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Commentary: Could dyslexia be desireable disability?

by on October 30, 2013 10:39 AM

Malcolm Gladwell was in our homes Sunday morning, chatting with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria about yet another astounding but logical-sounding concept in his next surefire best-seller, “David and Goliath.”

And as Gladwell was explaining his concept — that the learning disability dyslexia can actually be a “desirable” difficulty — I found myself thinking it sounded shocking yet familiar.

Indeed, it was. I’d first heard the notion propounded (in slightly different words) in a Class of 2007 graduation address at the University of Tampa. And I heard it discussed again at an October 2011 U.S. Department of Agriculture forum on the advantages of hiring people with disabilities.

The concept, as laid out by Gladwell, is that despite all our latest knowledge about how dyslexia makes it so difficult for so many to read, there is also surprising but ample evidence that many have overcome their disability and achieved positions of leadership in their chosen professions.

Gladwell tells how David Boies, born with dyslexia, became a high-profile Washington trial lawyer. He memorizes what he hears and reads when he has to. Sometimes in court he stumbles when reading aloud. But Boies figures his reading difficulty has an upside. He told Gladwell that “not being able to read a lot and learning by listening and asking questions means that I need to simplify issues to their basics.”

Gladwell notes that “an extraordinarily high number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic” — and tells us about one of them, Gary Cohn, who became president of Goldman Sachs.

The key, it turns out, is they all worked extra hard to overcome the disability and work around their limitations. They focused intently on alternative ways of gaining knowledge and mastered what they absorbed. Along the way, Gladwell recounts, most with dyslexia were also teased and tormented by classmates.

A remarkable conceptual researcher and thinker, Gladwell gained his insight into dyslexia and its problems by researching it. Meanwhile, Francesca Yabraian, who has expertise in dyslexia, reached very similar conclusions in a very different way: She lived it. A bicycle accident at age 4 left her with a lifetime of seizures (ultimately controlled in adulthood by medication). At age 5, she was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Chosen as class speaker for the University of Tampa’s December 2007 graduation ceremony, Yabraian encouraged her classmates and others to view life’s challenges not as obstacles but “opportunities.” She explained: “They can enable us to find sources of strength we didn’t know we had — people who can help us get around the roadblocks, overcome the barriers, survive the bumps and, yes, pay the tolls. ... And we will discover that just getting past a roadblock can be an energizing experience.”

Yabraian’s message sounded much like the message of Gladwell’s new book about how underdogs can triumph.

Like superlawyer Boies and financier Cohn, Yabraian also endured cruelty as a child. Not all of it came from children. She spoke in passing of her years in Dallas public schools.

“When I was 6, my teacher told me that I would never make it past the eighth grade,” she said. “In eighth grade, my teacher presented me with an award, in front of the entire class, for being ‘The Most Brainless.’”

Yabraian stopped there, not mentioning she had run from the classroom in tears. Yet that potential life-shattering experience became her life-molding experience. After all, she was standing there as an honors program achiever and the graduation speaker of her college class.

Two years ago, I saw Yabraian again. She was participating in a panel at the USDA in Washington, where she works as a confidential executive assistant. Her boss, a deputy assistant secretary, was telling an auditorium audience that hiring people with disabilities is more than just a government goal — because those who’ve had to work extra hard to achieve become the most productive employees.

Indeed, when Yabraian showed her superiors that the USDA’s management website was not just out of date but obsolete, they formed a committee to develop a new website — and named Yabraian as its chairwoman. She ran the interdepartmental meetings that produced new solutions and a successful new website launch (which, as we’ve recently seen, doesn’t always happen in Washington).

“Dyslexia — in the best of cases — forces you to develop skills that might otherwise have lain dormant,” Gladwell writes. His provocatively titled chapter —”You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?” — is a calculated overreach. But it’s not about selling books. It’s about selling a sharply honed concept.



Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
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