While many celebrities speak openly about their experiences of dyslexia, I have never been so moved as I was by the recent BBC documentary Jay Blades: Learning to Read at 51. Anyone who has seen The Repair Shop knows that Jay is an articulate and talented man, who highlights that dyslexia can affect anyone and is no barrier with regards to the possession of immense determination and talent. That said, dyslexia can still be hard to live with. Thanks to Jay, hopefully many more people now know just how hard.
Dyslexia is more than just a reading problem – Jay correctly states that the learning difference impacts how the brain processes information – but that doesn’t mean reading can’t be a hardship for some people, even resulting in physical pain. That’s bad enough, but reading struggles are much more than actually finding it difficult to read. For instance, the impact on someone’s mental health and specifically what people who have dyslexia internalise when they are labelled “dumb,” as Jay was, which resulted in him labelling himself as a “loser.”
I imagine this could constantly be reinforced given how much people have to read in everyday life. Jay recalls a particularly poignant incident where he had to ask a stranger in the street to read a letter concerning a medical matter because nobody else was in the house. The fact this was a real event is one thing, but to see him telling it highlights the reality of the situation – in terms of him and others who have experienced similar – and all its sadness and urgency, because in being in need of help from a stranger to digest personal information, they also need help to master the skill of reading. Not only that, but it got me thinking about lots of other scenarios where struggling to read may be dangerous or harmful to someone’s quality of life. Medicine labels? Road signs? Contracts?
Jay admitted he is lucky in that he has a support network that helps him out when he needs it and that technology makes managing easier, but I wonder how many people may be struggling to cope with reading difficulties because they can hide behind technology. Far from meaning literacy is less important now than before, I would argue the opposite; Jay’s literacy journey shows that such difficulties have significant impacts on people irrespective of their age and every effort should be made to make sure that nobody who has dyslexia is denied help. Jay says he would never have passed his degree without assistive technology, and even so, a former tutor makes a point of saying he got a B in an essay despite not being able to write in academic language, which highlights how important the correct support is in a very real way.
Whether support fails to occur as a consequence of late diagnosis – Jay himself was diagnosed at 31 as a mature student – lack of resources, or as a result of feeling ashamed, it is no less vital. This isn’t just important for the individual themselves, but those around them, something that was beautifully illustrated by Jay’s family, and particularly in Jay’s determination to read a bedtime story to his daughter before she turned 16. It’s apparent that this mattered a great deal to him, as did his improved literacy meaning he could read a letter she wrote him. These things hint at the ability for reading difficulties to impact relationships and is perhaps the reason why Jay highlights the vicious circle of parents being unable to read to their children and the impact that this has the potential to have, both in terms of job prospects and the relationship between a child and a parent who struggles with reading.
The documentary’s power comes from Jay’s honest account of how dyslexia has affected him. To see it is to have a better understanding of dyslexia because he doesn’t shy away from how hard it can be; for example, his struggle to pronounce the ‘e’ sound in the word egg.
For those in a similar position, it validates the reality of their struggle and has the potential to make them feel less alone. That’s a gift anyone who is struggling with dyslexia deserves, and in making the documentary he has given it to more people. Relatedly, there is also the fact that in being someone who perseveres with dyslexia so openly and is undoubtedly a skilled craftsman it proves two things; one, dyslexia need not be a barrier to achievement, success and a fulfilled life and two, someone is so much more than the difficulties they encounter. So not only does the documentary educate people with regards to dyslexia, it inspires too.
If you didn’t see the programme, here is a 6-minute summary of the documentary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7l4v2Gs0iA
Gemma Bryant, Dyslexia Scotland blogger