Fortune Magazine

Cover Story:
Overcoming Dyslexia

HEALTH: Overcoming Dyslexia
FORTUNE examines business leaders and artists who have gone beyond the limitations of dyslexia.
Monday, May 13, 2002
By Betsy Morris

See Origional Atrical In Fortune Magazine [click]

Kinko's founder, Paul Orfalea Photo: Meredith Heuer)

Consider the following four dead-end kids.

One was spanked by his teachers for bad grades and a poor attitude. He dropped out of school at 16. Another failed remedial English and came perilously close to flunking out of college. The third feared he'd never make it through school--and might not have without a tutor. The last finally learned to read in third grade, devouring Marvel comics, whose pictures provided clues to help him untangle the words.

These four losers are, respectively, Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, John Chambers, and David Boies. Billionaire Branson developed one of Britain's top brands with Virgin Records and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Schwab virtually created the discount brokerage business. Chambers is CEO of Cisco. Boies is a celebrated trial attorney, best known as the guy who beat Microsoft.

In one of the stranger bits of business trivia, they have something in common: They are all dyslexic. So is billionaire Craig McCaw, who pioneered the cellular industry; John Reed, who led Citibank to the top of banking; Donald Winkler, who until recently headed Ford Financial; Gaston Caperton, former governor of West Virginia and now head of the College Board; Paul Orfalea, founder of Kinko's; Diane Swonk, chief economist of Bank One. The list goes on (see table, Dyslexic Achievers). Many of these adults seemed pretty hopeless as kids. All have been wildly successful in business. Most have now begun to talk about their dyslexia as a way to help children and parents cope with a condition that is still widely misunderstood. "This is very painful to talk about, even today," says Chambers. "The only reason I am talking about it is 100% for the kids and their parents."

What exactly is dyslexia? The Everyman definition calls it a reading disorder in which people jumble letters, confusing dog with god, say, or box with pox. The exact cause is unclear; scientists believe it has to do with the way a developing brain is wired. Difficulty reading, spelling, and writing are typical symptoms. But dyslexia often comes with one or more other learning problems as well, including trouble with math, auditory processing, organizational skills, and memory. No two dyslexics are alike--each has his own set of weaknesses and strengths. About 5% to 6% of American public school children have been diagnosed with a learning disability; 80% of the diagnoses are dyslexia-related. But some studies indicate that up to 20% of the population may have some degree of dyslexia (see How to Help).

A generation ago this was a problem with no name. Boies, Schwab, and Bill Samuels Jr., the president of Maker's Mark, did not realize they were dyslexic until some of their own children were diagnosed with the disorder, which is often inherited. Samuels says he was sitting in a school office, listening to a description of his son's problems, when it dawned on him: "Oh, shit. That's me." Most of the adults Fortune talked to had diagnosed themselves. Says Branson: "At some point, I think I decided that being dyslexic was better than being stupid."

Stupid. Dumb. Retard. Dyslexic kids have heard it all. According to a March 2000 Roper poll, almost two-thirds of Americans still associate learning disabilities with mental retardation. That's probably because dyslexics find it so difficult to learn through conventional methods. "It is a disability in learning," says Boies. "It is not an intelligence disability. It doesn't mean you can't think."

He's right. Dyslexia has nothing to do with IQ; many smart, accomplished people have it, or are thought to have had it, including Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. Sally Shaywitz, a leading dyslexia neuroscientist at Yale, believes the disorder can carry surprising talents along with its well-known disadvantages. "Dyslexics are overrepresented in the top ranks of people who are unusually insightful, who bring a new perspective, who think out of the box," says Shaywitz. She is co-director of the Center for Learning and Attention at Yale, along with her husband, Dr. Bennett Shaywitz, a professor of pediatrics and neurology.

Dyslexics don't outgrow their problems--reading and writing usually remain hard work for life--but with patient teaching and deft tutoring, they do learn to manage. Absent that, dyslexia can snuff out dreams at an early age, as children lose their way in school, then lose their self-esteem and drive. "The prisons are filled with kids who can't read," says Caperton. "I suspect a lot of them have learning disabilities."

Dyslexia is a crucible, particularly in a high-pressure society that allows so little room for late bloomers. "People are either defeated by it or they become much more tenacious," says McCaw. Don Winkler, a top financial services executive at Bank One and then at Ford Motor, remembers coming home from school bloodied by fights he'd had with kids who called him dumb. Kinko's founder, Paul Orfalea, failed second grade and spent part of third in a class of mentally retarded children. He could not learn to read, despite the best efforts of parents who took him to testers, tutors, therapists, special reading groups, and eye doctors. As young classmates read aloud, Orfalea says it was as if "angels whispered words in their ears."
Reporter associates: Lisa Munoz and Patricia Neering