Professors and leading scientists in learning development at the Yale School of Medicine hosted a conference on dyslexia Friday to advocate for public awareness of the learning disability and improved public policy addressing the needs of students with dyslexia.
The conference, entitled “Slow Readers, Fast Thinkers: It Takes a Dyslexic Brain,” took place at the Yale School of Management and drew a wide range of prominent dyslexic speakers who shared stories about dealing with the learning disability. According to Sally Shaywitz, professor in learning development at the Yale School of Medicine and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, 10 million people in the U.S., including as many as one in five students, are affected by dyslexia.
“It is highly appropriate that this event takes place at Yale University, the national leader in implementing scientific knowledge of dyslexia in its practices,” Shaywitz said during her welcome remarks. She also congratulated Yale’s Admissions Office and the administration for developing state-of-the-art knowledge of dyslexia over the past three decades and adopting appropriate accommodations, including foreign language waivers and extended exam times, that allow dyslexic students to thrive.
Bennett Shaywitz, Sally Shaywitz’s husband and the other co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity, explained that in the last two decades, neuroscientists have come to understand the neural bases of reading and dyslexia. Evidence from functional neuroimaging shows that dyslexic readers have insufficient functioning in the posterior neural systems of their brain, making it difficult for them to form connections between written words and their pronunciations, he added.
In her remarks, Sally Shaywitz discussed the “Seas of Strengths” model, which offers an alternative understanding of dyslexia. The model focuses on the “sea” of strengths dyslexic individuals have, including critical thinking, concept formation, problem solving, vocabulary and creativity. She added that the key in treating dyslexia is to “remediate the weakness but not to forget the strength.”
Shaywitz said that according to research from 2010, for dyslexic readers, reading ability has little correlation with intelligence level — in fact, individuals with dyslexia tend to be fast and out-of-the-box thinkers despite their difficulty with reading. With early diagnosis and evidence-based intervention programs, students with dyslexia can improve their reading skills, develop their strengths and achieve academic success, she added.
The panelists present at the conference provided living examples of high-achieving individuals with dyslexia.
David Boies LAW ’66, an attorney who has represented the U.S. government and former Vice President Al Gore, shared his story of dealing with dyslexia when he was a student at Yale Law School. Boies said he learned to listen “really carefully” in class.
“[Dyslexia] doesn’t relate to who they are, doesn’t relate to their intelligence, or doesn’t relate to what they can do,” Boies said. “It is an input issue. As you grow older, input gets less and less important and processing becomes more and more important, and the processing part is where we excel.”
Brian Grazer, Academy Award-winning producer of the film “A Beautiful Mind,” co-founder of Imagine Entertainment and one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015, recounted feeling humiliated as a child because he was not able to read and could not answer the teacher’s questions.
Shaywitz reminded the audience that these successful panelists only represent a small portion of the dyslexic community, adding that many dyslexic individuals are not diagnosed.
Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, who also spoke at the conference, emphasized the need for the government to address dyslexia, noting that the learning disorder affects 20 percent of the population and could account for 80 percent of illiteracy in the nation. Cassidy emphasized that social policies must be sensitive to the socioeconomic differences that make it even harder for the socioeconomically disadvantaged to have their dyslexia addressed.
The day before the conference, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan resolution, introduced by Cassidy, that designates October 2015 “National Dyslexia Awareness Month.”
“What we face now is not a knowledge gap, but an action gap,” Shaywitz said, adding that there need to be more efforts to raise public awareness about dyslexia.
Famous entrepreneurs, scientists and artists with dyslexia include Charles Schwab, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and John Lennon.