Dyslexic celebrities share their success stories
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.
Margaret Rooke’s determination led her to write and publish Creative, Successful, Dyslexic which collects together the childhood struggles endured by 23 well-known high-achievers and the successes they experienced once they refused to let their dyslexia hold them back.
Here, three participants share some of their thoughts in these abridged extracts from the book:
TV Motorcycle Adventurer and President of Dyslexia Action
Charlie Boorman. Image via Travel Supermarket
"School life was tough. I was terrible at learning because I wasn’t able to read and when people say you are stupid you do believe them. I was being earmarked as being thick and pushed to the side. I was definitely given the impression I would not amount to much.
While the messages I was getting from school were very damaging, my parents never made me feel anything other than a confident little boy. My father [film director John Boorman] had spotted the signs of dyslexia too and he encouraged me to be in the films he made as a way to express myself because I couldn’t read or write properly. Dad felt that if I acted it would help me be surer of myself.
If you are lucky to have the support of your family, life is so much better. If you get a diagnosis as well, you have the chance to get the tools to help you on your way. You need these tools because you can’t get fixed. There is no fix.
"My parents never made me feel anything other than a confident little boy"
I am President of Dyslexia Action and one of our jobs is to try to get people to realise that it is a debilitating thing to have, though with the right education and tools you can live with it very easily.
People who have disabilities—visual, hearing or wherever else—can very often excel in other ways and it’s a matter of finding those ways.
If you’re confident about being dyslexic, people are quite happy to accommodate you when you tell them. There isn’t so much stigma about it, though some still think you are making it up, or you’re thick. I always think it’s important to know your weaknesses and delegate when you can’t do something. I haven’t been able to help my kids with their homework since they were seven.
I would like to see the Government have someone in every school who is able to identify that a kid has dyslexia at a young age and help them. This is one of the big things Dyslexia Action wants to achieve."
Self-described ‘poet, writer, lyricist, musician and troublemaker’
Benjamin Zephaniah. Image via Brunch News
"In many ways being dyslexic is a natural way to be. What is unnatural is the way we read and write.
If you look at a pictorial language like Chinese, you can see the word for a woman because the character looks like a woman. The word for a house looks like a house. Early languages were like that. It is a strange step to go from that to a squiggle that represents a sound, which is how we read and write here.
So, if you are dyslexic, don’t be heavy on yourself. And if you are a parent of someone with dyslexia don’t think of it as a deformity. You may have a genius on your hands!
I think having dyslexia can make you creative. If you want to construct a sentence and can’t find the word you are searching for, you have to think of a way to write around it. This is being creative and your ‘creativity muscle’ gets bigger.
That’s the way architects work. They see a problem, maybe a building has to be taller or has to keep the light out, and find a way to deal with it. They don’t just come across a problem, go to a textbook and find out what it says.
"Bloody non-dyslexics…who do they think they are?"
In fact, I’ve come to the conclusion that dyslexia is the human race’s default position. I presume everyone’s dyslexic and wait for people to tell me they’re not!
Dyslexia is a weird word for the inability to spell and read. It is a difficult word. Most people now grow up with the word but when someone first told me I had dyslexia it sounded as if they were saying I had some kind of disease.
This happened when I was 21 when I went to an adult education class in London to learn to read and write. As I started to learn, the teacher said, ‘You are dyslexic,’ and I was like, ‘Do I need an operation?’
She explained to me what it meant and I suddenly thought, ‘Ah, I get it. I thought I was going crazy.’ Having a word for it was great.
When kids come up to me and say, ‘Can I take your photograph? I’m dyslexic too,’ which happens all the time, I tell them, ‘We are the creative people. Use it to your advantage. See the world differently. Us dyslexic people, we’ve got it going on—we are the architects. We are the designers.’
It’s like they are proud of me and if that helps them, that is great. I didn’t have that. I always say to them, ‘Bloody non-dyslexics…who do they think they are?’"
Founder of The Virgin Group
Richard Branson. Image via Dot 429
"Einstein, who I understand was dyslexic, has been quoted as saying that it’s a miracle that curiosity survives a formal education. I wasn’t academically successful and this hasn’t stopped me being successful outside of school. If you have dyslexia it is important to accept that you are different. I knew at a very young age that I needed to get out of school and make my own way in life.
I don’t even know whether the word dyslexia had been invented when I was a child. It was generally decided at school that I was a hopeless case. I remember sitting at the back of the class and not knowing what was going on. The blackboard was all a-jumble. I once had an IQ test where I sat looking at the paper and getting nowhere.
"If you have dyslexia it is important to accept that you are different"
I was in my twenties when I suddenly heard about dyslexia. It was a bit of a relief. I had been taught that if you’re no good in IQ tests you are hopeless. It was good to know that there was an issue and that other people had similar problems—and that actually dyslexics can be much brighter than other kids in certain areas. So it was a light-bulb moment and I grabbed it.
I am learning all the time. When I turned 50 I was in a board meeting and by then we were the biggest private group of companies in Europe and Virgin was very well-known internationally. I was given some figures and I said, ‘Is that good?’ and one of the directors took me outside of the boardroom and said, ‘Can I have a quiet word with you? You don’t know the difference between “net” and “gross” do you?’ I told him I didn’t.
He pulled out some paper, coloured in the sea blue, drew a fishing net in the sea, drew some fish in the net and said, ‘In the net, that’s your profit. That’s what you’ve got left at the end of the year. That’s what’s yours. The rest is turnover,’ and from then on I’ve been name dropping ‘net’ and ‘gross’ all over the place."
Creative, Successful, Dyslexic by Margaret Rooke is published by Jessica Kingsley, £8.99