My Disabilities, My Archaeology

Posted on August 13, 2014


vox hiberionacum made a comment on my last post about dyslexia and archaeology that I think is interesting:

‘I wonder if there is some underlying cognitive issue at play. Always thought that the skills involved in dealing with such a condition make one particularly suited to seeing/finding patterns in material culture.’

Very similar to the idea that a disproportionate number of successful people are left-handed because they have had to overcome more adversity being left-handed. Assuming adversity makes you a more successful person. While this will not be scientific, I can answer this question from my experiences as I am one of those 1 in 10 archaeology students that has a disability. I am also one of those 1 in 50 professional archaeologists that has a disability. Though, I am in ‘that group‘ of archaeologists who does not considered my problems as disabilities.

(This is part of a series of posts on Disabilities and Archaeology- see rates of disability in professional archaeology, why is dyslexia so high in archaeology, disclosing to your employer )

Damn Doug! How Drunk Are You?

When I was 13 I had a tumor removed from my throat and in the process they had to cut nerves going to my tongue. Completely ruined my speech. There is nothing like learning how to speak again at the age of 13 and 14. Over the years it has gotten better. I no longer look like I got in a knife fight and got stabbed in the throat. My speech has improved greatly, very little slurring. However, there have been some very long term problems that have yet to go away. I can’t stick my tongue out of my mouth more than a centimeter, a minor annoyance. A bigger issue is that when I get tired my slurred speech comes back. I have had people say to me, ‘Damn Doug! How drunk are you?’ when I was completely sober. More serious is that sometimes I can’t pronounce certain words. I attempt to say something and end up with a bit of stutter, a stutter that I can’t finish. The word will be lost to me. Usually, I find a different word or wait till someone else says the word so I can mimic it. All inconvenient but relatively minor problems, except that it can be compounded by my other struggles.

 The Big D

When did you learn to spell the word ‘their’? 5? 6 years old? I learned two years ago. Not sure how I did it but one day. two years ago. I could suddenly spell ‘their’. Before that I could not tell you the difference between ‘their’ or ‘thier’. Both looked absolutely right to me because I have dyslexia. Which is a catch all terms for many different problems, including problems with math. In my case it means I can’t spell to save my life.

Edit- I realise from the comments that not everyone might know of understand what dyslexia is. It comes on a spectrum and is a catch all term for lots of problems. My problem is spelling. The classic writing letter backwards is actually a very very tiny minority of dyslexics. Most of us have a wide range of different reading, writing, and math problems.

You Retarded (Boston Accent, The Departed)

I could not read till the third grade. For those of you not in the American school system that is age 8/9. Most of you will not be aware of this but if you can’t read in the first grade (ages 6/7) then you are classified as retarded, what we now call ‘special needs’.

My Mom was a reading teacher. She has a Masters in Reading and tried everything she could think of to get me to read between my 1st and 3rd grades. She would teach me to read words one day but the very next day I couldn’t read them. In desperation she finally read a book, Unicorns Are Real, A Right Brained Approach to Learning. One of the suggestions was to cover words with colored pieces of paper. I don’t know why this worked but my mom would cover a word with a red piece of paper and then I could read it. My mom said this of the whole experience, ‘Incidentally, I never succeeded with this technique with anyone else. I don’t know why. I’m just grateful it worked once & that it worked with you.’ She has taught hundreds of kids which makes my problem a bit rare.

The weird part about this all is that I don’t read like most everyone else- I don’t pronounce or really read most names. I turn words into symbols. Better than trying to explain it I will show you an example-

The sentences you probably see- Jane is from Bournemouth. Jane lives in London.

How I read it-    $1 is from $2.        $1 lives in $3.

I don’t readout many words. In my mind they become symbols representing stuff. In this example I have used numbers and $ but in my mind words look more like Chinese characters. Many words I read as a single character,  not multiple letters making up a word. The problem with this is that I don’t actually pronounce out many of the words I read, they simply become an abstract thought. This means I have trouble speaking them because I never sound them out in my head. Combine that with my tongue problems and I have a hell of a time with speaking. Add in dyslexia and some activities, like reading aloud to someone else, is like getting my knees capped. Some words I can’t pronounce physically. Some words I have never pronounced in my life which does not help my physical problems and because of dyslexia I can’t recognize what the word actually is meant to be.

Disability or Gift? Gifability? Disabift?: has it helped or hurt me in Archaeology or life

So those are my problems. Have they helped or hurt me in Archaeology?


When you have issues that others don’t you quickly learn ways to mitigate them, ‘life hack’s as they were. In the field when I am filling in a context form and I hit that moment of dread- shit! how do I spell siol? soil? I have developed the technique of bad handwriting. I will purposely blur some of the letters together. Just enough so whoever is reading it can figure out what I meant but not realize I misspelled it. It is amazing how the human mind will fill in the blanks or missing parts of words.

For my stuttering speech I play it off as being ‘tongue-tied’. ‘Ah man, long day and now I am tongue tied but you know what I meant.’ For my slurred speech I stop talking. Pretty simple response. It is pretty easy to hide my speech problems.

Word processing software has been a godsend for my spelling but not my grammar. When I started high-school I was using a typewriter. Luckily my parents got a computer after my first semester because it would take me hours to type out a paragraph without too many spelling mistakes. Now there is a little red squiggly line to let me know I have miss-spelled something. Unfortunately, I can’t recognize the difference between the wrong words in a sentence so my grammar is pretty crap, as any reader of this blog will know.

Overall, I can’t see how any of these tricks have helped me be a better Archaeologists or person. If anything I semi-screw over the person who has to read my context sheets, though lots of people have bad handwriting so I am not the worst. I have had many other non-archaeology related jobs and have not found any advantages from these life-hacks.

There are silver linings to these problems.

Advantage 1

I can read incredibly fast not having to spend the time pronouncing out words in my mind and I have incredibly high reading comprehension. My wife hates it when we try to read the same thing because I will finish well before her, and she is a fast reader. She usually asks if I actually read the thing. For researching and learning the ability to read fast and understand everything is amazing. When I was tested in high school I was in the 99th percentile for reading comprehension, which puts me in a fairly elite group of readers.

Advantage 2

I have great pattern recognition and reasoning skills. When things are saved in my memory they go in attached to other facts. For example, you might read a paragraph on Charlemagne in come away with these facts:

Charlemagne is a Frank

Charlemagne lived in France

Charlemagne was alive in the 800s.

For me it is more jumbled- Frank = 800s = Charlemagne =France . This is not a good representation, at all, of what it is like in my mind. It is more a spider web of ideas and thoughts with them all connected to each other. But this web allows me to make connections. For example, I could get a question on a test that asked were the Franks lived and not know the answer. But, because in my mind I have connected Franks to France via Charlemagne I could reasonably guess the correct answer of France. Throughout high-school and University I estimate that I did not actually know between 10-50% of the answers I got right on a test, depending on the test. I did not guess or know the facts but reasoned my way though a good portion of my schooling.

Though there are some drawbacks to this way of thinking. If I read names as symbols, like I usually do than I don’t really retain the name. So I usually have to describe to people facts so they can tell me the name e.g. he lived in France, was a Frank, lived in 800, was an empire, come on you know who I am talking about.

Advantage 3

If I can’t spell/recognize difference in words than how can I read if I don’t know the words? I have picked up the ability to determine context very quickly. I can actually fill in the blanks or more precisely I can anticipate the direction that the writing is going by picking out the themes and concepts. It’s what allows my to have very high reading comprehension. I actually read themes and ideas, not words when I read.

Like an Old School Fairy Tale Curse

Having slurred and stuttered speech, dyslexia, and trouble reading has not helped me. However, my problems with dyslexia and reading (might be connected) has caused me to think in ways that most other people don’t. Read in ways that others don’t. Those skills I think have helped me immensely even if they come with a curse. In answer to Vox, for me at least, it is not the experiences but how my brain works that makes me a better Archaeologists.

I should say I have talked to others about ways they think and read and no one has had the same experience as me. Though if you have experienced what I described please do drop me a line I would love to know if there are others out there.

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