Award-winning USask professor shares personal journey with dyslexia
Dr. Jim Clifford (PhD), a history professor in the College of Arts and Science, struggled to read as a youth
By Shannon Boklaschuk
Dr. Jim Clifford (PhD) lives with severe dyslexia, but his learning disability hasn’t stopped him from excelling in a profession that’s focused on reading and writing.
Clifford, a history professor in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), struggled to read as an elementary school student growing up in British Columbia. He didn’t learn to write until he pursued his undergraduate degree in history, when word processors and programs with spellcheck helped make it possible.
Clifford went on to earn a bachelor’s degree at Bishop’s University, a master’s degree at Wilfrid Laurier University and a PhD at York University. He is now an award-winning USask faculty member and accomplished scholar in the field of digital history.
“If we actually support dyslexic kids, they can succeed in any field,” he said. “I am an example of that, because I work in a field where reading and writing is everything that I do.”
The International Dyslexia Association (IDA) defines dyslexia as “a neurological condition caused by a different wiring of the brain.” The condition can make reading more difficult, but with the right supports and instruction individuals with dyslexia can go on to do great things. The IDA cites Thomas Edison, Stephen Spielberg, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Schwab as examples of “dyslexia success stories,” noting that “individuals with dyslexia are neither more nor less intelligent than the general population.”
October is Dyslexia Awareness Month, and Clifford is collaborating with local parents of dyslexic children on an upcoming event. A steak night fundraiser, to be held on Oct. 16, will feature Clifford as the guest speaker.
Clifford said dyslexia can be difficult to identify and a lack of understanding of the condition can exist. He is grateful for the supports he had while growing up—including his parents and other family members, as well as the teachers who saw past his disability and encouraged him to attend university.
“I had two parents who were in the school system—a teacher and a principal—who would advocate and support me at home,” he said.
Children with dyslexia can benefit from private testing and tutoring, but not all parents have the financial resources to pay for it, he said. Clifford gets frustrated when he thinks about the children living with dyslexia “who don’t have the kind of luck at birth that I had.”
“There’s a tendency to sometimes miss that these kids are dyslexic and think instead that they’re lazy, that they’re just not putting in the effort or that they’re slow learners,” he said.
“That’s a very different category from being dyslexic, where these kids might be learning at grade level in a whole bunch of aspects but then really struggling with reading and, particularly, spelling. It’s really a spectrum disorder, so individuals have very different struggles. Some are fantastic at math and really struggle with spelling. Some are great artists; I couldn’t even draw between the lines in colouring class.
“That’s one of the challenges in why it takes more education for the teachers and more support and more expertise in the school system—because it’s not necessarily super easy to spot. The science has come so far from the ’80s when I was starting in the school system. We know it works—that there’s very good interventions that exist out there—but it takes a bit more of an investment. My sense is it pays off in multiple increments, because I wouldn’t have gone to university without the supports. I would have been on a very different career path.”
Clifford said there is a genetic link to dyslexia. His brother, who owns a software startup in Vancouver, also lives with the learning disability. His mother and grandfather are dyslexic as well.
“It’s hereditary,” said Clifford, who now has two young sons.
“Quite often parents figure out that they’re dyslexic when their kids get coded and they look back on the struggles they had in school. I was lucky that my mom’s brothers were in an early clinical research (program) in Montreal in the ’60s, so she learned about dyslexia and learning disabilities and, early on, she recognized that her father struggled with similar issues. So she was conscious of this, and she did some training as a teacher in special education in the late ’70s and early ’80s and was able to be a really strong advocate.”
Still, school was a “constant struggle” for Clifford. He completed high school assignments and exams by dictating and then having someone else write the words for him. However, some teachers believed accommodations for students with dyslexia weren’t fair and that they didn’t allow them to truly test Clifford’s abilities.
“Every year there’d be one teacher in high school that was difficult,” he said. “I had great counsellors that helped me steer around the most stubborn of the teachers. There’s a whole lot of people I can look back at who hindered me, but many more who kind of saw past the fact that I still couldn’t write or spell.”
Now, as a professor, Clifford talks to his students about dyslexia and tells them to expect some spelling errors in his PowerPoint slides. Because he finds it challenging to pronounce certain words, he sometimes asks his students for assistance.
Clifford said he doesn’t read phonetically, but rather learned to read by looking at “the shape of the word, more than the letters in the word.” That can make some of his work challenging; since he is an environmental and digital historian of 19th century London and the British World, reading some of the old handwriting, often written in rough cursive, can be a struggle.
Despite this, Clifford has written a book and is a respected scholar. In 2018 he was the recipient of the College of Arts and Science New Scholar/Artist Research Award, presented annually to a researcher who has made a significant impact in their field. His 2017 book, West Ham and the River Lea: A Social and Environmental History of London’s Industrialized Marshland, 1839-1914, was well-received for its use of historical geographic data to link environmental degeneration with the rise of social democracy in London.
Clifford was also part of the Trading Consequences project, an international collaboration that used software to pull relevant information from millions of pages of historical documents. Additionally, he has contributed to several initiatives aimed at making historical data accessible to the general public, and is a founding member of ActiveHistory.ca. Clifford’s honours include the international Rachel Carson Centre Fellowship.
Currently, Clifford is a co-investigator on a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Grant called “Commerce impérial et transformations environnementales: la formation des hectares fantômes dans la vallée laurentienne, 1763-1918.” From 2014 to 2016, he was the principal investigator of a SSHRC Insight Development Grant called “London’s Ghost Acres: 1850-1919.”
Clifford said dyslexia still presents him with challenges; for example, he struggles with taking meeting minutes and has received feedback from peers about the grammatical errors in his work. However, by the time he was studying for his master’s degree, he no longer needed accommodations to cope with his learning disability, he said.
“I still warned professors that my writing, for first drafts, would just look a bit sloppier than other students’. My writing, in my comprehensive exams, is going to be full of odd typos,” he said.
“But I didn’t need extra time; my writing was fast enough by that point. But I really did (need it during) those first few years of undergrad. I needed the accommodation—I needed the extra hour on the exam—just because it was still a slow process to write and a slow process to edit, to proofread, to try to make sure that it was at least comprehensible.”
Clifford said one the reasons he wants to speak publicly about dyslexia is to educate people about the need for student accommodations and to encourage other university students who may be facing similar challenges. He wants to see students pursue their goals and dreams, as he did, and he also wants parents of dyslexic children to see there’s “a light at the end of the tunnel.”
“If they keep fighting for their kids, they will hopefully overcome—or learn to cope—with some of these challenges.”