Some people think being successful when you are dyslexic means “overcoming” dyslexia. Nothing could be further from the truth. By many measures, I have achieved success: I have worked in the White House; I’ve got a combined JD/MBA from Stanford University; I directed a research group at Intel; I started Headstrong Nation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to serving the dyslexic community; and now, in the ultimate irony for a dyslexic person, I’ve written a book.
I know that I’ve been able to accomplish my goals because I have integrated dyslexia into my life, not because I overcame it. It is part of who I am, just as I am a man and I am from New Hampshire. Indeed, I have found that my greatest strengths are directly tied to my most severe weaknesses. It is the process of recognizing my weaknesses and strengths—and connecting them in my life—that has made me successful and, more important, happy.
What I’ve learned can provide a path to independence for anyone who is dyslexic. It took me almost twenty-five years to fully embrace my dyslexia, and throughout the book you’ll follow my journey. My goal is to give you the tools to empower your child so that you can let go of your own fears, opening the door to a successful future for both of you. If I had had these tools when I was growing up, I would have started the integration process much earlier and skipped years of debilitating shame.
This book is not like anything else you have read about dyslexia or specific learning disabilities, the legal category under which services for us dyslexics are provided. Whereas other books or “experts” will promise a cure for your child, I’m here to say that the real truth is that there is no disease. In the mainstream dyslexics are the minority, but that doesn’t make us less valuable. We just do things a little differently. To use a commercial metaphor, it’s like we’re Macs, whereas the majority of people are PCs. This book—and your mission as a parent—is about moving the model for your child from dyslexia as disease to dyslexia as identity, an identity we can all be proud of.
Welcome to Dyslexia
Whether your child is on the cusp of being identified or you’ve known about his dyslexia for quite some time, I say welcome to the club! It’s safe here, and you can let go of your fear and anxiety about this identification. Believe me, I know how you feel. I was there and so were my parents, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it will get better. Indeed, you’re going to have fun. That may seem overly optimistic, but I am confident that if you work through the steps in this book, your child will reclaim her joy of learning and you will both thrive.
There are countless accomplished people who are already in this club today. They are successful academics, win Nobel Prizes, make major contributions to the arts, and are at the top of the medical, legal, and business worlds. They are cops and firefighters and pilots. They are teachers and authors, entrepreneurs and filmmakers. In short, they are able to do whatever they want once they master a few simple rules of success. Whether you are dyslexic yourself, the parent of a dyslexic child, or both, know that you are not alone. This book will show you the path to figuring all of these rules out for yourself, your child, and your family.
Regardless of cultural or economic differences, I feel a great sense of community with everyone who is dyslexic. It’s like we grew up in the same place, the same country—the Nation of Dyslexia. We have a shared experience, a connectedness, and it’s palpable when we are together. Many of us have the same strengths (exceptional auditory or verbal skills, or the ability to think strategically) and the same weaknesses (such as reading poorly). Dyslexia is part of more than 30 million Americans—one in ten of us. Every time your child gets on the school bus and there are fifty people on that bus, there are likely five other kids who are dyslexic.
In the Nation of Dyslexia, nobody spells well. There’s no good handwriting. But we’re great listeners and often good public speakers. I like to think we are fun at parties. We work harder than many of our mainstream peers. Yet my emigration into mainstream culture does not mean I have to divorce myself from my dyslexic attributes. If you’re from another country and immigrate to the United States, you will likely want to adopt some American customs. But you won’t completely leave your homeland culture—the food, the dance, the work ethic, the holidays—behind.
Everyone in Dyslexia carries a passport that allows easy entry into a number of bordering countries, including the nations of Dyscalculia, Dysgraphia, and ADHD, to name some of the major ones. In my view, we are all “in the club”—my catchphrase for the broad family of people who experience the non-obvious disabilities generally housed under the umbrella term of “specific learning disabilities.” Your child may hold dual citizenship with one of these. For example, 40 percent of people from ADHD are also from Dyslexia, though the opposite is not the case, as there are more dyslexic people than ADHD folks. All of us share a common bond, a common history. When I hang out with ADHD people I get them, I understand their profile, and I may even have some of their characteristics. I have used the term dyslexia throughout this book, but the lessons are for people from all these nations and I consider them all kindred spirits based on our overlapping experiences.
I’ve also learned through my dyslexia that every one of us—including mainstream readers—lives on a spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. Some people can run a marathon in three hours (few), some can walk a mile (most), some can’t make it out of a chair (few again). Depending on your context, those facts can matter more or less. Franklin D. Roosevelt could not walk a mile yet became president of the United States, so no single weakness tells the full story. Not every child who has difficulty reading or spelling is dyslexic, but there are a set of characteristics that unite this profile. For example, I’m ambidextrous: I play sports lefty, and I do everything else righty. That is a characteristic that you could predict as likely based on my dyslexia. When I meet someone from Dyslexia, dollars to donuts they have some form of cross laterality or are left-handed. And that’s just one of dozens of characteristics that are associated with this profile, ranging from an ability to see patterns fast to a lack of ability to associate a sound with a letter symbol.
One of the most important characteristics associated with dyslexia is entrepreneurial thinking. Indeed, 35 percent of American entrepreneurs are dyslexic. I have found that discussing dyslexia and the path to independence in terms of this unique characteristic invites people from all economic and academic backgrounds to realize the strengths that come with their profile. All dyslexics can connect with their inner entrepreneur, regardless of their field of interest, so that they can capture that spirit of making change and use it to fulfill their dreams.
Your child is already a part of this world. Yet in order for your child to get the most out of his or her profile, you’ll need a handbook that helps you get around. This is particularly true if you are not a resident of Dyslexia yourself. This book is that guide.
The Good News: There Is No Cure, Because There Is No Disease
Most schools and reading programs designed for remediation of dyslexia are based on the idea that dyslexia equals brokenness. Their aim is to transform the child into a person who can read without problems. But I’m here to tell you that’s just wrongheaded. I’ve learned that if you make your primary goal teaching your child to read or spell just like every other child, you’re going to decrease your child’s chances of achieving success. It’s like telling a person in a wheelchair that she needs to put in more time to learn how to walk.
Even the most well-intentioned parents will be tempted to look for signs that their child is “cured” and no longer dyslexic. I can imagine that it’s your dearest hope that your child won’t have to spend a lifetime contending with a world not built for him. Some parents will even deny that their child’s school has accurately identified the problem. “My kid loves books, so dyslexia can’t be the issue,” they often argue. The truth, however, is that the dyslexic kids who “love” books do so because they associate books with intelligence and as a way to demonstrate their love of learning. The dyslexic child who claims to love books is smart; he’s looking for camouflage in the only intellectual context he knows.
There are three types of reading: eye reading, ear reading, and finger reading. A child with dyslexia will never eye-read as well as his peers, and that, I hope to reassure you, is fine. Yet all children need to be exposed to vocabulary and ideas to be successful in school. If your child was blind, providing text as audiobooks or Braille would allow her to read with her ears or with her fingers. No one would ever claim that a blind person was lazy or stupid for not reading text with her eyes. When I listen to audio, that’s ear reading. When I speed it up to four hundred words a minute, four times the pace of standard speech—a skill you can learn about in this book—I am leveling the playing field for me. It’s not what the mainstream conceives of as reading. But it’s ear reading. It’s learning. It’s literacy.
I am introducing these terms to address an underlying bias in our schools: that eye reading is the only form of reading. You can help move the needle on this limited assumption by using the terms eye reading, ear reading, and finger reading yourself and explaining them to your child. We need to celebrate a child’s love of ideas and quest for knowledge and give her permission to not like standard books at the same time! When we give kids opportunities to gather information and explore ideas in other ways, they will thrive.
Eye reading is what children are taught in school, but it is no better than ear or finger reading in terms of information absorption or comprehension. In fact, each reading approach has both benefits and challenges. Whether you walk on two feet or use a wheelchair to get around, the goal is to get from one place to another. No matter if you roll or walk, you will still get there; indeed, you can get there faster in a chair if you know what you are doing and the landscape is conducive to it. Focusing on eye reading overlooks the real goals of education, which are learning, independent thinking, and mastering the ability to make new connections in the world of ideas.
I will concede that eye reading is a valuable skill, and given it is the default for most education, it has a built-in benefit that ear and finger reading do not, but that is a social choice we make. Just as being able to walk up stairs is useful because many buildings do not have ramps, eye reading is useful because it is the standard way into printed material. If we got rid of all stairs, then being in a wheelchair could be a benefit, e.g., allowing you to roll through a marathon is easier than running it. However, the key point is that none of these choices is inherently better, but we choose to make one more favored. The trick is then to learn how to avoid putting a moral judgment on a social choice.
A dyslexic person may be able to get through one page of text in six minutes of eye reading, while mainstream people do it in one, but if they can access the information in one minute with their ears, that is a better path.
A central theme in this book is that we must question what we are taught is the “normal” way to do things, and instead integrate multiple ways for our children to access information. The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan redirects the drive to fit in toward learning in the best way possible. As a parent, you can confidently embrace the notion that while your child may not love eye-reading books, he is going to love learning just as much as you do, if you can match his educational needs with the skills he has.
Don’t Forget to Have Some Fun
Parents can easily become fixated on the long-term goal for their child: receiving an appropriate education. Yet it’s equally important to take a step back and remember that your child is still a kid, and he should be able to enjoy all that childhood entails. Don’t turn every weekday into a long series of tutoring sessions and every weekend into catch-up time for homework. Make sure that your child is developing hobbies that he enjoys and not merely as a way to prove that he is competent. What’s more, take time for yourself. You are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing just by thinking through these issues carefully and doing research. Knowing this should give you the space to put aside some of your anxieties and perhaps even take in a movie or go camping now and again. The worst thing you can do is try to deal with dyslexia by forfeiting the rest of your life.
New Tools, Same Challenges
In many ways it’s easier to be dyslexic in today’s world than ever before, mostly because of advances in computers and speech technology. In 2013, there’s more computer power packed into the cell phones in students’ backpacks than there is sitting on teachers’ desks. The acceleration of microprocessor power is making things such as optical character recognition and speech recognition ubiquitous. We see it with Siri, the speech application used in Apple’s iPhone, or the speech functions on Android smart phones. These fancy new devices allow you to talk into your phone and have your speech converted into text or read back to you. They aren’t presented as “assistive technology.” They’re just cool. And, more important, they are helpful. If you are a dyslexic person or the parent of a dyslexic child, I recommend that you allow technology to become your new best friend.