Dyslexia is not a superpower or a 'gift', whatever Princess Beatrice says – Alastair Stewart

I can't stand Richard Branson's face. It's nothing personal.
Princess Beatrice, who has dyslexia, said any of her future children would be 'lucky' if they have it (Picture: John Walton/PA)Princess Beatrice, who has dyslexia, said any of her future children would be 'lucky' if they have it (Picture: John Walton/PA)
Princess Beatrice, who has dyslexia, said any of her future children would be 'lucky' if they have it (Picture: John Walton/PA)

When I was in school, Branson and other celebrities featured on posters espousing the value of dyslexia. But in those stuffy learning support classes, I learnt what patronising sounded like.

Princess Beatrice, who has dyslexia, spoke recently about it being a “gift”. She is the latest in a long line of famous faces, magazines, and campaigners who think of it as some kind of superpower. All seem blind to the long-term damage such a cliche does.

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Empowerment is a double-edged sword. People who are diagnosed must be supported and encouraged. It can seem the most insurmountable wall, particularly for adolescents whose lives revolve around homework and exams. Feelings of failure associated with dyslexia have been reported to lead to low self-esteem, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.

But when society sees the starry-eyed positivity of ‘neurodiversity’, it might just start to overlook and forget the daily challenge of dyslexia. This seems a truism of human nature. Our attention is finite.

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Dyslexia in professional spheres cannot be reduced to a series of successful celebrities talking about the powers it gives them. Those well-meaning soundbites disconnect from adult life and the world of work.

In my experience, dyslexia remains an awkward taboo, chiefly because it has more variations beyond the 'garden variety' challenge of reading and writing. I have auditory dyslexia. There is a family joke: if you send me to the kitchen for three things, I will come back with four, and they'll all be wrong.

This is not the simplest of things to explain. For me, there's a sort of disconnect between hearing words, lists, and information and retaining it. The message is taken in, on some level, but remains inaccessible by command. It requires constant adaptation.

I said my wedding vows with cue cards. My phone number remains a mystery. Verbal directions may as well be in Latin. My wife had to sit with coins and apples to show how a calorie deficit worked. My brother explains mortgages as I hurl frustrated abuse at him – I cannot hear numbers or lengthy information and compute it.

The daily professional pitfalls of a sparking short-term memory can be embarrassing. I may ask for more than one briefing. I consciously scribble down project details.

Sometimes when reading a report, it feels like I just don't see the information, as if my brain is slightly out of phase. Last week I flipped the pages of this paper to find my own article and overlooked it. Twice.

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Having written that, I feel the need to say I am not stupid. This is perhaps indicative of the broader problem. Nor am I living life on a thin wire of incompetence. I’m good at what I do. The difficulty is adapting natural defects in short-term memory and auditory retention into workable solutions.

This is not a superpower; it can still embarrass, cripple my confidence and occasionally induce a bout of imposter syndrome. 'Owning' something is far more internalised and less dramatic than TV makes you think.

Dyslexia Scotland reports that one in ten people are thought to have some form of dyslexia – over half a million people.

Like with mental health, we're living in a culture that loves to talk about talking if you feel like talking about it.

But to say someone is depressed still has loaded connotations. 'Learning difficulty' suggests a more dramatic problem; when someone finds out it is 'just' dyslexia, there is still confusion about what it means.

Presenting dyslexia as a superpower is a counterproductive lie and an impossible creative standard. Not everyone who has dyslexia goes on to become an entrepreneur or outstanding in their field. Many just quietly struggle, adapt and drive onwards because it's the only choice.

It has given me some odd balancing-out skills, much like if you lose your sight, you may have better hearing. I have a well-practised muscle memory that takes over from no recall (how I learnt to drive without 'remembering' how). Not having a short-term memory will do that.

When writing, my mind can go 'weapons free' as I call it. If I just write, ideas flow by themselves, and words and sentences fall together like a game of Tetris. I can strategise visually and link patterns together. It makes researching historical parallels both strange and exciting.

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A while ago, I borrowed Sherlock Holmes' mind palace to visualise things in a specific setting. Things 'come to me' at random; a song, or a memory or an idea like floating shards of glass twirling in mid-air. It feels like true inspiration. I've jumped out of my seat to find a book I read 15 years ago because it has the exact quote I need. Tidbits of information just appear.

This is not superhuman. Some seriously good hardware also underpins it. The web writing tool Grammarly is a blessing on par with the wheel. I read, edit and check work again and again.

Web-clipping services like Evernote are a godsend. Lists and lists for things to see, do, watch and listen to are as essential as breathing. There is nothing in this life not made better with an Excel sheet. Concentration is ably abetted by coffee, “the finest organic suspension ever devised”.

My nightmare scenario is when something shifts from a forward-driving awareness campaign to a fashionable badge. “I am dyslexic and proud” is easier to say than “I'm dyslexic, and that last set of instructions you sent me were total gibberish: could I have more time please?”

I am not suggesting we collectively adopt a Nietzschean obsession with struggle, strife and sacrifice. Nor am I so bitter to suggest that positive affirmation is negative.

But to help people help themselves, we need to be realistic, practical and abandon the need to plaster over complex realities with happy cliches. That, sadly, is unlikely to make a good punchline for a poster.

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