3. Reading a Dyslexia List

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety. And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows.)

Visit http://www.dyslexia.com/famous.htm and you will find: Famous People with the Gift of Dyslexia. It’s an impressive list. It makes the point that there are lots of dyslexics out there, some of them very successful. But, as about 10% of the population is dyslexic that is as it should be. Also, that so far as these people are concerned it’s not a shameful secret. (That said, quite a few of them are dead and wouldn’t have been familiar with the word anyway.) However, while this list neglects to mention the 40% of the population in prison (not famous enough) and Adolph Hitler (who wants him on their list?) what makes it more interesting than other lists of its kind is that it places the famous dyslexics in their job categories, so it’s possible to get a sense of where they congregate.

As dyslexia influences the way the world is perceived and is supposed to make dyslexics predisposed towards careers in art and design you might expect to find artists topping this list. Wrong – only 15 names! Yes, they have both Leonards and Picasso on their side, but the art team shares third place with the scientist. It is the Writers and journalists, with 27 names, who come first followed by Actors, with 20 names.
At the time of writing (28th October 2015) the numbers look like this:
Writers and Journalists 27
Actors 20
Artists and designers 15
Scientists 15
Entrepreneurs 14
Athletes 10
Politicians 08
Musicians and vocalists 06
Law 03
Physicians & Surgeons 02
War Heroes 01

It made me think. For a start, I refuse to believe that that great army of dyslexics, 10% of the population going back to the birth of time, can only muster one war hero. What seems more likely is that dyslexics channel themselves into jobs where they won’t have to be challenged by their weaknesses on a daily basis. Traditionally, armies had lots of jobs that didn’t involve writing so perhaps dyslexia just wasn’t noteworthy. (It’s only a guess but without evidence what else can you do?) That may change, friends tell me that even in the army literacy is increasingly important.

Going on up the list you have 2 medics and 3 lawyers, jobs that are heavy on the traditional weaknesses of accurate reading and writing (don’t worry I’m getting to the writers) and also have stringent entry requirements. They tend to demand the kind of consistently good exam grades that many find difficult to achieve as well as good memories and information retrieval skills. So no surprises there.

What is more surprising to me is that the musicians and vocalists can only muster six names, especially as there are so many actors and some of them will also be vocalist. There will be issues with reading music as there will be with losing your place on the page and possibly with instructions. I can’t help wondering where dyslexic musicians are to be found in greater numbers. Is it amongst the jazzers with their greater emphasis on improvisation or amongst the classical players with their more rigid codes of playing behaviour? Someone out there must have researched it.

Moving on through the politicians (who knows what it takes to become one?) and the athletes and you get to what seems at first glance to be a collection of people engaged in creative activities, be they making paintings or new business opportunities. Look again. I would argue that these people are all happy to work alone, in their own ways. Even the actors can do much of the initial hard work of learning lines in the privacy of their homes. Look at it like that and it becomes no surprise that writers and journalists (I suspect they’re freelance journalists) top the list. It’s a job ideally suited to all who like to work in private without their muddles and mistakes being made in public. Artists and designers are here clumped together, which is a pity. As I understand them, they are different activities, as are the jobs of novelist and staff journalist. (I.e. novelists can work in the privacy of their homes staff journalists work in busy offices.) For my purposes here, designers are creating things with a utilitarian purpose and therefore engage directly with communities of users and markets (or hope to) whereas artists are making things with a purely aesthetic or intellectual function.

Looking at this list it’s striking that the more a worker is able to work on his or her own the more dyslexics seem to thrive. Certainly, actors have to work in public, but my contention is that they do the difficult dyslexic bit in private. As (to make a popular generalisation) dyslexics are often articulate and have good people skills of various kinds once you get beyond the initial rote learning part of the job it would seem to be a very logical career choice. As for those scientists and entrepreneurs, well they can work in small teams of like-minded people which is, I suppose, the next best thing.

Looking at this list it occurs to me that dyslexia may be a gift if you are able to work on your own terms and in your own way, be you a writer or an artist. On the other hand, if it’s a career in medicine or law you want you could be forgiven for thinking that the gift you were given was a poison chalice. But us dyslexics knew that back in Year 1.