Being Thankful for Dyslexia

A study conducted at the Cass Business School in London last year found that 35 percent of successful entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic.
12/26/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The past few times I tried to phone my Huffington Post colleague Dr. Alex Pattakos, I reached a "number that has been disconnected." Alex, who should win a "Soul of Patience" award, emailed me his correct phone number at least three times. En route to its destination in the "P" section of my address book, something strange has been happening: the 9's become 8's.

Up until now, my numbers and letters have been well-behaved. But with mischievous 8's and 9's playing with my mind, I can't help wondering, "Is this dyslexia?"

If it is, I'm not alone. According to the American Dyslexia Association, approximately 43.5-million Americans--around 10 percent of us-- struggle with letters that don't look the way they are supposed to look. Children who are labeled dyslexic are frequently called "stupid" by other kids, teachers, and parents who just do not get it, Adults like myself risk ridicule from our children and impatient friends, as in, "Whaddya mean you're dyslexic? You're a writer, aren't you?"

One of the most brilliant people I am privileged to know reads at a third-grade level. Jerry Pruyne dropped out of school in the 8th grade which he had endured for several years. A self-described "runt" in a family of 6 siblings, he was shunted among more than a dozen foster families. He says, "As a child, I wanted a real family. The truth is that nobody wanted me. I was stupid; therefore, I was unlovable."

He fixed that problem by running away from home when he was 12 years old.
But relentless shaming and name-calling accompanied him. No matter where the road took him, Jerry Pruyne believed he was stupid.

So "stupid" that he invented 300 scientific tools and devices. "There is hardly a home in America that does not have one of my inventions," says Jerry Pruyne, whose inventions include surgical instruments, the Water Pik, voice recognition software that he developed for IBM, and a shoulder rest for a telephone receiver. "My wife was reading the classified ads one day and I thought this employer wanted a vacuum salesman," he says. "When I showed up for a job interview, it turned out that they needed someone who could invent a vacuum device to measure atmospheric pressure." NASA took that invention to the moon.

If you're like me, you are probably wondering how a man who cannot read could invent scientific instruments? This is where it gets interesting.

Jerry Pruyne sees each invention in his mind's eye first. Then he is shown the diagrams he needs in order to construct it. "It is my sixth sense showing me the solution," he says. "It never shows the problem, just how to fix it."

This man who cannot read has authored three books without a ghost writer. The content appears in visual form. He describes what he sees in his mind's eye to a court stenographer who transcribes his words and reads them back to him. He authorizes corrections and voila!, the manuscript is ready for production. (Who Set Your Speed Limit? by Jerry Pruyne is available for free )

In his landmark book In Their Own Way, learning specialist Thomas Armstrong writes that "there are no learning disabled children." Every child has a network of intelligences that enable him or her to gather and process information. Some of our natural intelligences enable us to score high on standard tests. Kids who are naturally gifted in these measurable brain skills are called "smart." But students like Jerry Pruyne who have problems learning to read and write bear the wounds of education systems that do not teach to their strengths.

Jerry believes, "I was born to help people with learning disabilities." He now dedicates himself to helping students of all ages recognize their true brilliance. "Every child has something he or she loves to do. That shows how he or she is processing information. It's a clue to how a kid learns," he says, adding that that dyslexia cannot be fixed. "The reason there will never be a fix is because dyslexic children are not broken. You cannot fix that which is not broken."

There is more than incidental evidence to support his thesis. A study conducted at the Cass Business School in London last year found that 35 percent of successful entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. "Dyslexics who succeed had to overcome an awful lot in their lives by developing compensatory skills," said Professor Julie Logan who authored the study. Although they may find it challenging to read and write, adults with dyslexia often work from compensatory strengths that often include emotional intelligence and intuition.

A walk-through Jerry's Dyslexics' Hall of Fame is a mind-opener: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pablo Picasso are believed to have been dyslexic. Their contemporaries include successful dyslexics Robin Williams, Jay Leno, Ted Turner, and Richard Branson.

"I can count the number of times when I wanted to die because of the pain and shame of dyslexia," says Jerry Pruyne. "How do you make tempered steel? You fire it, fire it, and fire it. How do you make a genius out of a child? You bless him with dyslexia."