When her second child Katrina was growing up, Deborah Hewes would often find little notes from her hidden under her pillow.
But they weren’t cute or funny or sweet. “They said ‘I want to kill myself,” Deborah, who moved to Singapore from Australia with her husband, Don, and their three young children in 2001, tells The Pride.
Katrina’s Grade 3 (equivalent to Primary 3) teacher in school, while aware that she was struggling with dyslexia, wasn’t equipped to properly handle students with learning difficulties and would often belittle her in front of the class.
But instead of getting up in arms, Deborah rolled up her sleeves instead: She quit her job, focused on her children, and even became a parent volunteer at her children’s school.
That’s because, aside from a mother’s love, she also has a first-hand experience of how it is to grow up misunderstood and ostracised.
She has dyslexia too.
Growing up with dyslexia
Like many who suffer from the neurobiological learning disability that affects reading, writing and spelling, Deborah hated school when she was growing up in the 70s.
“I would develop a ‘sore knee’ to avoid going to school, or have stress-induced migraines,” she recalls of her childhood spent in Sydney, Australia.
Deep down, she knew she was different although she didn’t know why until much later. All she knew was that school seemed easy for everyone else, but her teachers would label her slow or lazy.
Because she struggled with reading, Deborah hated reading aloud in class, and having to deal with the mocking laughter from her classmates, and even her teachers.
To avoid these embarrassing moments, she would often count ahead while her classmates were reading theirs to prepare the paragraph she was assigned to read. Despite her efforts, she was sent for remedial reading class, which left her with a great sense of shame.
When she moved to another school when she was 12, she was confronted by another problem.
“The girls didn’t like me. I was ostracised and bullied, and humiliated by the bullies for my poor spelling and reading.”
She escaped her bullies when her teachers sent her to the kindergarten to read to the younger children. Even though they knew the ‘big sister’ who was reading to them was making mistakes, her younger audience didn’t care because of Deborah’s strength as a natural storyteller.
Without any intervention, Deborah developed compensatory skills on her own. She devised ways to remember how to read, for example, by reminding herself that words like ‘knife’, ‘doubt’, ‘pneumonia’ had silent consonants.
Her efforts paid off and she ended up in a better class than her detractors.
“It made me very resilient and confident in my abilities, because I could ignore the bullies.”
No degree, no matter
With great effort, Deborah managed to enrol at the University of New South Wales, to study Political Science, Economic History, Psychology and Sociology.
“I loved those subjects. I loved the lectures! But, when I went for the tutorials, I felt like a baby. I couldn’t contribute because I couldn’t cope with the readings.”
So after her first year, Deborah left university to work as an administrator in a life insurance company.
There, despite no formal training or degree, her life took off.
Over the next 16 years in the same company, she rose to become a business analyst, then went to the IT department, where mentors taught her about databases, coding and how data was stored and manipulated.
Deborah became a leading expert for business processes in the insurance and banking industry and was put in charge of developing business systems to increase productivity.
Eventually, she became the company’s Technology Manager, leading the charge for it to go paperless in the heady fledgeling days of the Internet during the 1990s.
It was a stellar achievement for a dyslexic woman without a degree, working in the male-dominated field of IT.
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Then in 1998, Katrina was diagnosed with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Not wanting to resort to drugs to treat her, Deborah decided to put her career on hold and become a stay-at-home mum to care for her.
To know more about dyslexia, Deborah attended a training course on supporting learners with reading difficulties.
She says: “It was then that I realised that I might be dyslexic too. But it wasn’t important for me to have it recognised. It was more important that I understood the problems Katrina was facing at school because she was having a similar experience to mine.”
Little did she know, all three of her children would soon be diagnosed with various learning difficulties, with all of them having dyslexia.
As dyslexia is a genetic condition, it can be hereditary (passed from parent to child).
Being a Dyslexia Warrior Mum
In 2001, the family moved to Singapore when husband Don took up a job here. Deborah, a stay-at-home mum, became a parent volunteer at her children’s school.
She provided support to those with learning disabilities. It helped her understand both parent and teacher perspectives, and pushed for good parent-teacher partnerships to support her children’s learning.
“It’s always been my job to help teachers understand the child’s learning difficulties,” Deborah tells The Pride. “If teachers put in the extra time and nurture these kids, they will thrive.”
As a parent of children with learning difficulties, she would often receive phone calls from exasperated teachers. This was especially the case for Sean, her youngest child, who had been diagnosed with dyslexia, dyspraxia (a condition affecting motor skills and coordination) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
“I would say to the teachers, ‘I fully understand the frustration, I feel the same at home. What can we do to make it better?’”
Sadly, there were some teachers who didn’t want to understand or extend compassion to her children.
“All my kids have had to forgive adults and learn to let go. Some teachers just don’t know any better,” Deborah says.
A different view of success
Deborah weathered these painful moments by recognising her children’s strengths in a world where standard tests and certification is the norm – and where traditional definitions of success followed a narrow path.
When Katrina showed that she was passionate about acting, Deborah and her husband sent her to study drama for her undergraduate degree. When tired of the “knockbacks and negativity”, Katrina decided not to pursue the showbiz industry, so she obtained a Master of Arts in Special Educational Needs, qualifying her to teach children with learning disabilities.
Katrina tells The Pride: “When I was a child, my mother always encouraged me to fill my ‘bucket’ with things that I was good at. That’s why she pushed me towards doing drama. It raised my confidence. It didn’t matter what was happening in other areas of my life, because I knew that when I stepped into the drama classroom as a student and now as a teacher, I would be successful at it.”
Katrina, 31, now a primary school teacher in New South Wales, was awarded the NSW Education Directors Award for Significant Achievement in 2019. Her specialities are in writing and drama, and she is in charge of the school’s drama club.
As for Sean, the family’s youngest, Deborah and her husband helped him chart a career path, according to his interest in Design & Technology (DT).
Despite challenges in school, he managed to get through the International Baccalaureate programme with the help of his teachers, and flourished in university.
Sean, now 27, got a permanent DT teaching position last year at a prestigious private school in Sydney.
He tells The Pride: “Being in Design and Technology allows me to play to my strengths – my practical skills and design skill are strong, and I can grasp different technology and programmes very quickly.
“However, I still have larger challenges in my work. Grading papers is a massive challenge for me, I take twice as long to mark the same amount of work as my colleagues which means I must stay late or use more of my weekend to accomplish this,” explains Sean.
Deborah’s eldest, Rachael, 33, is twice exceptional. With a high IQ but slow reading speed and comprehension, she has a degree in English and Philosophy, as well as a law degree from the Australian National University.
Since 2012, she has been working in Tanzania, at the School of St Jude, which provides free, high-quality education to disadvantaged students. She is the Manager for Donor & Sponsor Relations, leading all communications to the school’s large international supporter base, and is also a member of the school’s board.
Serving the dyslexic community in Singapore
As Rachael, Katrina and Sean became more independent, Deborah took the chance to go back to school.
In 2011, she graduated with an honours degree in Psychology from Singapore University of Social Sciences.
She remembers that being one of the oldest students in the class gave her the freedom to speak up. “I didn’t care so much what people thought of me,” she laughs.
But that outspokenness (and a little bit of serendipity) brought her to the next stage in her career.
Deborah’s children’s personal tutor introduced her to her husband, Robin Moseley, the then-CEO of Dyslexia Association of Singapore (DAS), who offered her a job after she graduated.
With 10 years under her belt at DAS, Deborah is now the Assistant Director of Publicity and Publications, and has even picked up a post-graduate degree in Special Education Needs – Her research dissertation was on “Singaporean Entrepreneurs and Dyslexia”.
“Working for a non-profit has been profitable for my heart. It gives me a voice and allows me to do big, meaningful stuff,” Deborah tells The Pride.
One of DAS’s ongoing campaigns, Embracing Dyslexia, is about debunking common misconceptions about dyslexia, encouraging dyslexic people to embrace their learning differences and to call organisations to take greater action in helping dyslexics by working with DAS.
Promoting the Embracing Dyslexia campaign forms a big part of Deborah’s work.
“Embracing dyslexia means not just embracing your strengths but also embracing the challenges that come with dyslexia. Part of that process is talking to children about it, and making them feel important.
“I know what it’s like to feel lousy at school and to hate going to school…But struggling and failing can be a teachable moment. The negative things need to be empowering to the children.”
She wants to tell parents of children who have just been diagnosed with dyslexia:
“Education is a long journey; some years will be good and some years will be bad. But always have confidence that your children will be successful. I know this as a mother of three dyslexic children. There will be struggles, but have a positive outlook. Pick your battles!”