I thought admitting I was dyslexic would be career suicide

·6-min read
katie glass - Jooney Woodward
katie glass - Jooney Woodward

Matt Hancock’s recent decision to “come out” as dyslexic induced sniggering from certain quarters. “That’s why he talks such carp,” one wag joked. Even the usually mild-mannered Phillip Schofield meanly asked Hancock whether his dyslexia was to blame for him misreading social distancing rules. Still, while some mocked the former health secretary’s confession, I found it refreshing – and a relief. Because I am also a secret dyslexic but I’ve never admitted it because doing so felt like career suicide.

It seems silly that Hancock spoke about “outing” himself as dyslexic, a phrase usually reserved for revealing your sexuality. Given that I came out as bisexual to Telegraph readers a few months ago, it seems especially ridiculous to me but in truth I am more worried about revealing I’m dyslexic than confessing I sometimes date women.

When I wrote about falling for a woman, readers got in touch congratulating me for my bravery. I don’t expect the same sympathetic response for confessing I can’t spell.

Hancock confessed his shame over his dyslexia, and his fear it would affect his career, which is why he kept it secret so long. I know how he feels. I know how embarrassing it is to make constant errors that make you look thick. The terror at making slips in work emails, the constant frustration that no matter how many times you check, errors creep in.

Dyslexia has caused me endless social embarrassment. The awkwardness of not being able to write or comprehend unusual names (by which I mean anything more than two syllables long). The terrible pounding, I still get in my chest, remembered from school, when it’s my turn to read something in public.

Dyslexia throws up constant silly problems, as I ping off texts littered with spelling mistakes, regularly pick up the wrong things in the supermarket because I’ve misread the label, and order the wrong thing in restaurants – excited for “grilled” prawns which arrive “chilled”. I regularly sign my own name incorrectly on emails. Even the word “dyslexia” seems to have been designed to be deliberately difficult.

Just this week, on holiday with another dyslexic friend, we found ourselves caught out by a misreading when we upgraded our flight to Premium Economy specifically because the airline’s website promised it meant we could use the lounge for “free”. Except, on arrival at the airport, the hostess pointed out, that wasn’t what it said at all, rather that the lounge could be accessed “for a fee”. We crept away embarrassed.

As a journalist, my dyslexia is a constant pain, a burden that can feel exhausting. I have to work twice as hard as other writers checking my writing and still misspellings and mistakes embarrassingly creep in. On Twitter, the breakneck speed at which text is shared, makes the platform a particular minefield.

These are issues I have never discussed with editors because… well, I reason, what could they do about it? Isn’t this my fault? You don’t take a job as a secretary then complain you cannot type. I am the one who chose to make a living from writing and it’s my problem to sort out. Last week, when I wrote about teaching I considered mentioning my own English teachers and how they’d inspired my love of writing. But the truth is I had a much more fraught relationship with them. I found studying English upsetting and infuriating because no matter how much work I put into thoughtful literary criticism and dreamy creative writing, my teachers always seemed far more focused on my terrible spelling and grammar. Stories and essays I’d spent weeks proudly writing would come back covered in red that crept to my cheeks. My inability to spell apparently always far more important than my ideas or creativity.

By the time I reached sixth form, my spelling was so consistently awful my English teacher suggested I could be dyslexic. My mother however declined to have me tested. She knew very well how much I loved English and that I dreamed of becoming a writer and worried labelling me dyslexic would hold me back. “Labelling theory” describes how psychologists suggest ascribing labels to people might have the negative impact of encouraging them to live up to, and be limited, by those identities. And so, refusing to have me labelled “dyslexic”, instead I was left to get on with it, to carry on finding workarounds and manage my way around my difficulties. I went on, first to study English Literature at university (graduating with a first), then embarking on my dream career of writing for a living.

Was this the right way to go about things? I wouldn’t like to say. But I do know that I’ve felt sad at the number of people I’ve met who tell me that they gave up writing or reading because they are dyslexic. By contrast I never submitted to the idea that I should be limited.

Eventually I confirmed I was dyslexic at university in my early 20s (I went as a mature student) when I heard that they were giving away free laptops to dyslexic students – so I headed off to take the test. Still, in return for a free Apple Mac, I had to suffer the indignity of taking special lessons where I (a 23-year-old A-student) was expected to make the letters of the alphabet out of plasticine. And given a book called The Gift of Dyslexia that I never read because I found it too patronising.

Perhaps if I’d read it, it would have told me about some of the upsides of dyslexia. That dyslexics spot patterns more quickly than others, distil complex information quickly, are adept at lateral thinking, imaginatively innovative; that we’re master storytellers with high emotional intelligence. The same gifts Hancock is keen to encourage. And yet much as I applaud his move to destigmatise dyslexia, I have mixed feelings about his plans to introduce early testing. I wonder how I’d have been affected by being labelled dyslexic early and if it might have crushed my dreams of writing, and only held me back.

This week I’ve been obsessed with…

  • “Taste Liverpool. Drink Bordeaux”, a new immersive food festival held across the city from Thursday June 2-5, featuring cookery demonstrations, foodie cultural events and special menus at restaurants across the city showcasing Bordeaux wines.

  • Rapper Tinie Tempah’s venture into soul food, with a fried chicken brand named RAPS, features a menu that includes Peng Wings, fried chicken, plantain and “Unruly” deep-fried jerk chicken wraps, frustratingly none of which is yet being delivered to Somerset.

  • DogFest, the only festival worth bothering with, dedicated to women’s best friend, held in seven locations across the UK and conclusive proof that dogs are better than cats.

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