Guest Blog by Dr Vincent Walsh: “Batman, Clowns, Dark Days and Dyslexia 2” (20/52)

The second and final part of Dr Vincent Walsh’s guest blog needs little introduction from me. It charts the traumatic and painful journey to the seemingly unthinkable conclusion that … “Dyslexics are not just futurists, they are the future.”

Dr Vincent Walsh (Ecological Innovation Fellow, Academic & Practitioner) Part 2:

The Unknown Truth
The school system taught me I was an underachiever, not that I had an inability to learn, but they said I did not want to learn. This fuelled me with frustration, which in turn created a disruptive family situation, directing me to a very destructive period between the age of 15 to 19 years old. I believe this was due to the lack of empathy, a lack of understanding of dyslexia and an overall lack of professionalism within the school system.

Around the age of 20 years old, I began to reflect upon my time, frustration and unhappiness I felt due to my educational situation to date. Surprisingly this brought up an unfamiliar & overwhelming feeling to reassert my energy and focus into mainstream education, maybe this was the way I would gain confidence I needed to grow. I began investigating the path ways to get back on the educational ladder. Due to no qualifications, the BTEC Level 1 National Foundation Diploma, one year qualification, was my only option, but this gave me a pathway I needed. Even at this very early stage of my academic career, I already knew my aim was to go as far as possible through education, to the highest levels. Maybe if I had any idea of how difficult that journey would be, well, it wouldn’t have happened, but I didn’t, and that was in my favour.

Dyslexia was first brought to my attention following a basic screening I attended at Stockport College in the year 2000 while on the BTEC. In 2002 in my first year on the BA Moving Image Design course at Ravensbourne institute, the institute sent me to an independent Psychologist to perform a full assessment to evaluate my learning difficulties. It was a this point I was professionally diagnosed with moderate to severe Dyslexia and Irlen Syndrome. You would think being professionally assessed and being diagnosed with moderate to severe Dyslexia, would have been an empowering time in my life, and for a moment it was (knowing the reasons for my difficulties in the traditional educational system), unfortunately that empowerment was snatched away by the report that followed the assessment.

My own experience, being diagnosed with dyslexia did not help, in fact the report reduced me into a mere formula, “Vincent cannot do A, so he cannot do x”. I found it interesting that a psychologist spends no more than 3 hours with you, while doing a series of reductionary tests that highlight the severity of your learning inabilities (only). My report was 9 pages, and it had a range of statements in it like this,

“Even without the presence of dyslexia Vincent would find a degree course very challenging.  His Vocabulary and Similarities scores are average ones, and the language of both lectures and textbooks assumes an above average level of verbal ability.  It may therefore be that a HND course may be more appropriate and Vincent was asked to bear this in mind if he finds his current degree course, even with suitable support, too demanding.  Vincent’s levels of reading and spelling, allied with a very weak working memory, point toward failure on written assignments without appropriate support and teaching and assessment accommodations”

It is not that I disagree with the statement, it’s the point that the report made my tutors at Ravensbourne Institute question my ability to complete the moving Image design course. Consequently, a meeting was called with several staff and myself to discuss the report and my “options”. In short, directly due to the report, they had decided that I should no longer continue with the BA course, and I should now look for a HND course. Is that a helpful outcome for any young person with dyslexia?  What the reports fails to highlight or take into consideration is one’s imagination, creativity or sheer determination to go beyond what is needed or expected to succeed.

 What the psychologist, the tutors and the institute did not know, throughout my primary and secondary experiences, I was pushed pillow to post, and year after year I did not learn and become confident in any aspect of my life due to mainstream thinking in education. But, I was no longer a child, nor an unconfident young adult who could be pushed around. I told my tutors in no uncertain terms, that I was not leaving the course, and even if it meant me retaking my first year, to get to the standard “I” feel confident at, that is what will happen, and nothing less. True to my word, I retook the first year, on the BA course, at the dismay of my tutors. The BA course took me four years to complete. If there is one way to motivate young determined dyslexic student, tell them they cannot succeed.

Rethinking Myself
Is it enough just being diagnosed with dyslexia? Is it a comprehensive approach to just identifying the difficulties to dyslexics will encounter due to the “disability”, and even if you are diagnosed and told what the difficulties will be, is that still enough?

Going back into education was a difficult act, specially starting on a BTEC course which was for 16 year olds, and I was 20 years old. 10 years later after beginning the BTEC at 30 years old, I began a PhD programme of investigation.  After dealing with dyslexia for 26 years of my life, through primary, secondary, and a destructive time between 16 and 19 years old, to enrolling on a PhD, I still did not understand what and how dyslexia works. Therefore, I did not know who I was, but that was about to change.

I had an Epiphany when I met Dr David Haley (artist and academic), he was the appointed Director of Study for my PhD programme of investigation, and now good friend, and someone I own so much too, I will forever be in his debt. I will always remember the day and moment I met David. We met to discuss the PhD programme. I have always been very open about my “learning difficulties” so I had a book prepared, so I could read out loud to David, with the aim to illustrate to him, my lack of reading ability.

I started to read to him, well, tried, 3 or 4 sentences in, David lent over, pushed his hand down on the book, then sat back, and gently said, do you realise that you’re a “system thinker”? The conversation we engaged in after his statement changed everything. David for the first time in my life, did not see the person in front of him as someone with a disability, but someone who see’s and interacts with the world in a diverse & holistic way, he called me a; whole system practitioner. The first hour I spent with David changed the rest of my life.

Dyslexics are not just futurist, they are the future.
What did David see in me that no one did before, and what did his knowledge and perspective give me. His insight and imagination gave a positive way of understanding my so-called disability, he gave me a platform to grow from. David provided a theory of knowledge, especially regarding the methods I intrinsically use to interact with the world.

I began to read about how the dyslexic brain works, how whole system thinkers think, how generalist see subjects. Dyslexics, system thinkers and generalists are all right brain thinkers. They all see, think and process information in wholes, images, therefore, they do not use a step-by-step method to reach a conclusion. Understanding the way, my brain thought about the world, knowing that you know, knowing that you think in a holistic, joining up method is a very exciting place to be.

Questioning how one thinks and why is a powerful tool, it supports the distinction between you and others (non-dyslexics), and the important of my own perception in the world. This gave me a huge sense of new confidence, maybe like the kind of confidence that Batman has, it brought a smile to my face, I was laughing, laughing like a clown. I now understand, as an academic, I’m not just dyslexic, but a generalist, that has developed a system thinking approach to my practice.

“Generalists, are those very rare individuals who have the capacity to bring together many aspects and branches of the intelligence problem and organization, and wish to do so” (CIA).

The Inevitable
I would suggest that dyslexics are professionals in hyper-connectivity, making new connection and insights that most don’t, we make new perspectives by bring new parts, that create new wholes. We understand that innovation in universities tend to happen in the gaps between disciplines, we can make long-connections between research and industry activities. We understand that density and diversity, diversity of minds, density of people is a formula to drive new ideas across sectors and markets, but more importantly, we know wholes and more many parts, the hive is more than the sum of bees, the biosphere is more than the sum of living organisms, technology more than the 15 billion devices. This perspective, that whole system practitioners, generalists, i.e., Dyslexics, have a unique skill set to make long-connection across, between and beyond disciplines, sectors, markets, is also hinted at in the new report by Made by Dyslexia by founder Kate Griggs – [mention in “Dyslexia is in the air“]. After twenty years of wishing I was not dyslexic, now I am so proud of the fact.

In the future, everything will be one, very large complex thing. This is the time when biological and technology infrastructure linked together on a planetary scale. We have 15 billion devices wired up to one giant circuit that already exceeds our brains in complexity (www/Internet of things), and it’s doubling every few years. Therefore, whole system practitioners, generalists, dyslexics will be major actors in the future, connecting the dots & bots across and beyond planetary scale activities. Dyslexics are not just futurists, they are the future.

A huge thank you to Vincent!

Nigel Lockett – The Dyslexic Professor
University dyslexia support