If I were to ask you what Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Jamie Oliver all had in common, the likelihood is you would say that they could all be considered as mavericks in their field. You might also say that they were individuals who came from humble backgrounds to become innovators and eventual leaders. What you may be more surprised to learn is that they all have struggled with dyslexia in their lives, with Jamie Oliver in particular conceding a few years ago that he had only finished reading his first full book at the late age of 38.
Despite these notable instances of dyslexia, it continues to be a hidden disability thought to affect around 10% of the population. It can often remain undiagnosed and can seriously undermine the quality of life of those who struggle with it, affecting self-esteem and confidence as well as slowing down learning development.
This week is Dyslexia Awareness Week, and in my eyes there is still much to be done to help people understand and raise awareness of dyslexia. The theme this year is 'Identifying Dyslexia', and it is as important as ever that people who live with dyslexia, or any learning difficulty for that matter, have the support they need to overcome their condition and realise their full potential as early as possible.
Indeed, in the UK, the government has made great strides in improving the lives of the disabled from an early age. The government's Disabled Students' Allowance and Access to Work schemes ensure that those with dyslexia continue to be supported throughout their life. On the downside, those with dyslexia can often fail to self-identify, meaning they can go undiagnosed for many years, potentially struggling in silence with the condition. To underline the consequences of this situation, research by the World Literacy Foundation found that illiteracy costs the UK economy more than £81 billion each year. Employers must therefore begin to encourage an open culture in which workers can unashamedly declare their dyslexia - if only for the benefit of the wider UK economy!
In fact, the longer it takes to intervene to diagnose literacy difficulties the greater the cost, not just financially, but societally as well. Analysis by the Department for Education showed that pupils who entered secondary school with very low literacy skills had an exclusion rate five times that of pupils who were more able to read and write, while studies by Dyslexia Action have demonstrated that there is an overrepresentation within the UK prison population of those with literacy difficulties and dyslexia. If you add to these alarming figures the unfortunate number of students who leave education with poor results and poorer self-esteem because of their dyslexia, it's clear that those with literacy difficulties risk being pigeonholed and led to believe they are inferior from an early age. We must act now to intervene early and ensure literacy difficulties are identified and acted upon swiftly, so as to save the development of more pernicious issues further down the road.
Encouraging or helping an individual to self-identify can be a catalyst for change in a person's life and bring about a huge benefit psychologically as they begin to navigate issues they had perhaps struggled with before. Every provider of assistive technology knows the transformative effect it can have on a dyslexia sufferer's life, helping them to be more independent and engaged learners, whilst allowing them to better reach their potential. Assistive technology is just one enabler for those who suffer from literacy difficulties, but it's certainly the most cost-effective method by saving funding associated with additional teacher resourcing. Most importantly, students should never feel they are a 'special' or 'unusual' case. In aid of this, assistive technology equals the playing field by allowing students to participate in class at their own pace, whilst playing to their strengths. Above all, assistive technology makes for more confident and happier individuals, emotionally happy and more ready to grip life's chances.
This Dyslexia Awareness Week I encourage you to spare a thought for those around you who may be struggling with the condition, and if there is anything you can do to improve their experience of dyslexia. Like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs and Jamie Oliver, there is an innovator in each of us - and identifying dyslexia may just be the first step in unleashing our true potential.
Mark McCusker is the CEO of Texthelp, a literacy support software provider based in N Ireland. He is a Board member of the International Association of Accessibility Professionals and the former Chairman of the British Assistive Technology Association.