“Am I cheating?” Why I felt ashamed to use dyslexia accommodations

By Natalie Tamburello, MPhil

Feeling “dumb” is an all-too-common experience for students with dyslexia like me. So much so that when we do get a good grade on something, we might feel like we don’t really deserve it.

That was the case with me. When I started doing well in school, after years of tutoring and support, I developed feelings of guilt and self-doubt. It seemed like success and learning differences were like oil and water… they didn’t mix.

As a child with dyslexia, I struggled just to read simple words and tackle basic math. I only did well through accommodations, like audiobooks or extra time on tests.

By middle school, I was learning to navigate school with increasing success. I was winning more battles against the long nights of homework. My war against tests was ending with more victories than defeats!

But to my surprise, this success came with shame and doubt instead of pride.

I have a distinct and painful memory of a research paper in middle school. I worked on it every single day over my winter break. I was so proud of this paper. When I got an A on it, I knew I’d earned it.

However, my teacher thought my work was “suspicious.” I think she couldn’t believe that I was capable of this caliber of writing, when in class my handwritten work was riddled with spelling errors.

So she asked my mother and me to explain how I’d managed to write the paper. I guess she wanted to determine whether the A was really mine to have.

We met with my teacher and explained that throughout the writing process, I was the one in the driver’s seat. I thought of the words, I wrote them, I “typed” them through dictation, and I edited them. I crafted and organized all my arguments.

Yes, I had help from my mother and tutor, and I used technology like dictation software, spellcheck, and audiobooks. But nothing was done for me. I honestly and authentically completed every part of the paper.

I was also able to fully show my intellect and understanding of the subject. But if I hadn’t been able to write using these supports, the paragraphs would have been disjointed. My thoughts wouldn’t have been as coherent on paper as they were in my head.

Feeling like a cheater

I already knew that I would never be able to write like other kids. But at least I’d found a way to do it that worked for me. I felt like I’d done something right, thoroughly and with pride.

So when my teacher questioned how I wrote the paper, it made me feel ashamed — like I was a cheater. I was crushed. Nothing my mother said could lift my spirits or erase my feelings of self-doubt and shame.

This wasn’t the last time I felt this way. Over the years, hurtful comments from peers contributed to this feeling:

“I don’t understand why you got a better grade than me — aren’t you dyslexic?”

“I wish I could get extra time on tests. Why do you get extra time when you already have good grades?”

When I heard comments like this, I questioned myself. Am I getting too much help? Am I cheating when I use all these accommodations?

In fact, ever since that first experience with the teacher, I was troubled by self-doubt every time I wrote a paper.

I’d think, Is this my work? Do I deserve to turn this in? Is this grade really a reflection of my abilities?

Over time, my writing process has become more streamlined, and I’ve needed less support. But still, any help I get triggers that little voice in my head.

This is a problem.

Less shame, more understanding

None of us who learn differently should feel ashamed of finding a way to succeed that works for us. Doing something in a different way is not cheating. It’s innovative and resourceful. And aren’t those the skills we’re supposed to be learning anyway?

Since entering the workforce, it seems that my writing process is more “normal” than what was expected in school. No one writes alone or without spellcheck in real life.

I don’t blame that teacher or other students. It isn’t their fault. Based on what I’ve seen, many people think there’s only one way to write. Until we appreciate and respect all kinds of minds, we’ll continue to make those who learn differently feel inadequate and question what they’re able to achieve.

If you have learning differences and you’re starting to do well in school with support, please understand that your success is yours to enjoy. It’s not your parents’. It’s not your tutor’s. The success doesn’t belong to your calculator, word processor, or computer.

Behind that army of support, it is you who won the battle. Celebrate that and don’t let anyone take it away from you.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Natalie Tamburello, MPhil is the program manager for the product team at Understood.