In Person: Natural Abilities

—Katharine Reece MFA ’12

Kelly stands in a dance pose

On every e-mail from Dwight Richardson Kelly ’14, the signature reads: “Disclaimer: This e-mail was written by a dyslexic. Any spelling errors, malapropisms, and grammatical mistakes are the result of a language-based learning disability and should not be attributed to any other cause.” It then invites people to ask him questions about dyslexia and offers a link to further resources.

There was a time when Kelly never would have imagined making such a public declaration about his disability.

The experience of letting go in a space beyond language represented another triumph.

Growing up, Kelly felt ashamed of his dyslexia, and fiercely hid it from other students, even though schoolwork took him three times as long as others. Weeknights were spent in the library; writing papers consumed the weekends. Before each paper was due, Kelly’s mother would read it out loud, so he could determine if the words he had written were what he had intended.

But Sarah Lawrence—where all students were expected to tailor their education to their own needs—transformed him. In one of his first courses, a psychology class with Elizabeth Johnston, he did two conference projects on dyslexia; the first was called “Strange Territory: Investigating Dyslexia in the Brain and the World.” The science was a revelation, and so was the methodology: Johnston allowed him to do an oral presentation instead of writing a paper.

Kelly also took a sculpture class that first semester, and went on to study theatre and film. When analyzing visual information, dyslexics often see the big picture faster and more clearly than non-dyslexics, and his talent in the arts was gratifying. He became a dance third his senior year. While dancing is not quite the same as the visual arts (coordination problems are often comorbid with dyslexia), the experience of letting go in a space beyond language represented another triumph.

Kelly put his newfound self-confidence to work by becoming an advocate for others (though he’s quick to point out that he is never speaking for all dyslexics). Along with Alex Vesey ’14, Kelly helped found Sarah Lawrence’s Disability Alliance. In the spring of 2012 they worked with the administration to install benches near shuttle stops on campus so that students with mobility issues would have a comfortable spot to wait.

“Dwight’s remarkable,” says Polly Waldman, associate dean of studies and disability services, who began working with Kelly his first year. “He was able to demonstrate his knowledge and vast creativity in a variety of ways here. I don’t think he sees dyslexia as a deficit anymore.”