Professor Nigel Lockett was branded thick, stupid and lazy at school until one day someone figured out what was wrong
By my 19th birthday, I had failed all my A-levels and couldn’t see a positive future. School had been a nightmare.
I lived in constant fear of being asked to read aloud in class and used to follow the ‘trail of doom’ as it snaked around my classmates, my turn getting ever nearer. Desperate attempts to read ahead to the most likely sentence to land on me failed. As I stood up, eyes going out of focus, words dancing on the page, I’d hardly uttered my first sentence before the laughing started!
School wasn’t fun. But despite my experience, by the time I reached 19 I had two things in my favour:
1) I had passed by motorcycling test! This meant everything to me. Off came the ‘L plates’ and on jumped a pillion passenger. The world was my oyster.
2) After failing my English GSCE twice, an out-of-school English tutor recognised I had learning difficulties and recommended I went to one of the few specialist-testing centres at Aston University.
After what seemed like a strange set of questions and tests, I was told I had a very high IQ and dyslexia. The former was a pleasant surprise and confirmed I wasn’t ‘stupid/thick/lazy’ after all. The latter was both a new word to me, and unspellable to boot!
Then followed 35 years’ of struggle, achievements and more struggles, as I came to realise that dyslexia was not a learning difficulty but a learning difference. This learning difference has shaped me into the person I am today…The Dyslexic Professor!
In 2017, I decided to ‘go public’ as a dyslexic professor in order to show you can quite literally achieve anything you set your mind to, and share ‘top tips’ gained from my own experiences.
This new journey began with a commitment to blog every week. Fast forward a year and the impact, at least for me, has been profound. After a full year of blogging, I was invited to give the Annual Disability Lecture at the University of Cambridge – quite literally going from a 21st century digital platform to a wooden one in St John’s College, founded in the 16th century.
While I know that dyslexia as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, I feel strongly that at a minimum it’s a learning difference, at best an advantage – perhaps even a superpower.
Does this mean I’m a dyslexia superhero? Recently, I was asked a question I found difficult to answer: What would you say to your eight-year-old self, struggling to understand why others around him could read and write while he was being labelled stupid and lazy?
My instant answer: I have survived – I am a survivor of dyslexia. This immediate and heartfelt response says much about my journey through education and work – and is so often heard from people with dyslexia. Success is to survive. I went on to explain that as a dyslexic, I live in a hostile world full of words and with the constant fear of exposure. So, to survive each day is a big achievement and far from any notion of public recognition or superhero status. But, said the questioner, you have achieved so much – what would you say to your younger self? That mere survival is all there is to look forward to?
Therein lies the flaw in my argument. To survive is not enough – we also need hope. So, that is the message for my younger self – the hope of a better future, to reinvent dyslexia not as a disability or even a difference, but an advantage or superpower.
Therefore, I would look that boy straight in the eye and say: You have been born with a great advantage. Nurture it. It will be your true superpower and it will help all around you to have richer lives. I have moved from seeing my dyslexia as a disability to a learning difference and now a true superpower, which guides my next steps… my mission to turn the perception of dyslexia on its head and create a ‘Superpower Institute’ to support dyslexic innovative thinkers. Dyslexics appear to be able to handle complexity. Not just ‘normal’ complexity either, but dynamic complexity – where a myriad events move at abnormal pace.
Three capabilities seem to make up this ability: (i) seeing patterns, (ii) seeing objects and (iii) seeing shapes. Combine these with calmness and you have, in my view, a dyslexic superpower!
The question is not how do we support people with dyslexia in schools, universities, prisons and workplaces, but rather, how can organisations attract people with this dyslexia superpower? In essence, this is a call for valuing diversity. Not because of a law or to do the ‘right thing’, but because it produces results – a win-win. Better organisations and happier people.
Coming out as a dyslexic has been a truly profound experience and meeting other dyslexics has been overwhelmingly positive. However, I’ve been struck by the sadness I’ve seen, and the relief that talking about it can bring. So, any Superpower Institute will need to support dyslexics to enhance their abilities, build their confidence and acknowledge the personal damage inflicted by inappropriate and outdated educational systems.
* Prof Lockett's is Professor of Entrepreneurship at Lancaster University Management School. He blogs at www.nigellockett.com