Hi, I'm Cliff Weitzman.
I am dyslexic.
I was diagnosed in 3rd grade. It was the best day of my life.
Before that, I would pretend to read in elementary school.
I’d sit with the book open in front of me and pass my finger under the words so that people (my parents, teachers, friends, siblings) wouldn’t think I was dumb, or lazy.
Reading circles were terrifying.
One by one kids would read. And it would get closer to me.
My hands would start to sweat.
So I timed it just right. And right before it was my turn…
I’d go hide in the bathroom.
I did this every time.
People must have thought I had a bladder problem. Better than them thinking I’m an idiot.
The worst part was my dad. He was my hero.
The person I dreamed that one day I would grow up to be.
Everybody loved him. I LOVED him. I wanted him to be proud of me.
“Cliff, why are you so lazy? Don’t you want to learn how to read?”
“I DO! CAN’T YOU SEE HOW HARD I’M TRYING?!” I bursted back at him, tears streaming down my face.
“No, I don’t. I spend 2 hours trying to teach you how to read every day. I bought every program. Stop fidgeting and pay attention, for once.”
“PAY ATTENTION?! I’m always paying attention.”
“You’re not. You don’t care. Even your sister can read and she is 6.”
“Because I TAUGHT HER! I didn’t want her to go through this too.
I know all the rules. Every rule. But when I apply it, it just… doesn’t work.”
I use to dream about reading.
When I was young I wanted to be President, a Scientist, and a Pop-Star.
I knew that to be who I wanted to be I had to be able to read.
So I walked around everywhere with a book under my arm, and imagine that one day I’d be able to read it.
The book I wanted to read the most was Harry Potter.
But after the 20th time a librarian woke me up because I’d fallen asleep with my face berried in the third page of the book I gave up.
Luckily my Dad didn’t give up on me. He never gave up on me. Ever.
My Dad worked really hard when we were young. He almost never had time to eat dinner with us.
But he would come home early for this:
He’d sit on my bed. And in a slow, deep voice. He would read Harry Potter to me. My eyes would light up. I loved this so much.
When my Dad couldn’t make it home in time, he’d record himself reading Harry Potter on a cassette tape. I use to fall asleep listening to that cassette tape. Over and over and over, listening to my Dad’s voice.
I was double lucky because I also had my Mom (aka MamaBear). And she cares. And she is very good at research.
One day, likely during the 1000th time she searched, or in one of the 100 books she read on the topic she learned about “Dyslexia” she thought that maybe I had that. She got me tested. Turns out that is exactly what I had. That, and ADD.
When I learned I was Dyslexic, I took the deepest sigh you’ve ever heard a 9 year old give. “Finally!” I thought, “I’m not broken, I’m not dumb, and I am definitely NOT LAZY!”
“Great,” I thought, “now we know what the problem is called, let’s fix it!”
Reading a sentence takes me the same amount of energy and brainpower as most people take when solving a four digit long division math equation in their head. 462/7=…
After a paragraph I’m tired (that’s 10 equations in a row),
After a chapter? A chapter would be 300 four-digit equations in my head in a row.
There is no such thing as “After a Chapter” even if I used all the energy in the world I’d fall asleep or start making mistakes (not comprehending) by the time I got to the end of the chapter. Too much mental processing.
Listening does not take as much energy as decoding though.
My Dad found the actual audiobook for Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, narrated by Jim Dale. He got it for me.
I listen to it 22 times in a row.
Those first three pages I would fall asleep on in the library? I have them memorized. Along with the rest of the first chapter of the book. 13 years later.
I didn’t stop listening. I listen to every book in that series. Then Narnia, then Lord of the Rings, then Game of Thrones, Pillars of the Earth, Atlas Shrugged.
I never stopped listening.
I had a 20 ton boulder chained to my back that stopped me from being the person I wanted to be. Every sentence I read took ages. Now I had wings.
I started pushing my listening speed, from 1x to 1.25x, 1.5x, 2x, then 2.5x speed. Because the change was gradual I grew with it, and retained every word.
I listened while biking to school. When waiting for my mom to pick me up from practice. Before I fell asleep every night. When cleaning my room or walking outside. On the toilet.
I started finishing 2 audiobooks every week. 100 books a year. I’ve been going at this rate for 12 years. It takes no effort, and in fact, it’s the best part of my day.
There isn’t an audiobook for every book you get assigned in school. My high school summer reading book was “Marly and Me” and it did not have an audiobook. So the summer before high school I’d sit with my mom and her bed and she would read “Marly and Me” to me.
I was in special-ed class for one period every day throughout high school.
I experimented a lot. And began using technology in a way no special ed teacher could have taught me. I took full responsibility for my own accommodations and education. I asked for help, and figured out how I learned best.
I also took almost every AP and Honors class offered by my school, earned above a 4.0 GPA, and navigated through battles with administration and teachers who thought dyslexia is “a myth”. Later, I’ll go in depth into the tools I used throughout this time and how I did it.
I also had some amazing teachers who were unfathomably supportive.
Through hard work (and convincing a lot teachers to give me exceptions) I got accepted to Brown University.\One problem….I couldn’t read my summer reading book – there was no audiobook for this book.
In the same way, there are no audiobooks for most textbooks, most handouts, PDF’s, emails, and wikipedia pages one needs to read for school.
So, I sat next to my Mom on her bed. And she read my college summer reading book. But my Mom worked, and didn’t have time to read me the whole book.
The night before flying to Brown, to start college, I was only 2/3rds of the way through the book.
I had no other choice, I hacked an old text to speech computer system to read the remaining portion of the book over night into my iPhone and then listen to it on the plane.
I taught myself to code on the side (more on how I made this happen even with dyslexia later in the book) and improved the software further.
I spent the next 4 years in college perfecting this system. Instead of slaving over a textbook while chained to my desk – I’d take 15 quick photos and then listen while eating breakfast or Longboarding to class.
I’d listen to the 100+ pages of reading assigned per week for my classes while on the train or on the bus to hackathons. Often, it felt like I was the only one doing the readings in my classes.
Today, millions of people have been able to function in school and society because of Speechify.
Remember, that above all else, your mission is to be who you needed most when you were growing up. At least, it’s mine.