“You’re Dyslexic? But you’re a writer!?!?” These are the harmless enough words that were said to me by a well-meaning colleague I recently met for the first time. Unfortunately, the conversation moved on before I could enquire as to his incredulity about a person who has dyslexia being a writer. But this scenario is by no mea
ns unique. Since I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was eleven years old, I have always met people who have been surprised, or shocked to find out I am dyslexic. It has always puzzled me. I’m sure my colleague meant to harm by what he said, and I am certainly not offended by it. However, I think it does highlight a general lack of understanding of dyslexia, or high functioning dyslexia. As a dyslexic who has managed to come to terms with his dyslexia (and much like Sir Richard Branson), I feel inspired to be an advocate to dyslexia in the hope that I might play my part in making things a little easier for those who are just discovering their dyslexic abilities.
There have been many successful dyslexics
With an estimated one in ten people having dyslexia, it is surprising to me that so many people are still quite ignorant of the condition. Throughout history there have been so many successful people who have been suspected of having dyslexia, such as: Albert Einstein and Leonardo Da Vinci. There are even several writers who have (or who have been suspected of having) dyslexia, such as: Agatha Christie, Nobel Prize winning writer William Butler Yeats, and The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Perhaps it is because I am so interested in the subject that I am aware of these examples of successful dyslexics. Maybe I am being too harsh on those who seem to struggle to view dyslexia as anything other than a disability that limits one’s potential. After all, I have not always viewed my own dyslexia as an asset.
The advantages and disadvantages of dyslexia
Since being diagnosed with dyslexia in the early 1990s I have become increasingly interested in both the advantages and disadvantages of dyslexia. In fact, I even wrote an article about dyslexia in design while I was writing for Landscape Architects Network.
I’m not alone in thinking dyslexia can be an advantage. In their very popular book ‘The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain‘ authors Brock and Fernette Eide explain many of the characteristics that dyslexics possess that can be used advantageously. It is a well celebrated book as the reviews show – “Probably the most helpful material ever published on dyslexia…” – Manuel Casanova MD, Gottfried and Gisela Kolb Professor of Psychiatry. Click on the book title to get it on Amazon.
Nowadays I view my dyslexia at worst as a minor inconvenience, and at best as a distinct advantage. However, it wasn’t always so.
The social and self esteem problems of dyslexia
I hated school. I know one’s school days are supposed to be ‘the best days of your life’, but for me school was just a continuous string of failures, punctuated with social and behavioural issues. Before being diagnosed with dyslexia, I had to move schools because of bullying. I simply lacked the social skills to make and sustain friendships. In fact, it is well documented that dyslexic children have difficulty in social situations due to being socially immature, or difficulties reading social cues. The problems with written language can even spill over into verbal communication, for some, leading to problems like stuttering, and giving slow answers.
All too often, dyslexia is viewed as only a reading disability. Perhaps this is not surprising, given that dyslexia was first investigated by the German neurologist Adolph Kussmaul who coined the phrase ‘word blindness’ in 1878. Unfortunately, this term has remained ingrained in our culture, with some people still thinking of dyslexia only in terms of written language, and not fully grasping the social, cognitive, and self image issues. You can imagine the effect on a child’s self image when the work they do is consistently not good enough, and despite trying very hard, they constantly fail. For me, I have always had verbal intelligence, and been able to communicate well. So before being diagnosed I was always told I was lazy, as I was able to participate in class freely, but struggled to submit the written-work afterwards.
My experience of dyslexia at college
At the age of sixteen I left school, feeling very much a failure (not that education had failed me, which might be more accurate). Upon the advice of my careers advisor I went to a vocational college to study ‘gardening’. Apparently my predicted GCSE school grades were not seen as strong enough for me to be able to cope with A levels (the head of sixth-form at my school suggested I would be lucky to pass A levels at all). So off I went to learn a practical vocation. Luckily for me this proved to be the turning point in my studies. Being a land-based vocational college, Writtle was used to helping dyslexic students, and with the assistance of some inspirational teachers, I thrived. For the first time in my life I was told that I was good at something. This encouraged me to continue my studies, eventually earning a bachelor’s degree, before moving onto a post graduate diploma. These were all things that I was lead to believe would be out of my reach.
During my time at college I read all I could about dyslexia. Gradually, I learned that there are distinct advantages to being dyslexic. Advantages like better pattern recognition and spatial awareness, strong visual thinking skills, great intuition and insightfulness, an ability to see things differently from others, and, of course, creativity. All qualities a landscape architect and garden designer needs to employ in their work.
How I use dyslexia to my advantage when writing
For me, I think it is the creative aspect of writing that I enjoy the most. I see writing as being another form of design, very much like landscape architecture or garden design. To write well one must be both logical and analytical as well as creative. Of course, different forms of writing will lean more in one direction or the other. For example, an academic or peer reviewed paper might be more analytical, using reason to make logical arguments; this type of blog post might fall somewhere in the middle; and a poem will be highly creative.
Of course, a love of something doesn’t always equate to finding it easy. Over the years I have learned and developed many coping strategies for dealing with my dyslexia. It’s important to find your own coping strategies, but if you are dyslexic, or have a dyslexic child, you might find use in the free blog Ten Ways of Coping with Dyslexia by Jen Lilienstein, author of 101 Learning Activities to Stretch & Strengthen Your Child’s Multiple Intelligences.
Difficulties with dyslexia might not go away, but they can be overcome
I still have difficulties with specific aspects of my dyslexia. My own difficulties lie in the areas of decoding, and spelling. The later is relatively easily overcome with tools like word processors, and the very useful Grammarly. They even have a browser extension, so I can check my social media posts before posting! The thing I find more difficult to overcome is my chronically slow reading speed. Last time my dyslexia was assessed (during my postgraduate studies), my reading speed was judged to be equal to (or slightly below) that of the average 14 year old child. Given that no one would expect the average 14 year old to be able to cope with the amount of reading required at a postgraduate level, this presented significant difficulties for me. To be honest, I still struggle with reading. My wife is often shocked at how slow I read. English is her second language, and when we have to read something together, she is always finished long before I am.
Personally, I don’t think a difficulty in an area is necessarily a justification for giving up. Is expressing surprise or incredulity at a person who has dyslexia becoming a writer any different to expressing the same surprise when a Paralympian describes themselves as an athlete? Although the disabilities and challenges are very different, it is the same determination to overcome those difficulties that leads to persisting to the point of achieving personal goals.
To a large degree, I have overcome my fear of written language to enjoy writing professionally. When I spoke to my newfound colleague, and he laughed and expressed surprise at me being both dyslexic and a writer, it puzzled me. We only volunteered together for one day, but spoke at length about many different things. I found him to be a very nice, pleasant, man who I got on well with. I certainly don’t think he meant anything offensive in what he said. But his reaction stayed with me for the rest of the day. No doubt my personal experience has left me over-sensitive to this kind of very mild discrimination. I do feel, however, that we still need to do more to promote the many successful people who have dyslexia and to raise awareness of the positive aspects of dyslexia. I will continue to do whatever I can to raise this awareness, so that people growing up with dyslexia today know that while dyslexia may be a disability, there are many strengths that they can play to, to become successful.