When Myra Kraemer looks at a page of printed text she sees chaos, and though her blue-tinted spectacles assuage the visual distortion caused by dyslexia, her reality is limited to a fragmented perception of the world.
"Just imagine a million ants with letters running around on their backs," said Kraemer. "Without my glasses, it's a blur."
To foster a local understanding of dyslexia and other learning disabilities, Kraemer, in cooperation with the Payson and Pine school districts, the Arizona Literacy and Learning Center, the Dyslexia Foundation and the National Dyslexia Research Foundation, will host an art event showcasing the creative talents of dyslexic children and adults May 11-21.
"There is a stigma because people think if you can't read and write you're illiterate. And if you're illiterate, you're stupid," said Kraemer, owner of Myra's Gallery in Pine. "And the shame. You can't even imagine the shame that goes along with it."
Fund-raising efforts for the art show, dubbed "Shining a Light in Pine," begin in earnest with a chili cook-off from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Feb. 11. Kraemer said she has raised $2,500, and needs another $6,500 to fully fund the art show.
Living with dyslexia
The International Dyslexia Foundation (IDF) reports that 15 to 20 percent of the American population struggles with a learning disability; 85 percent of those people have dyslexia.
Dyslexia is a neurological learning disability that impedes the development of language and comprehension skills, specifically reading, writing and spelling.
Expressions of dyslexia vary from person to person -- mild cases involve transposed words; severe afflictions prevent a person from ever learning to read.
Dyslexia has several manifestations, affecting different areas of proficiency.
Dysgraphia, defined by an inability to discern right and left, poor handwriting and difficulty copying numbers and letters, creates disorganization and confusion.
A person suffering from dyscalculia can't comprehend numbers, math concepts and counting.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, otherwise known as ADD or ADHD, causes a lack of concentration and compulsivity, while dyspraxia affects a person's ability to coordinate body movements and facial muscles to verbalize sounds.
Kraemer's dyslexia is severe. She can't read or perform math functions, and images appear fragmented.
"I can copy, but have no way of knowing what I'm copying," Kraemer said. "You can show me how to do a math problem, and I can do it a million times, but the next day, I'll forget."
To reduce perceptual distortions, Kraemer dons blue-lensed glasses called Irlen Color Filters.
A tint of help
Helen Irlen, an autism researcher, discovered by accident that colored plastic page protectors helped autistic patients concentrate and read. The tints reduce sensory overload by filtering out visual stimulus - patterns, light sensitivity and paper gloss.
Although Kraemer owns her own business and navigates a world dominated by letters and numbers, she'll never forget the frustration and pain of her childhood.
"In the second grade, we had a weekly spelling test of 20 words. I misspelled all 20 words," Kraemer said. "While slapping the tops of my hands with a ruler, (my teacher) would spell out the 20 words."
Magnifying other problems
Emotional problems often compound the learning deficiencies of dyslexics. Children and adults are more likely to languish in anxiety, depression, anger, self-harm and a negative self-image, according to the IDF.
"I feel really bad for kids who are in special ed," said Greta Cronin, Rim Country Middle School special education teacher. "They still feel like they're the dummies. The perception is they are stupid and lazy, but that's very rarely the case."
People with dyslexia and other learning disabilities tend to possess higher IQs and acutely developed artistic talents, reported the IDF.
Bernadette Heath, a local artist, is one of the few female photographers at Arizona Highways magazine. Throughout her primary school and college years, Heath lived in a chronic state of anxiety and fear - she couldn't read.
"Every day I was stressed out; my fingernails were chewed down to nothing," Heath said. "Nobody knew I couldn't read because I hid behind books. In 12th grade I was supposed to read a poem and I couldn't read it. The teacher slammed a book on the desk, and said, ‘You can't read, how did you make it to 12th grade?'"
Heath spent years perfecting educational decoys. She learned to copy and memorize word syntax, even though she couldn't read it.
As an adult, she picked up the basics of reading from remedial material.
"When my children started to learn to read, they taught me," Heath said. "I had to work so hard."
Accentuating the positive
Neurological research data, combined with the practical experience of Heath, Kraemer and Cronin, illustrate a dyslexic's strength: above-average creativity.
As the rational left side of the brain struggles to process words, numbers and linear concepts, the right hemisphere -- the artistic, intuitive part of our intelligence -- compensates for the brain's sequential weaknesses.
To celebrate the artistic accomplishments of the local and statewide learning-disabled community, the 10-day dyslexic art show in Pine is scheduled for May 11 to 21.
Kraemer expects 400 student entries and dozens more from adults. Children from the Rim Country, including Tonto Basin, are encouraged to enter.
The Payson Art League and volunteers from the local creative community will host guest speakers and a reception for all participating artists Saturday, May 13. Wednesday, Feb. 15 is the deadline for submissions.
The chili cook-off fund-raiser is from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 11 at the Pine-Strawberry school cafeteria. For more information or to make a food or monetary donation, contact Myra Kraemer at (928) 476-2256.