Dyslexia Has Not Held Me Back
As told by Michael Henborg
I have a learning disability—dyslexia. This condition, which affects my father, my mother, and my three younger brothers, has made it difficult for me to read my native Danish, and school proved to be a real struggle. Nevertheless, I have received much help and encouragement, especially from my family.
MY FAMILY have been Jehovah’s Witnesses for four generations, and reading, especially of the Bible and Bible study aids, has always been an important part of our life. My younger brother Flemming and I also regularly accompanied Father in the Christian ministry, which impressed upon us the importance of reading and writing well.
As a child, I read every issue of The Watchtower and Awake! taking up to 15 hours to read one magazine! Additionally, I set out to read the entire Bible. I also joined the Theocratic Ministry School, which is held in congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world. This school trains students to read and speak well and to give talks before an audience. All these provisions have helped me immeasurably in my struggle with dyslexia. Little did I know, however, that I would face many more challenges. Let me explain.
In 1988, when I was 24 years old, I began serving as a pioneer, a full-time minister of the good news. Since Denmark hosts many immigrants, I wanted to share Bible truths with them. To do so effectively, however, I had to learn English—a project I found very difficult. Still, through perseverance and private lessons, I slowly improved, and in time I was able to share the good news of God’s Kingdom with English-speaking foreigners in my hometown of Copenhagen. To be sure, I made many linguistic errors, but I did not let that stop me.
A grasp of English also enabled me to serve as a volunteer worker on construction projects of Jehovah’s Witnesses in various lands. First I was sent to Greece, and later I assisted in the construction of the branch in Madrid, Spain.
Because I wanted to expand my share in the preaching work, I applied for enrollment in the Ministerial Training School, sponsored by Jehovah’s Witnesses. This school provides eight weeks of specialized training to single Christian men who are willing to accept assignments in places that have a greater need for ministers of the good news. (Mark 13:10) I was invited to attend an English-language class to be held in Sweden.
The class began on September 1, 1994. I wanted to be well prepared, so I studied English four hours a day for about eight months, and I joined an English-speaking congregation. Then, when the school began, I refused to allow my disability to impede my progress. For example, when the instructors posed questions, I often raised my hand to answer, even though I was not always sure of the correct words to use. After graduating, I was assigned to serve as a pioneer in Copenhagen. Learning English was a major challenge, but an even greater one awaited me.
In December 1995, I was assigned to a Tamil-speaking congregation in the Danish town of Herning. Tamil, I thought, must be one of the most difficult languages in the world. It has 31 letters, as well as combinations of consonants and vowels to form composite letters, making a total of nearly 250 characters!
At first, my talks to the congregation were in Danish and translated into Tamil. When finally I launched into Tamil, I doubt that anyone understood me. Still, the audience listened respectfully, even though many seemed somewhat amused. So that I could learn faster, I decided to go to a country where Tamil is spoken by millions—Sri Lanka.
When I arrived in Sri Lanka in October 1996, the country was in the throes of a civil war. For a time, I lived in the town of Vavuniya on the border between the two fighting parties. The local Witnesses had little materially, but their love and hospitality were overwhelming, and they tried hard to teach me Tamil. Non-Witnesses were impressed that I, the only Westerner in the area, tried to converse in their language. Their appreciative, humble attitude made it easier for me to talk to them about the Bible.
In January 1997, I had to return to Denmark, and the following year, I married Camilla, a pioneer. Sri Lanka beckoned me back, so in December 1999, I returned, this time, of course, with my wife. Before long, we were conducting Bible studies with a number of families and individuals, and we accompanied local Witnesses on their Bible studies. We were fully immersed in both the ministry and the language.
In March 2000, we had to return to Denmark. Parting from our fellow Witnesses and Bible students was very difficult, for we had truly grown to love them. But more work lay ahead of us, including the challenge of learning yet another language!
From Tamil to Latvian
In May 2002, Camilla and I, now married for four years, received an invitation to serve as missionaries in Latvia, a European country that lies to the east of Denmark. Camilla learned Latvian quickly and could communicate after just six weeks! But I did not do as well. In fact, to this day I still feel that I have made little progress, despite all the help I have received. Nevertheless, I am determined to keep at it.*
Camilla continues to be a great support, and both of us are enjoying our missionary service. Indeed, we have studied the Bible with many appreciative people. When I forget words or use bad grammar, the local Witnesses and Bible students patiently try to understand and help me. This increases my confidence when I engage in the public ministry and also when I give talks at Christian meetings.
Why have I accepted the challenge of learning other languages when it is such a struggle for me? In a word, love—not so much for languages but for people. It is a wonderful privilege to help someone come to know the true God, Jehovah, and to draw close to him. And as many missionaries have seen over and over again, that task is accomplished far more effectively when one speaks to others in their native language, the language of their heart.
Over the years, my wife and I have been able to help a number of people come to an accurate knowledge of Bible truth. However, we cannot take the credit. Rather, we thank Jehovah for the good results that we have seen. After all, we just plant and water the seeds of Bible truth; God makes them grow.—1 Corinthians 3:6.
When a Hindrance Can Be a Help
Although dyslexia has been a hindrance to me, it has also been an advantage. How so? When I give talks in the congregation, I tend to rely less on written notes and therefore have better eye contact with my audience. Also, I make full use of illustrations, which are relatively easy to remember. Thus, in certain respects my condition has helped me to develop my teaching skills.
The Christian apostle Paul wrote: “God chose the weak things of the world, that he might put the strong things to shame.” (1 Corinthians 1:27) My disability has certainly made me a ‘weak thing’ in some respects. Yet, as I and many others have learned, Jehovah can more than make up for our lack. We just need to set reasonable goals, have modest expectations, pray for God’s holy spirit, and go out there and try.
After serving in Latvia for six years, the Henborgs were recently reassigned to Ghana.
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What is dyslexia? The word “dyslexia” comes from Greek and means “poor speech.” A life-long condition, dyslexia is a language-related disability that especially involves reading. People who have dyslexia tend to have difficulty making the connection between letters and the sounds those letters represent. Specific symptoms, however, may differ from person to person.
What causes dyslexia? The exact causes remain unclear, although heredity is a factor. While studies indicate abnormal brain development and function, dyslexia is not linked to general intelligence or lack of the desire to learn. In fact, sufferers are often gifted in areas not requiring strong language skills.
How is dyslexia treated? Early identification of the condition is important. Effective training in language skills involves using several senses, especially hearing, seeing, and touching. So that they can progress at their own pace, many students need one-on-one assistance. They may also need help with emotional issues resulting from difficulties in school. With good tutoring and hard work, students with dyslexia can learn to read and write well.*
The above is based on information supplied by the International Dyslexia Association. See also the article “Helping Children With Learning Disabilities,” in the January 2009 issue of this magazine.
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With a fellow Witness in Sri Lanka
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With Camilla in Latvia