Dyslexia Redefined: Global Efforts and Local Events Focus on Learning Issue That Affects 1 in 5
(Editor's note: Since Congress first proclaimed October "Dyslexia Awareness Month" in 2015, organizations throughout the country every year put together events to teach and learn about dyslexia. Today Newsmakers is publishing a list of local activities, along with the reflections of our community's two strongest advocates on the issue).
By Cheri Ray and Monie de Wit
“dyslexic thinking." [ dis-lek-sik thing-king ] noun.
1. an approach to problem solving, assessing information, and learning, often used by people with dyslexia, that involves pattern recognition, spatial reasoning, lateral thinking, and interpersonal communication. (Dictionary.com).
This definition derives from the efforts of the dyslexic billionaire entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, who credits what he calls “Dyslexic Thinking” as the secret of his success.
“Dyslexic thinking is a skill that can give you the edge at work," he noted. "You’re likely to have strong problem-solving skills, a great imagination, and creative, big-picture thinking."
"I’m proud to be a dyslexic thinker," added Branson, who is determined to transform perceptions about dyslexia. "Redefining dyslexia as a skill gave me the freedom to pursue my dreams without barriers."
Spurred by Branson's non-profit, "Made by Dyslexia," the business-focused social media site LinkedIn recently added “Dyslexic Thinking” as a job skill: "By adding 'dyslexic thinking' as a skill on LinkedIn, we can help recognize the creative, problem-solving and communication skills people with dyslexia bring to their work," said Nicole Leverich, the company's Vice President of Communications, and herself dyslexic.
Branson freely admits he struggled in school. Not unlike the rest of the dyslexic population, he was terrible at reading, writing, spelling, and taking tests. He described himself as “A dyslexic school kid who had very little understanding about what was being taught and what was going on, on the blackboard.”
When he finally left school at the age of 15, Brandon has recalled, his headmaster bade him good riddance with the observation, “You’re either going to prison or you’re going to become a millionaire,."
It's a funny memory today, only because Branson ended up on the right side of that prediction.
Many other struggling students turned über-successful dyslexic entrepreneurs were just as lucky — think filmmaker Steven Spielberg; chef Jamie Oliver; real estate mogul-turned Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran, actor-turned author Henry Winkler, and even Santa Barbara High School graduate and financial innovator Charles Schwab.
All of them managed to overcome their academic difficulties by relying on their dyslexic strengths: determination, outside-the-box, innovative thinking; creative problem-solving and a way with people.
Consequences of inaction. Too many others are not so lucky.
The First Step Act, passed in 2018, requires that all federal inmates are screened for dyslexia. It was sponsored by Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, the father of a dyslexic daughter and the founder of a public school for dyslexics. Various studies of prison inmates suggest the rate of dyslexia is about 50 percent, with total illiteracy about 80 percent.
It is a great irony that individuals in California are more likely to be screened for dyslexia in prison than in a public school. However, the California Teachers Association for years has resisted routine dyslexia screening in public schools.
In 2021, state Senator Monique Limon of Santa Barbara sponsored a screening bill, SB.237, that passed the Senate unanimously but never made it to the floor of the Assembly. It was held up in the Education Committee, despite the lobbying efforts of dyslexia advocates, who were overshadowed by the CTA's political pros in Sacramento.
However, in an attempt to move California forward, dyslexic Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed a bill to provide for dyslexia screening in Kindergarten through second grade beginning in the school year 2025-2026. Unless education leaders decide to be proactive before the mandate takes effect, the time-honored, reactive, wait-to-fail approach will continue in classrooms locally and throughout the state.
This is where the work of dyslexia advocates comes in.
"The dumbest kid in the class." Not. We well know how schools across the country, and right here in Santa Barbara, fail students with dyslexia, as detailed by Emily Hanford in her report, “Hard to Read.”
Because we have experience navigating the journey through school for our own dyslexic children, we’ve been moved to help others on the path, through The Dyslexia Project.
During the first week of school this year, we fielded several phone calls from panicked parents trying to help their dyslexic kids find their footing.
And we’re currently working — against familiar institutional resistance — to secure proper instruction for a smart, frustrated fifth-grader in one of our local schools who is reading below a first-grade level.
It will take years of extra work, and piles of money, for him to gain the foundational skills he should have been taught by third grade. Add to this an incalculable effort to restore his shattered self-confidence, as he defines himself as “the dumbest kid in the class.”
Along the way, we’ve heard it all from educators and often found ourselves teaching them about dyslexia: “You’ll have to teach me about dyslexia,” said one veteran special education teacher, adding, “I’ve never had a dyslexic student before.” Another sighed, “I think we should just teach dyslexics Braille, since they’ll never learn to read.”
A former SBUSD superintendent confessed to not knowing much about dyslexia, and conceded, “I think dyslexics get the short end of the stick.” Yet another, addressing the difficulties so common among dyslexic students, “This is the way it’s always been and always will be.”
Well, not so fast.
While educators often acknowledge that they learned little to nothing about dyslexia during their formal training, they can make up for it now, thanks to another initiative by billionaire Branson.
Made By Dyslexia has teamed with Microsoft, to create a free, six-module, six-hour video series designed to develop more awareness about dyslexia as well as a source of essential information about teaching and technology.
At the direction of dyslexic Mayor Eric Adams, the 100,000 teachers in New York City recently signed on for the free, online training. Why not here? Why not now? As the promotional video for the training states, “Take a day to learn dyslexia. Change a child’s life. And change the world.”
Who wouldn’t want to do that?
Made By Dyslexia has also recently launched a podcast, “Lessons in Dyslexic Thinking,” a series of inspirational interviews with accomplished dyslexics.
We recognize that dyslexia can be confusing, even maddening, to deal with because of its many contradictions: Obviously smart kids in school who can tell a great story but can’t write it down. Brilliantly successful entrepreneurs who can make millions — or billions — but can’t read a balance sheet to keep track of their fortunes. Customers at a sandwich shop who panic at the notion of trying to decipher the complicated overhead menu, so always order the turkey sandwich. Dyslexic astrophysicists who display an uncanny ability to locate black holes, but have difficulty reading a novel.
Think Global, Act Local. During Dyslexia Awareness Month, we strive through our non-profit to promote dyslexia the way Branson does, “as a different thinking skill set, not a disadvantage.” In our longstanding efforts to touch hearts and change minds, we have applied our creative spirit to our knowledge about dyslexia.
We invite you to join us at our Resource Center, where we have assembled a collection of books, articles, reports, and videos, as well as our ongoing artistic projects: Dyslexia Assemblage Art and our photography exhibit, “1 in 5: The Face of Dyslexia.”
Thanks to a few quiet local supporters and a generous out-of-town angel, we’re able to maintain our outreach free of charge as we meet regularly with parents, educators, community members and even politicos to educate and instill greater awareness about dyslexia.
In October, we are offering a range of activities to educate, inspire, and support the community with accurate information and compassionate support for this widely misunderstood reason for so many unnecessary struggles in school — indeed in life.
As Branson stated, “Dyslexic thinking has been responsible for some of the biggest leaps mankind has ever made, from the light bulb to the motor car, the aeroplane to our exploration of space. So, it’s about time we redefined what it stands for.”
He added, “We should support and celebrate all types of neurodiversity and encourage children’s imagination, creativity and problem solving," he added, "The skills of the future.”
Our schedule of events:
Images: Dyslexia Awareness Month (dyslexia1in5.com); All other graphics courtesy of The Dyslexia Project.