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Dyslexic and successful: Meet the victors

By Rediff Get Ahead Bureau
Last updated on: March 07, 2019 10:58 IST
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From memorising things to managing anger, these icons found the perfect way to overcome dyslexia.

India's prime minister Narendra Modi was recently addressing a room of engineering students when a young girl raised a concern about how the government can help dyslexic kids.

'Will this help 40- or 50-year-old men?' Modi remarked.

The joke was hinted at Rahul Gandhi.

When the young girl answered 'Yes' Modi responded, 'That will make their mothers happy!'

It was amusing how a room full of students erupted in laughter over a condition that affects millions of students and adults worldwide.

For those who care to know, dyslexia is a special learning difficulty, a neurological condition that affects an individual’s skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.

It can occur at any level of intellectual development. It impact one’s memory, organisation and sequencing skills, as well literacy and numeracy.

Dyslexia comes from two Greek words -- 'dys' which means difficulty and 'lexis' meaning language or words.

According to the Dyslexia Association of India, it's a very common learning disability that affects at least 10 to 15 per cent of student population.

Presenting a list of successful people who've lived, fought and survived the condition.

Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise

IMAGE: Tom Cruise went to 15 different schools and had difficulty learning and remembering. But he is also one of the few actors with dyslexia who managed to complete his education.  Photograph: Leon Bennett/Getty Images

Tom Cruise was 7 when he was diagnosed with dyslexia.

No matter how hard he tried, he had trouble remembering what he was reading.

'I'd try to concentrate on what I was reading, then I’d get to the end of the page and have very little memory of anything I’d read,’ the actor revealed about his childhood condition in an interview to People magazine.

'I would go blank, feel anxious, nervous, bored, frustrated, dumb. I would get angry,’ he said.

Gradually, he worked out a system that would give him an edge.

‘When I auditioned for parts and was given a script to read cold, I’d get the director and producer to talk about the characters and the film. I’d glean information from them and I’d use that. I got pretty good at ad-libbing,’ the actor said.

Tom accepted his weaknesses and focused on his merits to become a multi award winning Hollywood star.

Jennifer Aniston

Jennifer Aniston

IMAGE: Jennifer Aniston, a slow starter at school is a Golden Globe and Emmy award winning actor.  Photograph: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Like Tom, Jennifer Aniston too struggled at school thinking she was slow and not smart like the rest of her classmates.

It affected her confidence.

The Friends star realized she was dyslexic only when she was in her twenties.

'The only reason I knew (that I had it) was because I went to get a prescription for glasses. I had to read a paragraph, and they gave me a quiz, gave me 10 questions based on what I’d just read, and I think I got three right," she told Hollywood reporter in an interview.

When she understood her condition, it became easier for her to deal with reality.

One of the side effects of dyslexia was anger, which Jennifer Aniston has managed to control.

'I always thought, if you’re angry you just don’t say anything,' she told Independent.

'I just bite my tongue, especially with a (bad) director. Some directors are just like -- oh, God, oh God, oh God! I (have to) just suffer through this.'

For someone who had difficulty reading, Jennifer Aniston is known for her sharp wit and comic timing.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

IMAGE: The winners of the 1960 Olympic medals for light heavyweight boxing on the winners' podium at Rome: Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), gold; Zbigniew Pietrzykowski of Poland, silver, right; and Giulio Saraudi (Italy) and Anthony Madigan (Australia), joint bronze. Photograph: Getty Images

The problem with dyslexia is that if either parents have dyslexia, the child has a 50 per cent chance of getting it.

And if both parents have the condition, the child has a 100 per cent chance of being born dyslexic.

In case of boxing legend the late Muhammad Ali, he was born dyslexic and so was his daughter.

'As a high school student, many of my teachers labeled me 'DUMB,' Ali who barely graduated from high school said about his struggles.

'I could barely read my textbooks. I was lucky though. I had enough belief and self-esteem to carry me to greatness in other ways. I have been able to overcome my learning differences through my own persistence. But most cannot and most will not without the right kind of help,' Ali added.

Ali went on to become the greatest boxers of all time.

Richard Branson

Richard Branson

IMAGE: For a school dropout with no degree, Richard Branson is a successful entrepreneur, founder of Virgin Group, a billion dollar enterprise.  Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Richard Branson failed miserably at school.

His dyslexia was one of the reasons he dropped out of school at 15.

'I was dyslexic, I had no understanding of schoolwork whatsoever. I certainly would have failed IQ tests. And it was one of the reasons I left school when I was 15 years old. And if I - if I'm not interested in something, I don't grasp it,' Branson detailed how his condition and lack of guidance forced him out of academics.

Instead of giving up, Branson discovered his creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

He knew he had the ability to communicate in other ways. In 1966, he started a youth magazine called Student.

His advertising skills helped him open his own record store on Oxford Street in London. 

Branson's exceptional marketing, communication and entrepreneurial skills are lessons in management today.

Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg

IMAGE: Whoopi Goldberg is a multi-award winning actor, comedian, talk show host and political activist.  Photograph: Dominik Bindl/Getty Images

It would be hard to believe now but Whoopi Goldberg was labelled dumb and lazy back in school.

Like Branson, Ali and many others, Goldberg dropped out of school when she was 17.

'I knew I wasn’t stupid, and I knew I wasn’t dumb. My mother told me that,' the actor producer revealed in an interview with the Academy of Achievement.

Fortunately, director Steven Spielberg (also dyslexic) spotted her in a comedy show and offered her a role in The Color Purple, based on a book by Alice Walker.

Like luck would have it, Goldberg won her first Golden Globe Award and an Oscar nomination for that role.

Whoopi Goldberg is one of the few international artists who can boast of a Grammy, Oscar, Tony and an Emmy.

Jamie Oliver

Jamie Oliver

IMAGE: Jamie Oliver who struggled reading and writing as a student is a bestselling author and an internationally accomplished chef. Photograph: Tim P Whitby/Getty Images

Jamie Oliver is an accomplished chef who has written over 20 books. But he was 38 when he was himself able to read an entire book (Catching Fire, 391 pages).

Oliver could never complete reading anything when he was in school. He'd get bored easily.

At 16, he dropped out of school. But calls himself lucky for having the condition.

'I genuinely think that when someone says to you, ‘Johnny’s got dyslexia’, you should get down on your knees, shake the child’s hand and say: ‘Well done, you lucky, lucky boy’,’ the chef revealed in an interview.

'If I’m in a meeting, I just see the problems differently and I obsess about things differently,” he told the Radio Times about how he has survived the challenges.

'Sometimes, when it requires a load of stuff to be done, I just do it. It’s like I’m a massive, 10-tonne boulder rolling down the hill.'

Boman Irani and Abhishek Bachchan

Abhishek Bachchan and Boman Irani

IMAGE: Abhishek Bachchan and Boman Irani. Photograph: John Phillips/Getty Images

Back home in India, Boman Irani and Abhishek Bachchan have spoken about the need to sensitise and create awareness about dyslexia.

In fact when Boman Irani played the role of a principal with a lisping condition in Three Idiots, the actor was giving us a slice of his own childhood.

What most people don’t know is Irani had much struggle to memorise lines.

When he saw Taare Zameen Par, a film which discusses dyslexia, Irani admitted that he could relate to the challenges faced by the protagonist.

One of the reasons Abhishek Bachchan was sent abroad to study was because he had dyslexia.

'I was diagnosed with dyslexia at nine and sent to an European school, but only knew myself as a dyslexic after graduating,’ the actor revealed a few years ago.

'It's important to recognise the problem in the field of education and this indifference shown to slow learners should be stemmed,’ Bachchan said.

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