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The Abilities of Those with Reading Disabilities: Focusing on the Talents of People with Dyslexia

By: Thomas G. West

This compelling LD OnLine exclusive relates success stories of several adults with LD and argues persuasively for studying special abilities.

"Perhaps my early problems with dyslexia made me more intuitive: when someone sends me a written proposal, rather than dwelling on detailed facts and figures, I find that my imagination grasps and expands on what I read."

—Richard Branson, from Losing My Virginity: How I've Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way, Times Business, 1998.

"Don Winkler has a brain for the 21st century. A dyslexic brain. As other managers struggle to 'think outside the box,' Mr. Winkler has no other way of thinking. . . . In five years he has built the finance arm of Banc One Corp. from an industry also-ran to $26 billion in assets. How he did so says a lot about Mr. Winkler and the value of quirky thinking in a chaotic business world."

—Thomas Petzinger, Jr., "A Banc One Executive Credits His Success to Mastering Dyslexia," Wall Street Journal, April 24, 1998.

"His thoughts often seem to progress in a nonlinear fashion, which McCaw says stems from [his] dyslexia. …He has difficulty absorbing lengthy written documents and usually avoids them. That leaves time for him to do what he prefers anyway, which is to think and to stand back and take in the big picture…"

—Andrew Kupfer, "Craig McCaw Sees an Internet in the Sky," Fortune, May 27, 1996.

"I've always felt that I have more of an ability to envision, to be able to anticipate where things are going, to conceive a solution to a business problem than people who are more sequential thinkers."

—Charles Schwab, explaining that his struggle with his own dyslexia has led him to develop other capabilities, "The Schwab Revolution," Business Week, December 19, 1994.

The smartest lad

In 1896, in the first description of developmental reading disability in the medical literature, it was noted that a certain student could not learn to read in spite of "laborious and persistent training." However, his headmaster observed that this student "would be the smartest lad in the school if the instruction were entirely oral" (Morgan). The study of reading disability has frequently considered the often striking inconsistencies between high intelligence and ability coupled with surprisingly poor reading and writing skills. However, most research to date has focused mainly on the obvious problems to be corrected rather than the hidden potential to be identified and developed.

The quotations concerning the four highly successful individuals above would suggest that there is something about the dyslexic mind that sometimes confers significant and consequential benefits. (It is also no small matter, perhaps, that the Wall Street Journal article and others like it indicate that these ideas seem to be more and more widely held in the business world--where performance is so important, in contrast to other worlds where credentials often seem more important than performance.)

Given the right context, individual drive and adequate organizational skills, it would appear that, at least sometimes (and perhaps often), the dyslexic kind of mind can create much that is unexpected and highly beneficial. What is true for creativity in business, is often also true for the arts, technology and the sciences as well. Given the right circumstances, it would seem that this kind of mind can indeed have a great deal to contribute. But much may depend upon whether organizations, co-workers, educators and parents understand that the talents and special abilities exhibited by such individuals are often quite different from the talents and abilities most highly valued in a conventional academic context, especially the early years.

Plainly, however, reading disabilities and dyslexia are not always seen as closely associated with talent and high accomplishment. One of our problems, then, should be to try to figure out why some succeed in such dramatic ways while so many struggle fruitlessly in obscurity, never seeming to realize a small fraction of the their own distinctive potential. Perhaps some of those who have already succeeded at this complex task may be the best guides in helping researchers and dyslexics to understand how to create success where there is so often failure. At least initially, it may be better to look to highly individualized personal reports and case histories to see if we can learn new ways of approaching old problems.

Briefly put - real problems, real talents

Some researchers argue that the gifts and talents seen among highly successful dyslexics are merely more noticeable in such a population because of the striking contrast between exceptional capabilities and surprising and highly specific disabilities. They argue that a properly constructed study would probably show that the proportion of gifted dyslexics is likely to be no greater than the non-dyslexic population (Appendix A).

Others, following the approach of the late Dr. Norman Geschwind, argue that the nature and variety of the talents are directly related to the different brain structures seen in dyslexics--and that the problems and the unusual strengths come together in a package that is difficult to separate into parts. That is, the same microscopic, structural brain changes that produce reading difficulties and other problems, may often (but not always) produce brain changes and differences that can be highly beneficial in certain areas of work and life. Indeed, from this position it might be said that it is not so much the frequency and extent of talent within this group that is of greatest interest, but the kinds and degree of talent and whether these are unusually beneficial in different fields. In other words, perhaps not all dyslexics can be shown to be highly gifted in some way, but those who are highly gifted may have gifts that are unusual and somehow distinctive -- since theory would suggest that in this population distinctive neurological mechanisms may produce distinctive talents as well as distinctive difficulties. This perspective also suggests that there may be important talents in this population which are difficult to assess with conventional instruments. Some argue that dyslexics are often judged by the wrong criteria so that many talented individuals are being cast out of the system--depriving them of their useful roles, and depriving the larger society of their distinctive contributions (Geschwind 1982, 1884, Geschwind and Galaburda, Frey, West 1997).

Still others argue that the areas of proficiency often noted among dyslexics, such as visual and spatial talents (amid a great variety of other traits), happen to be just those talents that are recently coming into greatest demand--along with the newest computer graphic and information visualization technologies. That is, the particular talents that many dyslexics seem to have are seen as well timed for the technological changes which happen to be taking place all around us just now--even though most educators and professionals are wholly unaware of this trend and of what it will eventually mean. Consequently, the problem for some dyslexics is not so much their inability to do what is expected in school--but their inability to persuade those in authority that their particular talents have growing value while their particular difficulties are becoming rapidly less and less important (West 1992).

Members of another group see themselves primarily as strong visual thinkers. While not all in this group are dyslexic, it appears that many have had important educational difficulties, often in the earlier years, and may have near family members who are either dyslexic or have had a similar history of educational difficulties. While many members of this group have been able to succeed in business, science, global politics and other areas, they are very much aware that their usual way of thinking is quite different from most of the people around them. They find it difficult to explain their visually-based ideas to non-visual people. They also find that they can rapidly identify and establish rapport with other strong visual thinkers–while communicating with great ease and fluency. Individuals in this group feel that understanding such patterns will greatly benefit those with reading problems–as well as many others (Dreyer, Gleick, JK).

For some time, many professionals in the field have felt that looking at the gifts and talents thought to be associated with dyslexia would be a distraction from the serious business of correcting deficits in literacy skills. More recently, however, there has been a growing awareness among certain professionals and researchers that it is time for a serious scientific look at this other side of dyslexia.

This chapter is intended to provide a preliminary rationale for a program of systematic scientific study focusing on the various strengths and talents that are believed to be closely associated with developmental reading disability. Profiles of a few highly successful dyslexics have been provided to underscore the high level and variety of talent sometimes displayed. Reference is also made to a recent revival of interest in visual and spatial talents, their links to dyslexia and their links to extreme giftedness in science and mathematics. Finally, there is some discussion of recent research looking at giftedness among dyslexics. This discussion includes some consideration of methodological problems, since effective study of this population may require innovative use of advanced technologies as well as novel methodological approaches to a highly heterogeneous population.

Hidden talents

As we look for hidden talents instead of obvious weaknesses, it seems worth looking first at the very highly successful to try to see patterns--to try to understand what may be in store for the larger population. When we look at such examples, it would appear that they have many strengths that are often not recognized in school or university--but come to be recognized in work and in life. Seeing the longer-term implications, in spite of tradition, we become aware that we need to find ways of seeing and developing the gifts and talents hidden under the difficulties.

When we look at highly successful dyslexic individuals, we see that they succeeded by following their substantial gifts, not by focusing on their difficulties. Accordingly, it is clear that we need to find ways of bringing traditional education more in line with the changing requirements of work and life. The more we are able to do this, the more likely we will, in the long run, really help dyslexics and others more or less like them. We may also find ways to help non-dyslexic individuals in the larger society as well.

Achieving the impossible--Richard Branson

Richard Branson is not well known by the general public in the United States, but in the United Kingdom and much of Europe he is probably among the best known and most popular of media figures. Some may have heard of him as the wealthy hot air balloonist who has tried several times unsuccessfully to circle the globe. However, he is best known in the business world as one who operates (mostly very successfully) over 150 businesses--as diverse as airlines, recording companies, railroads, soft drinks and investment services. This is an accomplishment that for many strains credulity. In order to do this, it is no surprise that he has developed a distinctive management style, emphasizing informality and unconventionality, high employee motivation and decentralized enterprise control. Even his management philosophy is seen by many as backward. While other companies seek "shareholder value," Branson seeks happy and "cheery" employees--reasoning that if the employees are happy and having fun, then the customers will be pleased as well--and they will come back. He is also a master of doing a variety of unconventional stunts to gain free media coverage for each of his new ventures (Jackson, Strong).

In a recent autobiography and magazine interviews (Branson, Strong) and a series of television programs (Channel Four), Branson has just begun to talk publicly about his own dyslexia--and the connections it may have to his remarkably successful and varied career. When asked to define himself, he makes reference to traits and attitudes often observed among dyslexics. He explains: "I always loved the play Peter Pan, and I've never wanted to grow up. I'm a bit of a maverick. I love people, I love challenge, I love taking on the establishment. I love turning things upside down and having fun while doing it. I love motivating people, I love to achieve the impossible. I don't want to waste a moment of my life. I judge people within seconds of meeting them, within 30 seconds" (Strong 1998).

True to patterns familiar among dyslexics, Branson never made it beyond [his boarding school]. He couldn't get past his entrance exams for university. He attributes this largely to his sense that education was less than essential, but his lousy math and Latin skills--and a mild form of dyslexia--played a part as well. "I'm not dramatically dyslexic, but I come out with some strange words sometimes," he says. "I have a little trouble telling left from right. . . . That's why I paint my parachute release bright red, because I accidentally pulled it once instead of the rip cord and the chute came off ".

Many dyslexics note that they need to learn from observation and by doing--not from books and lectures. Branson sounds a similar theme: "I think the most interesting thing about Britain is that most of the entrepreneurs left school at around 15," he says. "Very few of them if any went on to university or college. I think the advantage of leaving school at 15 and starting up in business is that you don't have anything to lose. . . . You learn to become street savvy. And learning how to survive and learning from your mistakes is a lot better than trying to learn in some sterile setting" (Strong 1998).

Ridiculous questions--Don Winkler

One of the advantages that many dyslexics seem to have in the world of business (as well as science and technology) is the high value placed on innovative solutions to difficult problems--the more unexpected and more unconventional the better. Part of Don Winkler's dyslexia is his propensity to perceive everything in reverse. Yet this same propensity seems to have contributed directly and indirectly to his ability to see novel solutions. Banc One had hired Winkler to run a "sleepy" consumer lending affiliate called Finance One. According to a Wall Street Journal columnist, ". . . Seeing things backward yielded deep insights. Like any lender, Banc One rejects a proportion of personal-loan applications as sub-standard. . . . Winkler recognized that these unqualified bank borrowers were perfect candidates for the debt-consolidation and home-equity loans that his unit provided. So he set about turning Banc One's rejects into Finance One's referrals" (Petzinger).

Winkler now "instructs colleagues in 'breakthrough thinking' with backwardness at its heart." With personal authority beyond the usual motivational speaker, "he tells people that failures are stepping stones to success, that breakdowns can lead to breakthroughs. . . . " According to Winkler, the most essential element is "asking the most ridiculous questions possible, a practice he encourages by passing out clown noses. As he puts it, 'The dumber the question--the more people laugh at you--the more likely it will lead to breakthroughs.' " (It is noteworthy that medical essayist Lewis Thomas once observed that you could be sure that wonderful results were on the way when people in the laboratory started to laugh at the ridiculous, unexpected and impossible findings (West 1997).)

It may tell us a lot about the current state of business thinking and reporting that a WSJ columnist asserts that Winkler has "a brain for the 21st century. A dyslexic brain." It is commonplace for business managers to be told to "think outside the box," to think in truly novel ways. So it is seen as a considerable advantage to have "no other way of thinking"--thus honoring "the value of quirky thinking in a chaotic business world."

It is also no small matter that the WSJ columnist ended his piece with this request to his readers: "What can dyslexics teach managers? Please send your ideas to tom@petzinger.com." We may well wonder whether such business writers are just pursuing an odd and entertaining story, or, instead, are they setting forth observations that some day can be operationalized and tested--in order to learn valuable and broadly applicable lessons about learning and creativity.

Dyslexic visionary--Craig McCaw

Another notable example of business reporting putting a positive light on dyslexia is the May 1996 cover article for Fortune magazine in which cellular telephone entrepreneur Craig McCaw is described with the phrase "dyslexic visionary." For some, this cover article can be seen as a major event in the evolution of attitudes about dyslexia in the business world. It is significant that such a phase should be used by a major business publication, especially one focusing on the interests of senior corporation executives--those who presumably have little interest in apparent weaknesses that have no clear advantages in the competitive world of business (Kupfer 1996).

It is also significant that the cover text links McCaw's dyslexia quite specifically to his business interests: "Craig McCaw's Cosmic Ambition--The Dyslexic Visionary who Fathered Cellular Looks to Launch an Even Bigger Industry." Although the article deals mostly with McCaw's new innovative ideas about a global communications network, it does discuss McCaw's remarkable ability to anticipate trends. The writer points out that Bill Gates was persuaded to invest over $10 million of his own money in McCaw's new venture because Gates said that "Craig . . . thinks ahead of the pack and understands the communications business and where its going better than anyone I know."

The article portrays McCaw's dyslexia as a clear advantage in his entrepreneurial business environment: "His thoughts often seem to progress in a nonlinear fashion, which McCaw says stems from [his own] dyslexia. . . . He has difficulty absorbing lengthy written documents and usually avoids them. That leaves time for him to do what he prefers anyway, which is to think and to stand back and take in the big picture. . . . McCaw [says] that he is good at seeing circumstances from the other person's point of view, or at least in a different way from most. That helps him do what great entrepreneurs do, which is not to invent but to see the hidden value of an idea already in plain sight, a value that seems obvious as soon as it is given voice. McCaw didn't discover wireless communications--he was merely the first to truly understand what it was worth."

Envisioning solutions--Charles Schwab

Another example of a highly talented dyslexic in the business world is Charles Schwab, the founder of the highly successful stock brokerage company of the same name. Schwab often refers to his own dyslexia in press interviews--which is, of course, a great benefit in helping to change public attitudes, with respect to the links between high talent and various learning problems, especially in the business community. In addition, he and his wife Helen have established a foundation which has worked for years to help parents understand the problems experienced by Schwab and others (Robbins 1992).

Although Schwab had real difficulties in school and university with reading and spelling, he has made the point of asserting that he attributes his business success in part to the special perspectives that seem to be associated with his dyslexia. He explains, "I've always felt that I have more of an ability to envision, to be able to anticipate where things are going, to conceive a solution to a business problem than people who are more sequential thinkers." Like Craig McCaw and Richard Branson, Schwab is described by his associates as a big-picture thinker who can anticipate what will be wanted but leaves the detailed implementation to others--a combination that seems to work well in keeping his company at the forefront (Mitchell).

Indeed, well into mid 1999, this ability to anticipate trends and take advantage of new technologies before others seems to have been maintained in force--as Schwab continues to increase his customer base and company value by being the first large brokerage house to fully serve the Internet stock trader. Many companies seem to operate on only one or two good ideas and then, in time, they are gradually overtaken by others with newer and fresher ideas. The Schwab organization is remarkable for maintaining something like a perpetually youthful point of view, seeing each new trend and technological change, not as a threat to an established position, but as an opportunity to innovate and take major risks once again. This extended youthful view is not at all uncommon among highly successful dyslexics, in many different fields. The Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, for example, found that he had more and more wonderful ideas as he became older–using a delightfully apt (if dated) metaphor, "one poem leading to another as if he were smoking, lighting one cigarette from another" (quoted in West 1997).

Accordingly, the Schwab company, which had already created a new kind of brokerage firm seems to be well on its way, this year, to establishing a new kind of Internet company. A recent analysis of the Schwab company’s role in becoming a major player among emerging Internet companies is especially instructive about how well they have adapted to fast-changing conditions. A reporter for the Red Herring, a small-circulation magazine written for the venture capital industry, explains why it included Charles Schwab in its June 1999 listing of the 100 top "electronic economy"companies:

"Last year Charles Schwab was not even a remote consideration for the Red Herring 100. Analysts and Herring Editors were busy focusing their attention on pure play Internet investment companies . . . and didn’t consider Schwab to be part of the digital universe. We have reconsidered. Although Schwab may not be a traditional Internet company, its Net strategy is playing a big part in the company’s success. It’s not only the largest discount brokerage in the country; it’s the largest online brokerage: in January the company reported that it was averaging 153,000 online trades worth $2.6 billion per day. Schwab understands the Internet's two main attractions for consumers: easy access to information and a wide range of products. . . . In March Schwab announced that its net income for the first quarter of the year would be . . . close to double that of first quarter 1998. Although the company may take great pride in its redefinition of the brokerage business, we give it credit simply for delivering what the investor wants" (Semansky).

The MIT disease--Nicholas Negroponte

The varied talent mix seen in many dyslexics seems to be especially well recognized in the world of computers as well as entrepreneurial business. Both are areas where performance is measured by demonstrating working systems (rather than writing reports) and where anticipating technological trends is more highly valued than traditional academic skills and paper credentials. One of the leading visionary thinkers in the computer field is Nicholas Negroponte, the dyslexic founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More than a decade ago, he and others started work to form the Media Lab which was to be based on the idea that major industries--such as publishing, telecommunications, television, feature film, and computers--would all converge over time until at a certain point it would be hard to tell which was which. Of course, now these predictions are seen as splendidly and universally justified, as we are daily confronted by the reality of these expectations.

In 1995, Negroponte published Being Digital, a book of essays--based on a series of columns in the magazine Wired--about the varied longer-term effects of the computer revolution. Since the book is so explicitly focused on computers, it is quite remarkable that the first and last sentences of his "Introduction: The Paradox of a Book" refer not to computers at all--but instead to his own dyslexia and his difficulties with reading. The book begins: "Being Dyslexic, I don't like to read books." And pages later: "So why [have I written] an old-fashioned book . . . especially one without a single illustration?" He gives several reasons. Among these are the advantages inherent in the vagueness of words. When you read, he notes, more is left to the imagination and more is drawn from your own personal experience. In contrast, he observes that "like a Hollywood film, multimedia narrative" provides such detailed and realistic representations of things that "less and less is left to the mind's eye." Consequently, finishing his introduction, he says: "You are expected to read yourself into this book. And I say that as someone who does not like to read" (Negroponte).

Thus, Negroponte provides a remarkable example of one of the leading and most prescient communicators of the digital revolution referring in his book repeatedly to his own reading problems. It is also notable that on radio programs during his book tour for Being Digital, Negroponte commented that links between dyslexia and high talent are often observed at MIT-- indeed, these observations are so frequent that locally dyslexia is called "the MIT disease."

Some months after his book came out, Negroponte was featured on the cover of Wired magazine to celebrate the first ten years of the Media Lab. Playing on the title of Negroponte's book, the Wired article begins: "Being Nicholas--The Media Lab's visionary founder . . . is the most wired man we know (and that is saying something)." During the interview, Negroponte is asked whether he would rather read text on a computer screen or on paper. His answer reveals the matter-of-fact, by-the-way, manner many successful dyslexics have come to speak of their difficulties: "I don't read long articles period. I don't like to read. I am dyslexic and I find it hard. When people send me long [electronic-mail] messages, I ignore them. The only print medium I read every day is the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which I scan for news of the companies I am interested in. All the rest of my reading is on screens, and often not very good screens, because I travel so much" (Bass).

Ancient stigma removed--Lee Kuan Yew

Cross-cultural comparisons can be valuable tests of the broad applicability of certain observations. Accordingly, some researchers had felt the need to identify examples of highly respected individuals from non-Western cultures who would fit the larger patterns of high ability with some form of dyslexia or other related learning problems. It is difficult enough to discuss things that are perceived as possible defects in Western cultures--especially among men who learn early the possible cost of showing any sign of a weakness that might be exploited by others. As difficult as these discussions are in Western groups, they are often much more difficult in Asian and Middle Eastern groups. Foreign students who are tested for dyslexia and learning disabilities in American universities, for example, seem to have an unusually difficult time getting past their own personal denial. Apparently, they perceive a social stigma that seems to be much greater than that experienced by many Westerners.

Accordingly, it is some import that a series of newspaper articles in Hong Kong and Singapore had announced early in 1996, in no uncertain terms, that Lee Kuan Yew--perhaps the most respected senior statesman throughout all of Asia-- had revealed that he had "mild dyslexia." According to an account in a Hong Kong newspaper, "Singapore's elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew, known as an intellectual heavyweight in world political circles, has revealed he suffers from mild dyslexia. . . . The 72-year-old former premier and Cambridge-educated lawyer said he was tested by a British expert . . . 10 years ago at the suggestion of his neurologist daughter Lee Wei Ling, who has the same problem. . . . "I am pretty proud of him, all considered," [Dr. Lee] said of her iron-willed father who, as premier for more than three decades, transformed Singapore from a British colonial port into an Asian economic power." The reason for the testing was, as the elder Lee explained, "I had complained that I could not read fast without missing important items." Lee's daughter had learned of her own dyslexia as part of her medical training in Boston and realized that her father seemed to have similar problems (Agence France Press, Yeo).

These revelations were made as part of an announcement that royalties for a new CD-ROM of Lee Kuan Yew's life would be donated to the Dyslexia Association of Singapore. The association chairman noted that "now that S[enior] M[inister] Lee has admitted to having dyslexia, the stigma is removed and parents will no longer think that it is something to be ashamed about." Lee's daughter serves as a consultant to the Singapore dyslexia organization (Hussin). Lee Kuan Yew's personal revelation may also make us wonder at possible connections between his dyslexia and his visionary and long-standing political leadership.

Seeing what others don't see--Jack Horner

An example of a highly talented and innovative dyslexic working in science instead of business is John R. (Jack) Horner. Well known to young enthusiasts of dinosaur films and to professional paleontologists, Jack Horner was written up in the "Scholarship" section of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade tabloid newspaper for university professors. The article seems an odd, perhaps self-spoofing choice for the Chronicle, since Jack Horner is about as far from the traditional scholar as anyone can imagine. It is true that he has an honorary doctorate and now supervises 12 Ph.D. candidates. But Horner never completed an undergraduate degree nor, indeed, any graduate work--having flunked out of the University of Montana six times. Yet, in spite of this, as the Chronical article explains, after he had established himself, "his brilliant synthesis of evidence . . . forced paleontologists to revise their ideas about dinosaur behavior, physiology, and evolution" (McDonald).

Horner never earned an undergraduate degree because he failed "just about all his science courses, and never [completed] his undergraduate work." Although he had great difficulty with his college work, it is clear that at a deeper level he was continuously absorbing the knowledge needed to revolutionize a field. As Horner tells the story, his difficult beginnings helped him to be a risk taker. "Back in the days when I was growing up, nobody knew what dyslexia was. . . . So everybody thought you were lazy or stupid or both. And I didn't think I was, but I wasn't sure. I had a lot of drive, and if somebody told me I was stupid, that usually helped--it really helped me take a lot more risks. For someone that everybody thinks is going to grow up to pump gas, you can take all the risks you want. Because if you fail, it doesn't matter."

But the risks paid off. According to the curator of the museum of vertebrate paleontology at the University of California at Berkeley: "A lot of people have tended to underestimate Jack because he hasn't come through the traditional academic route. But he is, without question, one of the two or three most important people in the world today studying dinosaurs." Horner is able to see things differently and he observes things others do not see. For example, he believes that it is really of little interest to find the fossil bones of a very large adult dinosaur. What he is interested in finding are fossils of many dinosaurs of many sizes, in their environment, in order to understand the life of the animals and the way they interacted with other animals in that environment. Horner is known not only for his markedly different way of looking at things, but also his unusual ability to see, in the field, the tiny fossil bones of baby dinosaurs that other experts cannot find. According to another researcher: "He has a gift. . . . He can see things the rest of us don't see."

Horner is especially worth noting because, in spite of his persistent academic failures, he came eventually to be acknowledged as one who has transformed some of the fundamental thinking in his field. His story forces us to reconsider in a deep fashion what is really important in one's work and what is not. Horner proved to have extraordinary difficulties with things that are largely peripheral to his discipline--reading, composition, test taking. However, he also proved to be unusually gifted in those things that lie at the heart of his discipline--being unusually observant while searching for fossil bones in the field, being able to interpret the surprising patterns that emerge from the evidence, thinking his way beyond and around his associates, developing innovative and persuasive arguments based on looking at the raw data in a very different way.

Titanic talent --Valerie Delahaye

In recent years, a French television program was shown in Canada about the "brain drain" from France. At about the same time, there had been newspaper articles about scientists and engineers leaving France because of apparently limited opportunities--coupled with their belief that they would always be known for the schools they attended rather than for how well they could perform in their work. But this new story was of special interest because (along with a Nobel Prize winner) the TV program told of a young computer graphics artist, Valerie Delahaye, who could not find work or be properly educated in France because of her dyslexia. However, she found that she was warmly received by computer graphics companies in the U.S. They were interested in her artistic and computer skills and thought the dyslexia was not a problem--especially since they already knew that many digital artists are dyslexic to some extent. She has since worked on and had major responsibilities in many projects, including the feature films The Fifth Element and Titanic. With an enormous career boost from having a major role a film that won many Academy Awards, she has more recently moved on to help start a new computer graphics company in Montreal, Canada (Delahaye, West 1998).

Delahaye's personal estimate is that about half of all computer graphics artists are probably dyslexic. Some may think her estimate is rather large until it is compared with a study of art students giving a rate of fully 75 percent--that is, the study of first-year students in a London art school (Independent). In France, Valerie's difficulties with writing and working under pressure had kept her from passing exams--even those required to enter art school. In the U.S., however, she was able to have accommodations with exams so she could finally receive a professional education in her area of strength. She was not forced to be judged in areas that were largely irrelevant to her work and talent. She has expressed concern that the educational system in France still has done very little to address these problems and misconceptions (West 1998).

Delahaye’s work experience is especially revealing in trying to understand the complex relationship between dyslexia and talent. She explained that in making the film Titanic, she eventually came to be in charge of one of the key computer graphics teams--in which, as it turns out, all the other members were in fact dyslexic. Her team would job-out many of the less difficult computer graphic shots to small outside companies and keep the most demanding shots for themselves. Thus, perhaps it is not too much to say that a major part of Titanic’s enormous success is based on the high quality of the computer graphic illusions–and, in turn, the substantial talents of a small group of young dyslexics.

In hiring her staff, Delahaye found she had to pull videotapes out of the trash in the personnel office. The personnel staff would reject applicants based on their paper credentials and would not always bother to look at the videos. In contrast, Delahaye would not look at the CVs. She looked only at the video samples of their work. For example, she saw one tape where the animation was poor but the lighting was great. So, she hired the one who had done the lighting. She also noted that the dyslexic team members were easy to work with because they were so highly motivated. After so much failure in school, when given a chance, they wanted to show what they could really do. Also, they never had to read anything. When you are pushing the technology and the software to the limits, you cannot consult a manual or a handbook. You have to ask your co-workers. It is an entirely oral culture–perfect for dyslexics. Those who are responsible for education and hiring need to understand that many of the assumed rules do not apply when you are out on the edge of the really new.

Transforming occupations

Delahaye's story highlights for us the great changes that some occupations are going though at this time–and the increasingly evident inconsistencies between the skills valued in the old verbal technological context and the skills coming to be more highly valued in the emerging technologies of images and visualization. The old world of the book and writing required one set of talents and skills, while the expanding world of moving images and visualized information seems to require quite a different set. However, it would be wrong to see these changes as only relevant to the graphic arts in their varied forms. Rather, there are good reasons to believe that these technologies and techniques will in time spread to virtually all areas–from science and technology to business and politics. These technologies will provide a powerful set of new tools to analyze and manipulate all forms of information about ever more varied subject matter. And, as these techniques spread and alter the ways that we work and learn, it is expected that it is only a matter of time before visual talents show vast increases in their perceived value.

Some might argue that the move to images is really quite superficial--even retrograde, indeed, as it would appear to shift attention and effort from basic verbal literacy. However, a more persuasive argument can be made that, especially for the young, visual literacy will be as important, or possibly more important, than verbal literacy. Of course, you want proficiency in both as much as possible, but we should not allow real visual talent to be dropped by the wayside just because of verbal difficulties. In addition, a case can be made that the experience of this digital artist may be very close indeed to the experience of the scientists and engineers generally. More and more groups are coming to a rediscovered awareness of the importance of visual and spatial abilities--not only in art and design, but also in engineering and medicine, the sciences, mathematics and related disciplines. In spite of strong conventions of thought and common belief, we are seeing a gradual reawakening of interest in spatial abilities that were formerly thought to be relatively unimportant in most areas.

All forms of work are being changed more rapidly and more deeply that most individuals and institutions are aware. Of course, many of us are aware that many of the more routine functions of the copy editor, the bank clerk and bookkeeper are already being done more rapidly and more cheaply by machines. However, many are not aware that in similar fashion, it may not be very much longer before "expert" computer systems and artificial life "agents" learn to reliably replicate the more routine professional judgments of attorneys, engineers, physicians and investment bankers. Referring to the work of Stanford University economist Paul Krugman, The Economist magazine observed: "Lawyers and Accountants . . . could be today's counterparts of early-19th-century weavers, whose incomes soared after the mechanization of spinning only to crash when the technological revolution [finally] reached their own craft" (Economist). Accordingly, not only are the new technologies changing the ways of doing high level work, they are also eating away from below large chucks of what used to be considered high-level work. Both trends, whatever their relative pace in various occupations, are likely to often benefit the talent mix that many dyslexics have--as they also make their varied difficulties become increasingly unimportant.

More and more of those working at the edge of these new technologies, in the sciences as well as business or the professions, are coming to recognize the implications of these unexpected trends. For example, Dr. Larry Smarr, a physicist, astronomer and director of a supercomputer center, has commented: "I have often argued in my public talks that the graduate education process that produces physicists is totally skewed to selecting those with analytic skills and rejecting those with visual or holistic skills. I have claimed that with the rise of scientific visualization as a new mode of scientific discovery, a new class of minds will arise as scientists. In my own life, my 'guru' in computational science was a dyslexic and he certainly saw the world in a different and much more effective manner than his colleagues. . . ." (Smarr).

Some 50 years ago, Norbert Weiner, one of the originators of the computer revolution warned that it was only a matter of time before the computer eliminated the value of lower brain functions just as the steam engine had eliminated the value of unskilled labor (Weiner). Accordingly, we may well look to the supercomputer centers for evidence of trends which will shortly effect our whole economy and educational system–very possibly for the benefit of many dyslexics.

Rediscovering spatial abilities at Johns Hopkins

With these gradual (and not so gradual) changes it is all the more important that for some time the assessment of abilities other than verbal and mathematical abilities have been widely neglected in most educational settings. They simply were thought to be unimportant. Fortunately, this has begun to change as some research groups are gradually rediscovering the real value of assessing visual and spatial capabilities. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University, for example, provide us with a small window into what a few researchers are now doing--and how views are changing in a few institutions in ways that would seem sympathetic to the perspectives of strong visual thinkers and many dyslexics. These researchers have been trying to improve methods of identifying scientific talent at various educational levels and to better predict performance in science education before college. They saw that the conventional verbal and mathematical reasoning measures were not enough and they determined that what was needed was a good way to assess spatial reasoning as well (IAAY, Mills, Stumpf).

In their words: ". . . Spatial ability has been given only token attention as an important dimension of cognitive functioning. Research on the structure, identification, and development of spatial ability has been conducted by a few researchers . . . around the world and often ignored by the psychological and educational community. In addition, spatial ability has played only a modest role in educational assessment and instruction." The Hopkins researchers are aware that they are to some extent breaking new ground. Of course, assessments of spatial abilities have been around for a long time. But they have never been center stage. They have nearly always been treated as tangential to the more conventional measures of academic abilities. They note that although there are other research programs similar to theirs, they are the only ones so far using measures of spatial ability in a serious way. The use of computers in the Hopkins testing program is of special interest. One obvious benefit of computer use in spatial testing is that it allows the actual rotation of objects on the screen--objects such as blocks, twisted cables or molecule structures.

The other side of extreme giftedness

It is noteworthy that the Hopkins researchers have also found that to deal effectively with the most highly talented students, one must be ready to deal with dyslexia and other learning disabilities as well. This idea is especially hard for many conventional educators to understand. By training and shared experience, they find it hard to believe that it is not unusual for the smartest people to have dyslexia or some form of learning disability. It is to the credit of the Hopkins researchers that they began to understand clearly, early on, that they were seeing patterns of mixed abilities in their students--patterns that many thought could not and should not exist. "She is so bright," traditional teachers would say, "she must not be working." Or, alternatively, "if he is dyslexic, he clearly does not belong in our highly demanding educational institution."

But the Hopkins researchers, along with a few others, saw that some forms of learning problems are not uncommon among the most highly gifted. This is the reason that an explicit item on their six-point research agenda is: "Explore the benefits of using spatial tests to identify academic ability in students with learning disabilities. . . ." (IAAY). Thus, the Hopkins researchers explain that they are investigating "the relationship between the development of spatial reasoning and specific learning disabilities. Although there is much speculation about such a relationship," they point out that, "little empirical research has been conducted to establish its existence. This line of research would help us to better understand individuals with learning disabilities and assist educators as they plan appropriate educational interventions. . . ." Accordingly, they feel that "one possibility is the development of teaching approaches that utilize a spatial orientation for . . . students who possess strong spatial skills and who have difficulty learning in other modalities."

It is worth noting that the Hopkins researchers came out of a tradition started in the 1970s where they had been accustomed to dealing with only the most highly gifted students, in the beginning focusing mainly on mathematical talent. Indeed, for some time they have dealt with, as they say, the "one-out-of-10,000" gifted not the usual "one-out-of-20" gifted. In order to do this they have traditionally given a college entrance examination (the "SAT") to students five or six years early--testing students on a good deal of material they have never been taught. Then, they would take into their program only those students who received the highest scores out of very large numbers of students nation-wide (Benbow, Mills). Consequently, the Hopkins researchers had as their early focus, almost entirely, the most extremely gifted children.

It is therefore all the more note worthy that their research focus has moved, in time, toward spatial abilities, toward learning difficulties and toward the integral use of computer graphics in their assessment tools. This progression is seen as singularly important in gaining a sophisticated understanding of these patterns--which contain so many unexpected connections and linkages between things which were formerly thought to be worlds apart. Perhaps they have been moving through a gradual learning process that might be reflected, over time, in our culture and institutions at large. But we may wonder also at how long it will take before most organizations and conventional educational institutions begin to think along similar lines.

The Hopkins researchers see their newly-developed spatial tests as timely. They note that "spatial tests have been around for years, but have not been as widely administered as are tests of verbal or mathematical reasoning." However, "today", they observe, "some educators are intrigued by their potential. What" they ask "if spatial tests were added to the regular program of standardized assessment? Could they flag abilities that currently go undetected?" Could they "identify promise in students who now pass more or less unnoticed? That, at least, is the hope," in their view (IAAY).

New tools, new talents

Dr Norman Geschwind pointed out that what we consider talents and disabilities depends greatly on the needs for particular abilities at particular times--within a changing economic and technological context. Perhaps it is time to recognize that many of the problems that dyslexics have are, in reality, artifacts of an old print-based technological culture whose prime has past. Perhaps it is time to recognize that many of the talents that many dyslexics exhibit are, in reality, strikingly appropriate for a new image-based technological culture whose prime is yet to come.

As visualization technologies and truly new ways of working and thinking spread throughout the economy, in time, we should expect to see increased tension and a widening divide, at least in the short run. Of course, the wider use of visualization technologies should be expected to help everyone, regardless of their preferred modes of thought. However, as these techniques become increasingly sophisticated, a certain measure of talent and natural propensity toward the techniques are likely to be a factor of growing importance. These changes may make traditional, non-visual talents less valued, while they make traditional methodological approaches less relevant. Of course, in the end, both sides and both kinds of approaches will always be needed. But it may be some time before we have moved beyond all of this to circle back once again to an awareness and a genuine appreciation for a broad range of approaches and thinking styles.

However, as the changes progress, we should expect that moving from the one strategy to the other will have powerful consequences. Without being fully aware of the deep importance of what we are doing, we are now learning to use the tools and technologies which support the simultaneous strategy of the human brain--linked to images. In the past, developing a major part of our culture around the sequential strategy of the human brain has served us well, if imperfectly. It seems time to employ these new tools to fully develop the other strategy and make it a major part of our culture--balancing the two. Very possibly, this could be the most important change in the foundation (and balancing) of human culture for a very long time. And we are now only at the very beginning.

As we proceed along the way, however, we should expect the pace and direction to be set by strong visual thinkers and creative dyslexics who will often ignore conventional verbal descriptions--instead, putting themselves into their own mental models, talking with their hands. And, perhaps a broader understanding of the importance of rediscovered spatial abilities, coupled with the greater use of sophisticated spatial assessment tools, might help prevent conventional educational systems from dropping by the wayside many of those who are especially well suited to emerging families of new visual and spatial tasks --whether in creating grand computer graphic illusions for Oscar-winning feature films or using scientific visualization and newly-developed analytic techniques to understand patterns in an elusive stock market or in many-layered ecological systems. It is time to take a long, hard look at visual thinkers and creative dyslexics and begin to see how these individuals and our larger culture can benefit from new understandings about what we used to see mainly as problems.

Editor's Note: The following is excerpted from the longer article "The Abilities of Those with Reading Disabilities: Focusing on the Talents of People with Dyslexia" which appeared in somewhat different form as chapter 11 of the book Reading and Attention Disorders -- Neurobiological Correlates edited by Drake D. Duane, M.D., published 1999 by York Press, Inc. based on a symposium, June 28 – July 2, 1998, sponsored by the National Dyslexia Research Foundation.

References

References

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Note: some parts of this chapter have appeared previously in different form in In the Mind's Eye as well as in talks, columns and articles by Thomas G. West.

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Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth, 1997. "IAAY Research: Spatial Ability," unpublished overview, Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth, Center for Talented Youth, Center for Academic Advancement, Johns Hopkins University, p. 1.

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