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The impact of dyslexia on a reader

Dyslexia Awareness Week in Scotland takes place in November. Ross Duncan wrote for us about his experiences with dyslexia.

Last updated: 15 May 2023

In a career spanning ten years, I worked in the National Library of Scotland. For many people it may sound idyllic being surrounded by so much reading material. But not for me. I found I didn’t always share my colleagues' passion and enthusiasm for reading and books. I often felt excluded because of this, and it wasn’t until I was 42 years old that I discovered I was dyslexic. Like most people, I was born with it.

On a visit to my parents’ home, I took a notion to buy and read a specific book about a hero of mine, Sir Jackie Stewart(this link will open in a new window). I had been very much involved as a motorsport official for a number of years and was keen to learn something of him. What I didn’t expect to find was that his story mirrored my own struggles and experiences: we were both around the same age when we first discovered that we were dyslexic.

"It wasn’t until I was 42 years old that I discovered I was dyslexic. Like most people, I was born with it."

After that, as a way to raise awareness of dyslexia, I started to interview others about it. The very first person I interviewed was Sir Jackie Stewart. I even had Jay Leno(this link will open in a new window) call me from Hollywood to publish a story about him. I have now interviewed a number of people linked to dyslexia for national and international dyslexia charities and HR magazines as well as my blog, rossrduncan.com(this link will open in a new window).

The impact of dyslexia is best summed up by a Dyslexia International publication that was originally commissioned by the KPMG Foundation(this link will open in a new window) in 2006, which highlighted the long-term UK economic impact:

“The total resulting costs to the public purse arising from failure to master basic literacy skills in the primary school years are estimated at between £5,000 and £43,000 per individual to the age of 37, and between £5,000 and £64,000 over a lifetime. This works out at a total of £198 million to £2.5 billion every year.”

Dyslexia is variable, which means it differs from person to person. It affects 10% of the population and is thought to be inherited. This was highlighted to me in a recent interview with George Bamford, the owner of Bamford Watch Department. He identified four generations of his family as having dyslexia. George’s grandfather established J. C. Bamford Excavators Limited in 1945, universally known as JCB. George is a prolific listener to audio books, a technical alternative to a printed book.

"A number of influential and successful people happen to be dyslexic, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs."

An article written by Valiswaverider (this link will open in a new window)in Nov 2015 mentioned that “dyslexia is most often addressed as an educational issue.” It goes on to say that “society deems illiteracy as socially undesirable and also equates it with low intellectual ability”. Dyslexia has often been seen as a barrier to success, but it may surprise you to know that a number of influential and successful people happen to be dyslexic, including Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

According to author Iain McKinnon, dyslexics gravitate to subjects that don’t need as much skill in written assessments, like technical drawing or home economics. Iain is himself dyslexic and eventually went on to use adaptive technology “to release his creative potential”. He holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing and an ordinary degree in Psychology. For him, what stands in the way of engaging with literacy is comprehension. Intelligence is not a function of literacy. The things that literacy promotes is exposure to new ideas and concepts, critical thinking, problem-solving engagement and perseverance and these are the by-products of reading: “we are no longer constricted to the printed word”.

The use of adaptive software and the continual innovation of modern technology has meant that people with dyslexia can now more easily understand and appreciate printed material, when in the past this wouldn’t have been possible. Using different methods to read and to write should not be seen as being that awkward or unusual, but should be embraced in the spirit of inclusion.

Having gone through many years of thinking I was thick, stupid and lazy for not always being able to understand printed material, my writing has provided me with a gateway and an opportunity to prove that I am not any of these. At the same time I have been able to share a positive message with others and to raise awareness of dyslexia. But interviewing and writing about famous people with dyslexia has unearthed some amazing stories. I will always be grateful that they have shown such willingness to share their story to benefit others.