Learn the facts

Shame is the challenge of dyslexia.

When it comes to dyslexia, most people focus on reading or spelling. They should instead focus on shame. Shame is a feeling that you are unworthy because of something you are. It is different from guilt, which is feeling bad about something you did, such as stealing or cheating. Gershen Kaufman, PhD, a leading psychological expert on the general topic of shame, believes that the level of shame associated with reading disabilities “often matches, in intensity, the shame experienced over incest.” The shame related to dyslexia is often slow-drip trauma. Dyslexic children are made to feel not normal every day. We have included a few titles by Gershen Kaufman on our Resources page.

But what is normal? We avoid the word in all contexts, as it carries a lot of hidden values and moral judgments. When someone is presented as “not normal” in the context of mainstream reading, that turns into “not normal” in the larger context of school. Mainstream reading is seen as an innate skill necessary for schoolwork. When a child’s life is centered on the school day, being seen as a failure in this one skill can be the defining experience of a young person’s life. If you are terrible at a core life activity, in this case reading in school, you begin to assume you must be the problem, and you hide it. That is shame. Shame, and specifically the energy that goes into keeping people from finding out who you are, is also incredibly time-consuming, a luxury even the most facile readers don’t often have.

The key to success as a dyslexic person is to understand your strengths and weaknesses, and be comfortable talking about all of them, not trying to hide who you are from the world. This can be very scary, and you should not approach it all at once. Unwinding shame involves first understanding the facts, then starting to tell your story to people you trust, and eventually learning how to tell it to the larger world.

Dyslexia is not caused by bad parenting.

A common myth that parents too often buy into is that their child’s dyslexia is somehow a result of their mistakes. Dyslexia does not happen to your child because you are a bad person or because your Maker either hates or loves you. However, if you are asking yourself whether you or your spouse/partner have the same dyslexia-predisposing genes as your kids, the answer is yes, unless of course your child was adopted. There are rare cases where a brain injury can cause difficulty with reading, but this is not the case for the vast majority of dyslexic kids. As we like to say, “You don’t get dyslexia from the water.”

Dyslexia is like your child’s height. Yes, your genes played a large role in it, but your actions did not do anything to cause it. And if you can find the sources of those dyslexia genes in the family, you can begin to create a community that will make you or your child feel less alone.


35% of American entrepreneurs are dyslexic.

35% of American entrepreneurs are dyslexic, according to a recent study by the Cass Business School in London. Given that dyslexics represent roughly 10% of the population overall this is an unexpected fact. Dyslexia is a brain-based, genetic profile that makes reading and spelling difficult. It is often associated with stupidity or laziness, and it is our work to show just how unfair and incorrect this correlation is. Related research shows that these entrepreneurs achieve faster growth rates for their companies.

Take a look at the top 10 dyslexic entrepreneurs who have chosen to announce their dyslexia so far, and you will recognize individuals such as Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, and the founders of IKEA, Dole Food Company, AT&T Mobility, Kinko's, Maker's Mark, SPRINT and even DreamWorks, as Steven Spielberg recently announced that he is dyslexic. 

Entrepreneurship refers to much more than just start-up businesses. Entrepreneurship is a form of leadership that can be applied in all fields. Entrepreneurs do this whether they work in government, nonprofits, academics, or traditional business environments, utilizing the same skill sets for risk seeking, inventiveness, delegation, and collaboration. 

Being dyslexic does not mean you are stupid, lazy, or "a retard."

As ignorant as this statement may sound, 80% of teachers associate the term learning disability with mental retardation.  The most malicious manifestation of this myth often occurs on the playground, where other kids will use the slur "retard" to describe children who are dyslexic. Once you get to know people and you hear them use retard or retarded to describe something, it’s worth pointing out to them that term comes from mentally retarded, that that term is outdated even for people with developmental disabilities, and that in the context of dyslexia it is being used as an insult. 

One very effective approach is to offer an alternative. As one expert suggest, replacing retard with ridiculous is a good technique. “That coat is retarded” becomes “That coat is ridiculous!”

The other variation on this myth is that if you are dyslexic, you are just lazy. When disability is non-obvious and you can’t point to a specific physical issue that causes a problem, many people will assume that it’s simply a matter of drive. Ironically, the person who is dyslexic is often working two or three times harder just to keep up with her peers.

There are many different ways to read.

There are three types of reading. That's right, three. Eye-reading, ear-reading, and finger-reading.

A dyslexic person will never eye-read as well as his peers, and that is fine. Yet everyone needs to be exposed to vocabulary and ideas to be successful. If a person were 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 you listen to audio, that’s ear reading. When you speed it up to four times the pace of standard speech—a skill you can learn about in the Tools section—you are leveling the playing field. It’s not what the mainstream conceives of as reading. But that doesn't matter. It’s learning. It’s literacy. 

There is damage being done to a dyslexic person if you frame reading as learning and learning as reading. Imagine if we focused all of school on singing. Some students would take to this and thrive. Others would struggle. If we kept telling all children that they had to be good singers, we would be slowly traumatizing the poor singers into thinking they were bad people.

Let's avoid this in the case of reading... and singing! Once we let go of eye-reading as the only way to learn, we can embrace other options. Students generally put four to five years into mastering eye reading. We teach the alphabet starting in kindergarten, and by fourth grade the assumption is that students are now reading to learn rather than learning to read. I fully believe that all dyslexic people should try to learn to read and should be given world-class instruction in doing that, including the Orton-Gillingham system of teaching reading.  But it is also important to introduce ear-reading and other forms of learning at the same time.

If your child is dyslexic, it's better to tell her.

Frequently parents or teachers will choose to hide a child's dyslexia from him or her. Sometimes the child figures it out for himself in some way and assumes that because it is being kept secret, he should be embarrassed about it. Worse the child might jump to the conclusion that he is stupid and that he will always be that way.

When dealing with a young person, it is best to be both honest as well as give your child the full context of his dyslexia: both the social and scientific aspects that we’ve been discussing.  As Steven Spielberg put it after he was identified as dyslexic, “It was the missing puzzle piece.” He had to spend significant energy thinking through what it all meant to him, and even now it is still unfolding, a process that can take years. The more proof and context you give a child on dyslexia, the happier he will become.

Dyslexia is not something you outgrow.

"He'll learn to read just like everybody else. You just need to give it a few months."

This is one of the most frequent retorts that people who are either unfamiliar with dyslexia, or those intentionally trying to delay your access to services will use to rebuff your requests for help. While it is true that children develop the skill of reading at different ages, dyslexia is a response to a biological difference in one's brain, which has nothing to do with maturity. Formal identification performed by an expert will be able to distinguish between a standard learning curve for reading and the specific phenomenon that is dyslexia.

Dyslexia is a disability, in some contexts.

Many people will resist using the word disability to describe dyslexia. Yes, the term learning disability is not particularly attractive. The real issue is the use of the word learning. We dyslexics do have a disability, but it is related to reading text, not to learning.

Some people don’t like the word, believing that it implies that something is broken or seriously amiss, and will choose the word "difference" instead. Others will use a different euphemism, such as "special" or "uniquely skilled." We often avoid using the word "disability" when first explaining dyslexia just to avoid triggering this negative association.
However, it is important to remember that never saying the word is similar to renaming an up-and-coming neighborhood in order to sell more homes: suddenly the sketchy south side of town is called SOMA for “South of Main” in an attempt to distance it from it's former reputation as a tough neighborhood to inhabit. It's still the same neighborhood, though, and if you live there, you are less interested in what it is called than in how you will be treated.  
The key here is to get over any stigma you feel about the word disability itself.  We all have weaknesses, and you should be comfortable discussing them. Being able to say that you are a person who has weaknesses shows humility. Similarly, saying that you are a person with a disability should not convey that you are incapable, but merely that there’s a specific life area where you’re not part of the mainstream.
In a legal context it’s critical to understand that dyslexia and specific learning disabilities are categorically included under the term disability. It is important to maintain this designation when communicating with a school or an employer because of the legal rights and protections that come with the term. Separately, understand that the word disability is one that generations of people have fought to create. The Americans with Disabilities Act is not called the Americans with Differences Act. Under that law, the process of "learning" (and with recent amendments, "reading," specifically) is part of the definition of “major life activities” that can be affected by a disability. Dunking a basketball would not be considered a major life activity, so the inability to dunk is not a disability. But if you have difficulty doing something that everyone expects mainstream people to be able to do, you have a disability.

Talking about dyslexia has long-term benefits.

The world of dyslexia is replete with stories of people trying to hide their dyslexia by overachieving or by taking risks: The teenage boy who raced a motorcycle into oncoming traffic to prove to his friends that he was tough. The women who earned a triple black belt in jujitsu, breaking four bones on other people in competition to prove she was the best. These cases show that hiding this issue creates a downside in the rest of life, namely the desire to keep a secret at all costs including lying to friends or even injuring oneself.

You or your child will be much happier if you can get over the notion that dyslexia is best kept a secret. Tell people what is really going on and look for ways to rely on strengths, instead of being held back by weaknesses. This can be very scary, but if you review some of the videos in the Tools section you can learn about how to tell your story.

Using non-text-based learning is a ramp into a book.

Parents are frequently concerned that if their child uses audio or kinesthetic learning at a young age, he will not learn to read because he has become reliant on a crutch. These alternative ways of accessing information are not a crutch; they are a ramp. Referring to alternative ways of learning as a “crutch” connotes that the person using those strategies is broken. Without the crutch, the logic goes, he would heal on his own and return to standard, mainstream ways of doing things.

Dyslexia is not a short-term condition, an injury that will be heal over time. It is a trait that will last a lifetime and that needs to be incorporated into people’s entire way of being. Visit our Tools section to see videos on how to incorporate non-text-based learning into your or your child's life.

Dyslexia happens in all countries and cultures.

Dyslexia is present in every country in the world.

Interestingly, dyslexia can manifest in different parts of the brain depending on whether the native language is character- or letter-based, yet the overall occurrence of dyslexia is about the same. It’s important to understand this because difficulty with written text is not simply about letters and words. It involves symbols (for example, Japanese kanji) and concepts, and keeping them in order. 

The mistreatment of dyslexia people results in shame and negative, self-harming emotional states everywhere in the world. As a parent of a dyslexic child, or a dyslexic person yourself, you’re part of something larger than just your child. Do not let people convince you that this is some American invention that is the result of stressed-out parents or our particular school system.

Providing accommodations to dyslexics in the classroom does not lower standards.

Many people in positions of authority see their role as maintaining high standards for an institution or a profession. The teacher who chooses to drill her students on spelling every week might see herself as the person responsible for preparing kids—both in terms of skills and studying technique—to get good grades in years ahead. When you tell the teacher or those test makers that a spelling quiz or timed multiple choice test is not a good measure of a person’s potential for doing great work, they can become very rigid.    

Unfortunately, defenders of high academic standards are often measuring the wrong things. A useful analogy here is baseball. For many years, a major way of judging a hitter was his batting average—the chance he would get a hit each time he came up to bat. However, getting a hit is only one way to get on base; getting walked or getting hit with a pitch will also do it. All those factors, which involve being able to read pitches and work an at-bat, go into another measure of a hitter’s ability, on-base percentage. As portrayed in the book Moneyball (and movie of the same name), when the Oakland Athletics and, subsequently, the Boston Red Sox, began using these more comprehensive statistics to pick players in the 1990s and early 2000s, they began winning like never before.

Getting back to schools, the SAT has an extremely poor track record in predicting who will do well in college. One study from the University of Pennsylvania concluded that the SAT predicts less than 4 percent of a student’s cumulative GPA at the school. Put another way, the SAT misses 96 percent of the factors that truly matter when predicting a person’s success in college.  Indeed the SAT's own research suggests that a high school GPA is a more accurate predictor of your first year grades than the SAT.

If you measure students on their resiliency or their proactivity, rather than their spelling, you would be much more likely to pick true winners. So if anyone ever suggests to you that having your dyslexic child in a mainstream classroom means that the school’s standards are being lowered, you can point out that you are trying to find better ways to predict outcomes for everyone and that the current standards are often the problem. Instead, we want to make everyone in the classroom a better learner, and we want to figure out how to measure the qualities that matter to long-term performance.

Dyslexics are not broken.

There is no cure for dyslexia, because there is no disease.  If you or your child is dyslexic, at some point attempting to read the way non-dyslexics do will become grossly ineffective. However, with the right accommodations you or your child can learn with ease—it may just look different from what everyone else is doing.

Because of technological advances, including books as MP3s, voice commands on smart phones (e.g. Siri), and dedicated audio reading devices, problems with eye-reading or spelling perfectly are no longer a barrier to success. The written word is irrelevant. What is relevant is the word itself, be it spoken, rendered in Braille, or synthesized into speech by a computer. For an empowered dyslexic, access to knowledge is easy using the right tools. Visit our Tools section for videos about various technologies that can help you.

Dyslexia is not a gift or a curse.

The inverse of “dyslexia means you’re stupid” is that dyslexia is a gift. Many people point to the fact that people who are dyslexic are highly creative. The reasoning goes that if you can help children understand that their dyslexia is a magic and special thing, they will embrace it. Don’t try to gloss over the challenges that come with dyslexia. Not being able to eye-read well is a real problem in mainstream society. The dyslexia itself is neither a curse nor a gift. It is just a trait. 

There is some very interesting research in the early stages suggesting that dyslexic people generally have a different type of brain function. This can include the ability to see the forest (the big picture) rather than the trees (the details), as outlined in the excellent book The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock and Fernette Eide. It will be exciting to see this research mature and better understand the different brain patterns associated with dyslexia.  

Simply calling dyslexia a gift sets a trap for people. It creates an expectation that everyone who is dyslexic should be exceptional. The logic goes, if you don't become a billionaire, a famous actor, or an outstanding military general, then you must not be living up to your gift. Labeling it as such is also attractive to people who are still feeling shame about being dyslexic. Shame is the most dangerous part of dyslexia. The only way to deal with shame is to become comfortable talking about your entire profile of strengths and weaknesses. The risk of the word "gift" is that it becomes a kind of camouflage in which to hide, and hiding is the essence of shame.


Boys and girls are just as likely to be dyslexic.

There are a number of studies that show that the incidence of dyslexia in boys is the same as that in girls. One longitudinal study from Yale tracked more than four hundred students in Connecticut, demonstrating an equivalent incidence between the sexes. In another study in North Carolina, researchers tested children in first and third grades with the same result. There was even a study of two hundred identical and two hundred fraternal twins in Colorado; again, no gender skew was found.

It is true that there are more boys in special ed for dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities, but this is because boys who are frustrated by their difficulty in school tend to act out, and girls tend to clam up. Consequently, the boys tend to be identified while the girls are often overlooked.