs are becoming harder to come by.

There's also the issue of harnessing the full intelligence, the full suite of gifts of every individual—people like Trevor Watts, the state member for Toowoomba North in Queensland's parliament. He ran a number of quite successful pubs in his city before he became an MP. I hope he wouldn't be embarrassed if I said before this chamber that he is a pretty darn smart bloke. He doesn't talk much about his dyslexia, so not very many of his parliamentary colleagues know—until now!—that when he's given a question in question time it can be really challenging to read it. When he speaks, it's usually off the cuff, which means he's actually an outstanding speaker with a really good memory. Professor Keith Houghton, an emeritus professor of the Australian National University and a current professor at the Swinburne Business School, is dyslexic. Professor Houghton has written five textbooks on business over the course of his career, yet he has read only one book in his entire adult life. He admits that he hasn't read his own PhD thesis. Yet Professor Houghton recalls a teacher at his primary school calling him 'just a dumb-dumb'. CEO and founder of Dear Dyslexic Foundation, Shae Wissell, who is in the gallery at the moment, is a speech pathologist. She has a master's in public health and an administration in health and she's currently a doctoral candidate researching the impacts of dyslexia—this hidden disability in the workplace. She too is dyslexic.

I have such admiration for Trevor, Keith and Shae because—at least in the case of Keith and Shae—they found ways to overcome their inability to read in order to become academics. Shae's career has taken her into the Public Service in Victoria and also the Commonwealth Public Service. Often job applications, including in the Public Service, include the option of ticking a box where it says, 'Do you have a disability?' but most people with dyslexia won't tick that box. They tend to know that when they do, and they find themselves vying for a position with a person who has no disability, most times they won't get the job—and, if they do, they can often find their bosses unsympathetic. That's the product of a lack of understanding. In Shae's case, one manager was so frustrated with her bad spelling—a common trait of people who have dyslexia—that she couldn't focus on the content of the report Shae had written. Bu now, in a relatively simple adaptation, Shae has an editor, which you can think of as the equivalent of an Auslan signer for a deaf person. Shae and Professor Houghton haven't been cured of their dyslexia—indeed, there's no known way to do so at this point in time—but they have found ways to achieve despite it.

Technology is such today that we can easily make allowances for dyslexic people to work in office environments. More and more content is being produced in video and audio form which allows us to listen and comprehend in order to take in information. There are back-end programs for websites which offer text-to-voice in more than 150 languages. This license option is so impressive it could well be used to help dyslexic people understand electronic documents and web pages, including government websites. Reader pens allow people with dyslexia to read the most complex of reports and use that information accordingly, and you'll find they're now used with regularity in schools, TAFE and universities.

I'm asking all of us here in parliament to show our support for the people of Australia who muddle their letters and their numbers, who find reading hard, and in doing so wear the red ribbon that's been delivered to each of your offices. Let's encourage our schools, our doctors and our governments to understand the challenges that are faced by dyslexic people. Let's fully appreciate their gifts. With a little more effort, we can wholly unleash the potential of the one in 10 Australians who are born with dyslexia. Remember, if life gives you melons, there's a good chance you're dyslexic!