By Keysha Drexel
Dr. Billy Cornay of Mountain Brook said he never understood why reading notes while giving a lecture to other physicians always made him, literally, sick to his stomach.
It wasn’t until his son Will, now a senior at Spring Valley School, was diagnosed with dyslexia that Billy began to suspect that he, too, was dyslexic.
“I would try to read from notes during a lecture and break out into a cold sweat,” Billy said. “I would have to run to the bathroom right afterwards because it would make me so sick.”
The International Dyslexia Association estimates that one in 10 people have symptoms of dyslexia, a language-based learning disability.
Billy is an ear, nose and throat doctor at Brookwood Medical Center and has been on Spring Valley School’s board of directors for about nine years. He said he wants to raise awareness about dyslexia and its related conditions not just during National Dyslexia Month in October but all year round.
“I want parents to understand that they are the best advocates for their children,” he said. “Get them diagnosed early.”
Before he or his son was diagnosed, Billy was already serving on the board at Spring Valley School, a co-educational school near Crestline that serves students with learning disabilities like dyslexia and attention deficit disorder.
“I have always been amazed at what the kids at the school accomplish,” he said. “They are in the right environment to flourish and to gain self-esteem.”
The importance of self-esteem in children with learning disabilities really hit home for Billy as he and his family tried to identify why Will was struggling during his first few years of elementary school.
Will’s hardships in the classroom took a toll on him, his father said.
“The constant comment was ‘I’m stupid,'” he said. “As a parent, you never want your child to feel like that.”
Billy said before his son was diagnosed with dyslexia, there were a lot of emotional nights at his house during Will’s first few years of elementary school.
“We were all reduced to tears every night when Will had to bring home books to read for school,” he said. “Here was this obviously intelligent kid and he was really struggling, and we didn’t know why.”
Will’s first teachers knew he had the right answers but just couldn’t get them out in the way other students do, Billy said.
Will was tested for dyslexia in the summer between his second and third grade years.
Billy said the diagnosis finally gave the family a name for their child’s struggles.
“The reality was that the diagnosis was a relief,” Billy said. “We finally knew what we were dealing with and could take action.”
After his son’s diagnosis, someone told Billy that parents of dyslexic children are often dyslexic themselves and just don’t know it.
Looking back at his struggles through medical school when he got others to take notes for him in class, Billy decided to get evaluated.
“The reality hit me when I started noticing things about myself that I saw my son and some of the kids at Spring Valley School going through,” he said.
For example, Billy loves to read, but he cannot read out loud.
“It was always strange to me that I love books, I love to read, but reading out loud is something I just can’t do,” he said.
Both Billy and Will have also been diagnosed with dysgraphia, a condition related to dyslexia that can caused impaired and slower handwriting and can interfere with learning to spell words while writing.
Billy said he thinks his learning disability makes him a better doctor.
“It has always been hard for me to take notes, so I think it actually makes me a better doctor because I am really focused on my patients and listening to them to learn all I can instead of looking down at a chart and taking notes,” he said.
The diagnosis has also made him a better parent, Billy said.
“It has made me more tolerant as a parent,” he said. “I’m more open to listening without being judgmental.”
Billy urges other parents to make sure their children are screened early if a learning disability is suspected.
“So many of the children that have been diagnosed with ADD or ADHD actually have dyslexia, and doctors just put them on medication,” he said. “The key is getting that early diagnosis, finding the right people to work with your child and letting your child be the unique person they are.”
Billy said teachers in public schools have come a long way in understanding how to teach students with dyslexia.
“They do the best they can, but for most of these kids, you can’t put them in a cookie-cutter situation and expect it to really help them,” he said.
Billy said Will has been a student in the public school system on and off throughout the years but decided to come back to Spring Valley to finish high school.
“I think it was because they are so open about differences at the school and they really let the kids think outside of the box,” Billy said. “That’s what people with dyslexia do — they think outside the box to solve problems in their own way.”