Paula Nelson of Tampa, Florida, reads and spells words for a living. She is the special sections editor of the 20,000-circulation daily Hernando Today, which publishes this column. Nelson’s occupational choice is striking, particularly because she has a learning disability, dyslexia, which hampers her reading and spelling ability.
‘You can’t see the disability I wear,’ Nelson said in a telephone interview.
The International Dyslexia Association defines dyslexia as a ‘specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. It is characterized by difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding.’ And it affects more than ten percent of Americans.
‘My mother first noticed my dyslexia when I was writing in reverse,’ said 52-year-old Nelson of when she was four years old. ‘It affected my schooling greatly. Back then they didn’t have a name for it. My father spent a lot of time working (on spelling) with me.’
Her father and older sister also had dyslexia, and both overcame it. Her father was a U.S. Army major and liaison to the Royal Air Force, and her sister was accepted into the British education system because of her high intelligence.
While in England during her father’s military commitment, Nelson had a traumatic experience in private school. ‘I can remember sitting in a classroom in first grade, doing math, and the question was, What is three plus four?’ she said. ‘But I couldn’t get seven, and got every number but seven. I got cold sweats, and panicked, because none of my answers were right.’
Nelson herself later served in the Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. She had to be careful writing out words and numbers. To compensate, she used a proofreader and double-checked everything.
As for numbers, ‘Me and math just don’t get along,’ she said.
When transitioning into newspaper work, she began as a news clerk and climbed the ladder last year to special sections editor, responsible for weekly health and entertainment sections.
She said her dyslexia was no longer an issue with her. ‘It’s such a part of my make-up, it’s just me,’ she said. ‘I know that I have to have my work proofed. Proofing is built into the system, and is a requirement in the newspaper business.’ When interviewing for her present job, she had been honest and admitted her learning disability.