As many of my readers know, one of my top five CliftonStrengths1 is "Learner.” I love meeting new people, reading new things, and taking on new challenges like this blog. But I was not always a great reader or public speaker. In grade school I had to go to a "reading specialist.” I didn’t really know what that meant and honestly neither did my parents. To me, it was a chance to go to a different classroom, meet new kids and read with a teacher. I didn’t mind or feel different, and it didn’t impact my confidence. It did, however, lead my parents to tell me, "just work harder and you will get it.” 

I also had a speech impediment. For that, I had to go to yet another classroom and work on tongue control, which was a pain. I hated that class, as it was just the teacher and me making silly sounds. My cousins used to bust my shoes relentlessly, but I didn't mind. Eventually I learned to pronounce my “sh” and “ch” sounds. I overcame my challenges and became a stronger reader and speaker. In fact, so much so, that all these years later it’s virtually impossible to get me to stop talking. Just ask my family and colleagues. Busting my shoes isn’t something anyone has outgrown. 

Working harder is not the same as working differently

In 2004, my wife gave birth to twin girls. Early in their grade school years, my wife noticed they were struggling to read, spell, and write. My reaction was to draw on my own experience from childhood. I said what my parents said to me "they are fine,” "they will grow out of it.” But she knew we had to get the girls tested. It turned out (like most times) that she was right. Both of our girls were diagnosed with dyslexia. I am embarrassed to admit I was not really sure what that meant, but my wife made it simple for me: The girls' brains are wired differently. It does not affect their IQ scores, but it means they "learn differently.”

OK, so how could we help them? To start, she coached me to stop saying “work harder.” Ouch! But true. The real answer was not to work harder, but to work smarter and differently. 

It turns out many people have dyslexia, and there are schools and learning methodologies designed to teach in ways that help them learn and grow. Luckily, there are a few schools in our area that work with students with learning differences, and we fell in love with one of them: AIM Academy. We enrolled our third-grade twins into the school and never looked back. 

Embracing differences inspires hope. Hope inspires greatness.

This year my girls will graduate from AIM. Both of them have accomplished so much and we could not be more proud of them. They have helped me appreciate differences in others. I’ve come to respect the power of how differences can propel us forward, not hold us back. They have caused me to think about and get involved with promoting neurodiversity in our talent management practices at SEI.2 They remind me of my own differences and how they have made me better, stronger, and more open to others—particularly others with differences. They have reminded me not to judge those that are different, but to embrace them. They have inspired me to reach for all my dreams and to advocate for myself, as well as my family, friends, and colleagues. 

Do we really have a talent shortage, or are we shorting ourselves with outdated standards to identify "talent.” 

Sharing inspiration

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of the world we all live in. There is so much negativity. I am a glass-half-full guy; I really do try to see the positive in each day. One of the easiest ways I practice positivity is to look at young people today and what drives them. This gives me so much hope—in fact, my kids are my greatest source of hope and inspiration. And I want to share some of that with you. 

Seeing all they have accomplished and the challenges they have overcome makes me think about our current talent shortages. Do we really have a talent shortage, or are we shorting ourselves with outdated standards to identify "talent.” Just think of the possibilities a mindset shift like this could achieve.

My daughter Anna is a writer. She has her own blog and she launched a school magazine, written and illustrated by a talented group of students, each one of them blessed to “learn differently.”

Recently, my other daughter, Ellie, captured her journey through an art project. The artwork and the artist note is below. 

Artwork: "Dear Dyslexia..."

Ellie Chiaradonna
23” x 20”
Water mixable oil paint and ink on illustration board 

Artwork showing an eye chart over a brain, spelling You do not need to be fixed

Artist's note

January 2022 

This piece portrays a brain set behind a seeing-eye chart with the sentence, “You do not need to be fixed” in 3-D letters. I was inspired to create this piece because I am nearing my final year at a school which has taught me how to love the learner I am. Growing up with Dyslexia, I often felt the urge to “fix” the way I learned, as it was often referred to as an imperfection or something to be ashamed of. To the naked eye, the brain of someone who does not have Dyslexia looks the same as one who has Dyslexia, yet they are organized in different ways, making them work differently. I chose the background of the brain because it is a universal symbol of knowledge and education. People with Dyslexia are just as intelligent and worthy of education as those without it. I used various shades of pink, purples and reds to achieve a 3-D effect. Dyslexia is commonly generalized as a learning difference that makes people mix letters when reading a word or sentence, which is why I chose to use a seeing-eye chart, filled with random letters, as a component to this piece. By creating this piece I hope to bring light to learning differences as a whole. They are not something to be ashamed of, rather they are something to take great pride in, as they force you to overcome challenges and learn more deeply about who you are, the way you learn, and how to advocate for yourself. This piece is dedicated to AIM Academy, a school that changed my life, and educational career, and to the teachers who have helped me shine brighter than I ever thought I could. 

-Ellie Chiaradonna 

 

1.    “Podcast: Leaning into your strengths,” SEI, seic.com. 
2.    “Podcast: Neurodiversity in the workplace,” SEI, seic.com
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Al Chiaradonna