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Dyslexics of the world, untie

Order off the menu, don’t keep your condition a secret, and other tips from a veteran
Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon

Ben Foss has several techniques for ordering food at a restaurant. Strictly speaking, none of them involves reading off a menu. He might ask a server for the specials or wait to hear what his friends order before making a decision. Foss, who graduated from Stanford Law School, is dyslexic; his reading and spelling are on par with a fifth grader’s. But he doesn’t consider his dyslexia a disability, and in his 2013 book, The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning, he credits it with getting him where he is today. The book aims to reframe the way people look at dyslexia, emphasizing its advantages rather than its weaknesses. “It’s like we’re Macs, whereas the majority of people are PCs,” he says.

Dyslexic students, he points out, are often able to process audio information more quickly than the average person. Many are talented public speakers. He outlines these and other strengths relating to verbal, spatial, mathematical and musical skills in the book. “If you can figure out your strengths and play to them, you can actually be very successful,” he says. According to Foss, a major mistake we make with dyslexic kids is focusing solely on traditional reading. Though he concedes there is a benefit to “eye reading,” no dyslexic person will ever be able to do it as well as everyone else, so parents should investigate audio books and other forms of technology, as should schools. When learning to eye-read, he suggests using the Orton-Gillingham method, a multi-sensory technique that uses hearing, speech and visuals together to guide children through the phonetic components of words.

Dyslexics are in very good company: Richard Branson, Anderson Cooper, Erin Brockovich and Steven Spielberg are among those who have the condition. In the U.S., 35 per cent of entrepreneurs are dyslexics, according to a study by the Cass Business School in London. “A kid who is dyslexic learns to think outside the box, because he can’t do things the way everyone else does,” says Foss.

Henry Franks knows something about that. The 23-year-old dyslexic designer’s recent award-winning project, Dyslexic Objects, re-imagined several ordinary household items and gave them dyslexic, but practical, characteristics: an upside-down mug, inspired by a symptom called inversion, keeps drinks hotter for longer because it has a narrow top and wide bottom; a pen holder that only holds two pens in order to reduce clutter has a “poor memory.” Franks’s work has garnered attention from museums and design shops around Europe. “Creatively, I’m proud to be a dyslexic, but it’s still annoying not to be able to read like anyone else,” he says.

Foss says the key to unlocking potential is overcoming the shame associated with dyslexia and not keeping it a secret. Through most of law school, he would fax his homework home to his mother, who would read it out loud to him over the phone. “Why am I sending it to New Hampshire rather than knocking on the door of the kid next to me and saying, ‘Can you help me with this?’ ” he recalls. “I’ve only got one person I can trust who I know won’t out me.”

Foss dedicates a chapter to how best to open up about dyslexia. First on the list: “Craft a compelling story” about your child’s condition. He even recommends a public-speaking class. “You’re looking to explain your child’s situation to people who have the power to help or stand in the way of her learning.”

Foss only began telling people about his dyslexia in his final year at Stanford. Opening up to a professor, Andrew Grove, who was the CEO of Intel, landed him a job at the company, where he went on to create the Intel Reader, a hand-held device that reads printed text aloud using a camera. “That was a turning point. If I explain to people what’s going on and that I’m actually working hard, their attitude changes.”

He encourages parents to combat ideas that their children are “stupid” or “lazy”—criticisms he says slow readers typically endure. “Your kid is not broken,” he says. “If you can figure out his strength and teach him how to advocate for himself, everything is going to be fine.”