Matt Hancock’s recent decision to “come out” as dyslexic has drawn sneers from some. “That’s why he speaks so badly,” joked one prankster. Even the usually mild-mannered Phillip Schofield nastily asked Hancock if his dyslexia was to blame for his misinterpretation of social distancing rules. Still, while some scoffed at the former health secretary’s confession, I found it refreshing – and a relief. Because I’m also a secret dyslexic but I never admitted it because it felt like professional suicide.
It seems silly that Hancock talked about “showing off” as dyslexic, a phrase usually reserved for revealing your sexuality. Given that I came out bisexual to the readers of the Telegraph a few months ago, this seems particularly ridiculous to me but in truth I am more concerned with revealing that I am dyslexic than admitting that I sometimes date women. .
When I wrote about falling in love with a woman, readers contacted me to congratulate me on my bravery. I don’t expect the same sympathetic response to admit I can’t spell.
Hancock confessed his shame at his dyslexia and his fear that it would affect his career, which is why he kept it a secret for so long. I know how it feels. I know how embarrassing it is to make constant mistakes that make you look thick. The dread of slipping through work emails, the constant frustration that no matter how many times you check, errors creep in.
Dyslexia has caused me endless social embarrassment. The embarrassment of not being able to write or understand unusual names (by which I mean anything longer than two syllables). The terrible pounding I still get in my chest, reminded of school, when it’s my turn to read something in public.
Dyslexia creates constant silly problems as I ping texts littered with misspellings, regularly pick up the wrong things at the supermarket because I read the label wrong, and order the wrong thing at restaurants – excited for shrimp “grilled” that arrive “frozen”. I regularly sign my own name incorrectly on emails. Even the word “dyslexia” seems to have been designed to be deliberately difficult.
Just this week, on vacation with another dyslexic friend, we found ourselves caught off guard when we upgraded our flight to Premium Economy, precisely because the airline’s website promised it meant we could use the living room “for free”. Except that on arrival at the airport, specifies the hostess, it is not at all what he says, but rather that access to the lounge is “paid”. We walked away embarrassed.
As a journalist, my dyslexia is a constant pain, a burden that can seem exhausting. I have to work twice as hard as other writers to check my writing and misspellings and mistakes always creep in embarrassingly. On Twitter, the breakneck speed at which text is shared makes the platform a peculiar minefield.
These are issues that I’ve never discussed with publishers because…well, I’m like, what could they do about it? Isn’t it my fault? You don’t accept a job as a secretary, then you complain that you can’t type. I’m the one who chose to make a living from writing and that’s my problem to solve. Last week, when writing about teaching, I considered mentioning my own English teachers and how they inspired my love of writing. But the truth is that I had a much more strained relationship with them. I found studying English overwhelming and infuriating because no matter how much work I put into thoughtful literary criticism and dreamy creative writing, my teachers always seemed to be much more focused on my terrible spelling and grammar. . The stories and essays I’d spent weeks writing proudly came back covered in blush that rose to my cheeks. My inability to spell always seems far more important than my ideas or my creativity.
By the time I reached sixth grade, my spelling was so bad that my English teacher suggested I might be dyslexic. However, my mother refused to have me tested. She knew very well how much I loved English and that I dreamed of becoming a writer and feared that calling me dyslexic would hold me back. “Labelling theory” describes how psychologists suggest that assigning labels to people might have the negative impact of encouraging them to respect and be limited by those identities. So, refusing to be called “dyslexic”, they instead let me do it, continue to find workarounds and manage my difficulties. I went on, first studying English literature at university (graduating with a first), then embarking on my dream career of writing for a living.
Was this the right way to do things? I wouldn’t say. But I know I’ve been saddened by the number of people I’ve met who have told me they’ve stopped writing or reading because they have dyslexia. On the other hand, I never accepted the idea that I had to be limited.
Eventually I confirmed I was dyslexic in college in my early twenties (I went there as a mature student) when I heard they were offering free laptops to dyslexic students – so I went to take the test. Yet, in exchange for a free Apple Mac, I had to endure the indignity of taking special classes where I (a 23-year-old A student) had to do the letters of the alphabet with modeling clay. And gave away a book called The Gift of Dyslexia which I never read because I found it too condescending.
Maybe if I had read it, it would have told me about some of the benefits of dyslexia. That dyslexics spot patterns faster than others, distill complex information quickly, are adept at lateral thinking, imaginatively innovative; that we are master storytellers with high emotional intelligence. The same gifts that Hancock is keen to encourage. And yet, while I applaud his move to destigmatize dyslexia, I have mixed feelings about his plans to introduce early testing. I wonder how I would have been affected by being labeled dyslexic early on and if it could have crushed my writing dreams, and only held me back.
This week I have been obsessed with…
- “Taste Liverpool. Drink Bordeaux,” a new immersive food festival held across the city from Thursday, June 2-5, featuring cooking demonstrations, foodie cultural events, and special menus at restaurants across the city showcasing Bordeaux wines.
- Rapper Tinie Tempah’s venture into soul food with a fried chicken brand named RAPS features a menu that includes Peng Wings, fried chicken, plantain and “Unruly” fried jerk chicken wraps, none of which are is still delivered to Somerset.
- DogFest, the only festival worth bothering, dedicated to a woman’s best friend, held in seven locations across the UK and conclusive proof that dogs are better than cats.