Fanelo Arens on dyslexia

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Fanelo as a candidate attorney, taking a well-deserved coffee break
Fanelo and Chaeli Mycroft during
World Summit for Nobel Peace Laureates in Mexico

The Relentless Pursuit to Adapt and Excel

by Kirsten Steenkamp

October 2020

When we are young, we spend a lot of time playing with, and comparing ourselves to other kids. Much of our psycho-social learning occurs at school, an education that extends deep beyond our curriculum. Along with our classmates – and before we are able to read – we are taught how to spell the alphabet, identify shapes and write our names. But, what happens when these seemingly simple processing tasks become the major challenge to learning. For Fanelo Arens and the staggering 10% of South Africans (approximately 5 million people) who are dyslexic – this is a reality.

During International Invisible Disabilities Week – celebrated from 18-24 October 2020 – let’s take a walk in the steps of Fanelo Arens. This Story of Hope aims to shine a light on a disorder that is globally underreported, unseen and largely unaddressed: dyslexia.

When Fanelo Arens wrote his name for the first time, he carefully repeated the procedure that his teacher used to spell out and structure his letters. However, his final writing was not backwards, but rather every letter was inverted. To his surprise, his teacher was not satisfied and Fanelo was immediately flagged for further evaluation. Upon commencing remedial in Grade 2, Fanelo soon began to realise that there might be a more concerning reason warranting his ‘special play time’ than was initially explained to him. In the months that followed, Fanelo would witness the increasing frustration of his remedial therapist – internalising, as a young child, these sentiments as “I am dumb” and “I am lazy”.

As a child grappling with abstract shapes and the strict form of alphabet letters, Fanelo recalls feeling like it was unnecessary to worry about whether his p’s and q’s were perfectly written. In his mind he knew what the sounds were, but felt that there were more important things to learn or worry about. In hindsight, Fanelo jokes that he has never been in a life or death situation where he has been expected to know what a square was. Comparing it to incorrect spelling, he said that his work would seem correct until shown otherwise. It would appear that no matter which way Fanelo attempted to achieve educational outcomes, he was going to disappoint his teacher. At the end of the year, Fanelo was given an extensive reading test to ascertain the extent to which he was memorising and bypassing his reading difficulties. Failing to meet the required standard, Fanelo failed. He was 7 years old.

Moving to Cape Town just before Grade 3 and entering a new school system, Fanelo was referred and officially diagnosed with dyslexia. Although there were expectations that Fanelo’s teachers would assist him to process his work, these outcomes did not materialise as promised. Nevertheless, Fanelo adequately and quickly completed his school tasks and was often afforded play time at the back of the classroom with other fast-finishers.

Luckily, difficulty processing the writing did not impact Fanelo’s comprehension of the material. Fanelo obtained superior academic results, despite being insufficiently assisted during class time. He was able to cope predominantly by memorising the visual form of the most commonly used words at each level. He would also memorise assigned reading and even large texts before presentations, reading them repeatedly until fluency became more natural.

In spite of his satisfactory marks, Fanelo still struggled and remained largely unable to effectively decipher words fast enough. As time went on and with the increasingly more challenging material, the coping strategies that had previously allowed Fanelo to master reading tasks became insufficient to protect against. Moreover, Fanelo’s growing insecurity around reading induced anxiety, stuttering and an overall impaired ability to perform in public. By Grade 4, Fanelo and his parents sought professional guidance who advised his teachers to test his true reading capabilities in a private setting.

With professional support, Fanelo was able to adapt to a mainstream school system that commonly fails to mitigate the impact of learning barriers on academic achievement. The expert recommendation that revolutionised Fanelo’s literacy was working through the “Toe by Toe” word-building workbook: an assignment which he says took him 2 years.

Fanelo spent this time – and many years thereafter – coming to understand how his processing of words, shapes and language differs from his classmates. After each school week, Fanelo would spend his weekends learning new strategies to reconcile his processing gaps. Working closely with his mother from Grade 4, he was tasked weekly to summarise a Sunday Times article.

Fanelo advocates that any person experiencing challenges should be supported, and their needs addressed, especially children at such a crucial developmental level. Family support is equally, if not more, important in overcoming challenges like Fanelo’s. His family was determined to support Fanelo to achieve his goals and started taking control of his academic challenges and transcending the limitations of his school to effectively manage his unique needs.

Severe phonic dyslexia impaired Fanelo’s learning extensively; and at one point in our conversation, Fanelo recalled his school’s view that he would not complete high school. Fanelo interjected that teachers should advise students, but not dictate what is possible. Nonetheless, Fanelo’s mother
taught him from early on that “no hard work goes unrewarded”. Guided by his mother – someone who remains his strongest cheerleader to this day – Fanelo was encouraged to achieve whatever he set his mind to.

Before Fanelo went to high school, a remedial teacher advised that Fanelo attend a smaller, special needs school to ensure academic guidance. However, mentioning that a mainstream school, like Reddam, is out of his league, Fanelo became more determined than before. Fighting against the expectations of others with his mother’s belief that “disability is not an inability”, Fanelo set a new goal: attending Reddam High School.

One thing is certain, Fanelo believes in himself; and for good reason. Through Fanelo’s strong will and the support of his family, he applied to attend Reddam Constantia. And, as if this may not have been a sufficient challenge, he pursued an academic scholarship – and was awarded a 75% for his entire high school career!

Throughout his high school years, Fanelo worked creatively and steadily to successfully pass matric. However, contemplating his ultimate passion to become a lawyer, Fanelo had to take his academic potential into his own hands. It was then decided that it might be best to get a headstart. To boost confidence in his ability to manage high volumes of legal reading material, Fanelo committed towards fully preparing himself and undertook a Bachelor’s Degree in Philosophy and Media, strategically majoring in Editing and Writing.

Throughout the years studying his first degree, Fanelo worked hard to achieve superior academic outcomes. Utilising computer software to read his notes and texts aloud, Fanelo could remain focused on understanding and memorising only the most important details. Allowing him to bypass major reading components in preparation for tests, Fanelo adapted well. In addition to spending many hours practising past papers, he also mastered the art of speaking. Becoming competent in relaying concepts and processes very articulately, Fanelo was often chosen to present his groups’ ideas. This became a different challenge to navigate.

Confidently comprehending and debating subjects with ease in small groups did not translate well into public presentations; he was still uncomfortable reading in public. This may have been confusing for those who don’t know his background. Fanelo always took presentation nominations as a compliment, graciously acknowledging that it meant others felt that he was capable. However, after some group presentations, Fanelo now says “there are just some things I won’t do”.

After Fanelo completed and graduated his BA qualification, he was ready to take on his subject of passion and purpose. Fanelo enrolled into his second Bachelor’s Degree. This time… law.

During his earlier university years, Fanelo officially met Chaeli Mycroft at Ikhaya Day House on UCT campus and they became friends. When Chaeli crossed over into studying Masters in Human Rights Law, Chaeli and Fanelo found themselves connecting more having comparable challenges in their new faculty. Chaeli says their friendship grew gently, commenting that Fanelo just “filled that space”.

Over years of friendship and exploring shared values, Chaeli and Fanelo came to learn that they had more in common than initially appeared. Through honest conversations and reflections around the discomfort and frustrations of disability, Fanelo became more accepting and comfortable disclosing his dyslexia. Chaeli encouraged Fanelo to be more assertive about his learning challenges and acceptable accommodations that could critically enhance his learning environment.

Many years later, Fanelo now states confidently, “I am dyslexic, that’s who I am”. Fanelo says that others telling him that he isn’t capable has been his reminder that society’s reaction is often more disabling than the disability or impairment itself. He is now a champion for the message that it’s important to know and own your truth.

What often remains unspoken in public conversation around having a disability are the enhanced skills that come from having to make complementary adaptations to various challenges faced. Fanelo has learned many skills and has been able to apply these insights into other areas of his life.

Spending time with Fanelo, it is clear that he is an intuitive and attentive listener. Exploring more of Fanelo’s lecture experience at UCT, he mentions that the art of listening was integral to his understanding and learning process. Carefully observing the intonation, micro-expressions and intention of his lecturers, Fanelo became adept at perceiving which information was most important.

Further contemplating Fanelo’s enhanced communication skills, Chaeli recalls one year when she went for major surgery. Remembering a conversation in which she disclosed to Fanelo that she disliked hospital food and would prefer, instead, to eat peanut butter sandwiches, Chaeli couldn’t believe her surprise days after her surgery when Fanelo came to visit. He had brought her a peanut butter sandwich! Chaeli reminisces on their travels and adventures over the years, observing that her friendship with Fanelo has been a constant.

Over time, Fanelo would come to learn more about Chaeli’s activism and specifically, the national social entrepreneurship programme run by facilitators at The Chaeli Campaign. One day, after discussing how Fanelo wanted to become more actively involved in community development, it was suggested that Chaeli and Fanelo co-facilitate a Pay-It-Forward Ambassador Programme. After co-facilitating a chapter together and being inspired to promote youth empowerment in his area, Fanelo embraced the opportunity to start and facilitate his own ambassador group in the Fish Hoek area.

Fanelo became very active working for The Chaeli Campaign and connected deeply to the idea that everyday citizens are activists and social changemakers in their own right. Talking one day with Chaeli, it was suggested that Fanelo join their youth delegation to Mexico, representing the organisation at the 17th World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. With this lifechanging opportunity to meaningfully connect with global changemakers, Fanelo was met with a moment on the trip that brought him face-to-face with his fears.

Days of brainstorming ideas and commitments to create a more peaceful, inclusive world, culminated in a presentation of the collective youth voice at the Summit’s closing ceremony. 7 young people were elected to share the final Youth Declaration and Fanelo was nominated as one of these representatives. He was put on the spot and rose to the occasion: scared, but impassioned. Fanelo read his section of the declaration – one and a half pages – in front of the audience of hundreds, as well as live streamed and televised from Mexico. It was a memorable feat which will remain a milestone in Fanelo’s life. Representing his group, as well as South Africa, Fanelo returned home with his delegate team – with renewed self-confidence and hunger for change.

Fanelo sits across from me as we come to speak about his undertaking to become a lawyer. After a total of 8 years of gruelling studies, Fanelo persevered through tough competition to get an interview at one of the top law firms in the country. During the interview, Fanelo made it known that he was dyslexic and engaged in an honest conversation with his future employers about the role this learning barrier plays in his life. Fanelo advocates that it’s important to know how willing new relationships are to reasonably accommodate his challenges; and if they are not, then he can clarify how best to support himself. Presenting his ‘problem’ is more about stating the facts around his reading limitations, working together on solutions and mitigating negative consequences in the future.

Upon questioning whether being upfront could’ve jeopardised his employment, Fanelo humbly tells me, “my transcript speaks for my level of hard work”. Fanelo elaborates by saying that his work shows his determination to learn, develop and succeed. And even if he struggles, Fanelo asserts that this shows he is trying! Almost a year into his legal articles as a candidate attorney at Bisset Boehmke McBlain in Cape Town, Fanelo is proud of how far he has come and what he has achieved so far. Today, law sits at the forefront of his advocacy, along with his current position as an active board member at The Chaeli Campaign.

Negotiating discrimination against people with disabilities – in the workplace and in society – remains an ever-present challenge. Accepting that dyslexia will forever be a part of his life, Fanelo is steadfast in his belief that kids should always be encouraged to reach the heights of their potential. The bounds of what is possible is beyond imaginable if disability is celebrated, rather than condemned. Fanelo’s story is one such example.

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Fanelo Arens on dyslexia
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