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How one mother proved that dyslexic doesn't mean dumb

How one mother proved that dyslexic doesn't mean dumb
On learning that her 13-year-old daughter had dyslexia, Margaret Rooke set out to reassure her that the diagnosis would not condemn her to the academic ‘scrapheap,’ by bringing together the stories of high-profile dyslexic people.
When I realised that my daughter was dyslexic I was shocked. She had done well at primary school—very well in fact. After she left she started struggling.
We spent those years wondering what was wrong, still with the old image of her as a successful student in our minds. We did our blundering best as parents to try to sort out whatever wasn’t working out; trying to work out if she was the cause or the school. Had the way she had shone when she was younger somehow gotten lost in the long corridors and new complexities of secondary education?
I spotted the real reason for her lack of progress when sorting out old papers at home. I found an anti-bullying poster she’d made at 10. The slogan was ‘Tell an adult’ and the spelling was all over the place.
The penny then dropped with a loud clang. She was dyslexic. We entered the world of special needs, SENCOs (Special Needs Educational Coordinator) and extra time in exams.
While I hadn’t expected any of this, my strongest feeling when the shock had subsided was that I didn’t want her to think that any label meant she couldn’t achieve what she wanted in life. I wanted her to retain her self-belief. I started interviewing successful and well-known people with dyslexia to ask them about their experiences, wanting to know how they had achieved so well despite their dyslexia.
"The penny then dropped with a loud clang. She was dyslexic."
To my surprise, I found that most believed dyslexia had given them an advantage, despite often gruelling school day experiences. All believed it had given them a special determination, creativity or outlook.
I found out that some of our best-loved names had played truant, played the class clown or spent their days daydreaming the hours away because none of what they were being told made sense. As Zoe Wanamaker says, “When it came to the academic side, I was away with the pixies.” Darcey Bussell told me she would hide in a cupboard to avoid what she calls the “relentless struggle of lessons”.
Life can be tough if you are unable to achieve in the way the education system demands. Reading, writing, concentrating, taking in information, passing exams can all be very tough.

Adult life can have its problems too

dyslexia struggle
At school, students get ‘extra time’ to try to level the playing field. There’s nothing like that generally on offer in the world of work.
Yet despite this, national charity Dyslexia Action is clear that the most important reaction we can have to news about dyslexia is to be positive, whether we find that out about ourselves or our children.
It’s something useful to know; a piece in the puzzle that tells us more about someone’s make-up. And as all of the participants in my book Creative, Successful, Dyslexic show, there are clearly ways to do well in life away from the confines of the education system.
It’s clear to me that the older people in the book fared much worse educationally in their early years than the younger generation. Three times Formula One motor-racing world champion Sir Jackie Stewart was so filled with shame following his tortuous school years that he had been married to his wife for 19 years before he told her that he couldn’t read or write. She was astonished to find out then and she remains astonished now, more than 30 years later, he says.
"Sometimes our perceived difficulties can, in fact, be our strengths"
One thing that can be sure to annoy people with dyslexia is to say to them ‘Sir Richard Branson is a millionaire so you can be too.’ My book isn’t about showing a series of success stories and expecting readers to reach exalted levels. It’s about delivering a message that we all can be the best we can be, and that sometimes our perceived difficulties can, in fact, be our strengths.
As Sir Jackie Stewart, who puts a lot of his success down to his eye for detail, says in my favourite quote in the book, “My advice would always be to find something you are good at and do it well. If I had been a window cleaner I would have done it well. I could have been a world champion window cleaner…”
The contributors to Creative, Successful, Dyslexic are: Zoe Wanamaker, Darcey Bussell, Eddie Izzard, David Bailey, Richard Branson, Marcus Brigstocke, Richard Rogers, Lynda La Plante, Jackie Stewart, Kelly Hoppen, Ed Baines, Nigel McCrery, Charlie Boorman, Brian Conley, Chris Robshaw, Sophie Conran, Zelda West-Meads, Steven Naismith, Paul Nixon, Kenny Logan, Meg Matthews, Benjamin Zephaniah and Theo Paphitis.

Margaret's top tips on coping with dyslexia

mother daughter reading
If our children or grandchildren are dyslexic, how can we help steer them to a bright future? If we are dyslexic, how can we develop a real optimism if we feel none? From my two years of research into dyslexia, here are a few pointers:
  • Seek help. There are many fantastic charities to guide you out there, including Dyslexia Action which is benefiting from my book’s sales.
  • Remember you only need to be good at one thing to succeed. This means you may need to delegate some of the stuff you struggle with, but it’s fantastic to have something at which you excel. Nurture that.
  • Be supportive of your children, or get support for yourself. Many of the high achievers featured in Creative, Successful, Dyslexic said there was an adult in their life as they were growing up—often a teacher or a parent—who was ‘on their side’. This helped them realise that they were not ‘stupid’, just ‘different’ and kept their self-esteem intact.
  • Praise yourself or your child for the effort that goes into something, not for what you or they achieve. Researcher and special needs expert Neil Alexander-Passe says this makes a crucial difference.
  • Remember that learning is everywhere. Interior designer Kelly Hoppen told me that when she was a girl, she spent her time at home moving around furniture. “My parents would go out, come back and I would have moved a wardrobe!” She knew that was what she was good at and taught herself.
  • Academia isn't everything. Don’t forget that many of the attributes that come with being dyslexic are not valued in the academic system but they can help hugely at work. Take a longer view.
  • Focus on strengths, not weaknesses. According to the American organisation Dyslexic Advantage, successful adults with dyslexia put their success down mainly to focussing on their strengths, not fixing the challenges they find hard (spelling and reading for example), though this is important too.
  • Learn about 'desirable dyslexia'Researcher Chathurika Kannangara from the University of Bolton works on what she called ‘desirable dyslexia’. She says people with dyslexia who thrive, approach challenges using their key strengths. When listing their strengths, many include creativity, curiosity, fairness, judgement and kindness.
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes. As photographer David Bailey told me: “I love mistakes. Mistakes send you somewhere else. If something goes wrong I use that mistake. I twist it around to make the most of what’s there. A lot of art is based on a mistake.”
  • People in this book have turned their lives around. Maybe we can all find ways to turn what we have always thought of as a disadvantage into something positive, learning from their examples. It’s never too late to make a better life for ourselves.
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