University of Toronto

Innis Alumni & Friends

Graham Coulter

Class of 2017 (expected) – Innis

We asked Innis student, Graham Coulter, about his struggles with dyslexia and dysgraphia and why he calls his disability a “tremendous gift.”  He was recently awarded an award of excellence from Saskatoon Public Schools in his home city.  Read more about the award and see an interview with Graham. 

What are you studying at UofT?

I’m going to be majoring in history, with a focus on the history of democracy. I plan to minor in creative writing, mostly poetry.

When did you first discover this obstacle?

I have dyslexia and dysgraphia. In French kindergarten I didn’t speak a word of French the whole year, much less read or write in it. The reading and writing didn’t improve even when I switched to English. I couldn’t remember any of my “sight words.”

The benefit of spending my childhood as a virtual illiterate in a house full of readers was that someone would always be reading to me or talking to me about books or showing me quality films. One of my earliest memories is my mom reading me “The Flea” by John Donne and a whole host of great books. She even showed me Shakespeare in Love (covering my eyes for the sex scenes, of course), and later encouraged me to memorize many of his sonnets. So I suppose I learned to hear before I learned to read. Who wouldn’t love words after that? My sister read me the entire Lord of the Rings series the summer between grade two and three. From my first memories, there was this constant love for and struggle with words, to master what was so foreign and special. And yet when I tried to learn how to read, I ended up feeling frustrated and inadequate. When you can’t read on your own until halfway through grade 3, when it takes you half an hour to read a single page, you feel a lot of shame and self-loathing.

People don’t realize that dyslexia is more than being a bad speller or “writing in reverse.” When you have a disability that affects a primary pillar of education–reading and writing–school is painful from the beginning. As you get older, it not only affects almost every subject, but you grow up facing a stigma, knowing you’re different, and very often feeling stupid. The classroom reinforces this every day. Even if you are successful in the end, you’re almost guaranteed to suffer in a school system that’s determined to sort children into “smart” and “dumb” as quickly as possible. I was lucky. Frankly, I consider it a miracle that I learned to read at all, but I had support staff in my school who in the early years were quite dedicated, and a mother at home who wouldn’t quit until I could read on my own, and teachers who recognized that I was smart and capable. My life was saved by my fourth grade teacher, who knew that my standardized test scores didn’t really reflect my intelligence and ability. With support networks in place, I was able to get the top marks in each grade at my high school, and was awarded the National Scholarship to come to the University of Toronto.

Dyslexia is strange because, unlike many disabilities, it’s not visible, and you can often hide it. Recently I learned that my great-grandmother would memorize great swaths of text so that she wouldn’t be embarrassed reading in front of the class in the 1930s. She couldn’t read until grade six. I did the same thing, but I hadn’t realized this wasn’t normal. To this day, I am a verbal learner–I love lectures. I remember almost all of what is spoken or read to me and dictate most essays without seeing them on paper until the editing begins. The truth is, my obstacle has given me a lot of advantages. Dyslexia has forced me to have a great memory–I couldn’t function without it.

The struggle shapes you: either it pushes you out of a school system that was not built for you, or you’re forced to work twice as hard as everyone else just to prove that you are worthy, not stupid. I worked hard, I persevered, but I was lucky–if I hadn’t had the support system, if I hadn’t learned to love reading instead of hating the struggle, even if I hadn’t had the emotional support to deal with the anxieties of inadequacy, I would not be where I am today.

For me now, I am proud of my disability. I would never wish this on another student, and I have to tell you, I worry about the hereditary aspects of it. That’s one of the harsh realities you have to face as a dyslexic: your children are more likely to end up with this impediment. Still, it is also a blessing. It teaches you tremendous perseverance and hard work, and to compensate for your weaknesses and play to your strengths. Some of the greatest thinkers, innovators, artists and scientists have been dyslexic: Thomas Edison at six was sent home with a note that he was too stupid to learn (oddly reminiscent of my experience of grade one…). William Butler Yeats’s biographer said his spelling “…indeed, seems at times a matter of wildly errant guesswork”; like me, a very late reader, Yeats himself admitted that his family “thought that I had not all my faculties.” Dyslexia affects many creative and innovative people, everyone from investment entrepreneur Charles Schwab to John Lennon to F. Scott Fitzgerald.

What strategies and technologies helped you manage and succeed?

First of all and most importantly, the volunteer note takers in classes are essential for students like me. Just uploading your notes can make the biggest difference for many students. I don’t have note takers in all my classes, though, so my absolute favourite technology has been the Echo Smartpen, which records everything the prof says while I take notes with it in the front row.

It costs a lot to have dyslexia. Just getting the tests done to see if you have a learning disability costs thousands of dollars; you need this diagnosis to get any accommodations from universities. The technology is expensive too, and somewhat imperfect. Programs like Dragonspeak will type what you dictate, but it’s hard to get it to work well. I much prefer working with a scribe–it’s less frustrating for sure. There’s some reading software, but it’s pretty bad compared to a human reader; they’ll charge you a thousand dollars for a program that currently doesn’t work that well and speaks in a very inhuman, arrhythmic voice–it’s extremely hard to follow. For me, it’s been better to try and get friends or relatives to help me with the reading. To run any of these programs, you need to upgrade your computer, which raises the bill even more, and of course people will encourage you to buy the latest iPhone, iPad, etc., to improve your educational life. I manage without it.

How did you find the transition from high school to university?

I had to choose between a number of universities, and ended up picking the University of Toronto because it has some of the best professors in my area of study. Disability services at the U of T are much better than a lot of other universities in Canada and have been essential to my success here. Of course sometimes people don’t understand or would like to remove accommodations that have been granted. It’s definitely an added layer of stress at an already stressful school. Regardless, Toronto is a great city, and UofT is a great university. I had never really been to Toronto, and it’s very different from my prairie home in Saskatchewan.

As for the transition, it has always taken me about twice as long to do an assignment as my peers. Obviously, the quality of the work demanded at the University of Toronto is of a high caliber, and so I work even harder, as any undergrad will probably tell you. However, the work is tremendously engaging and has allowed me to grow so much as a person, scholar, and writer.

What extra-curricular contributions have you been making within the College and across campus? 

I’m a member of the Innis College Council; I do a lot with the Bursary Committee, which is really great. As someone who wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for scholarships, it’s encouraging to feel that you’re giving back and sharing that opportunity with other students. I do some volunteer work with the Vic One program, which I am currently enrolled in. Also, I am on the executive of the History Students Association, and I plan on continuing working with them. As well, I play funk and blues music with some people from the University of Toronto Music Clubs initiative.

What are your future aspirations?

I am really interested in writing, especially poetry. One of the reasons I came to the University of Toronto was to work with Professor Albert Moritz, who is a really phenomenal Canadian poet. Career wise, I’m interested in law, diplomacy, journalism, or a career in academia. I would also like to be a jazz musician, but we’ll see how that goes!

Lastly, what advice would you share with incoming students?

Never be afraid to ask for help, from your peers, your professors, your college, or the university, and demand help if you need it. I don’t want to sound like Polonius here, because obviously you want to work hard and enjoy your studies, but also take time to explore the city, to go to the art galleries in cellars under bars, hear bands play that you know and that you don’t know, experience the multitude of cuisines and cultural hubs that are everywhere in this city, to kiss someone under a streetlight–now that’s a well rounded education. So I guess my mantra is, live and work hard and try to be a good person.

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