We can’t all be Richard Branson: The case for expanding dyslexia success stories

We all know who they are. Richard Branson. Whoopi Goldberg. Gavin Newsom. The individuals who overcame dyslexia and other learning and thinking differences to become famous entrepreneurs, politicians, artists, athletes, scientists, filmmakers, media personalities and more.

There’s no shortage of cultural heroes with learning and thinking differences. They serve as powerful inspiration to the 1 in 5 kids who face these challenges. (And reassurance to their parents.)

These heroes also help guard against low expectations. They remind teachers and classmates that kids who read slowly or need extra time may go on to be leaders in their chosen field. They put colleges and employers on notice: Don’t confuse test scores with a student’s potential to achieve.

As a mother and a teacher, I’ve witnessed the powerful way these stories offer hope and inspiration. I told them to my own dyslexic son as he was growing up. And I regularly repeat them to my students with learning and thinking differences.

In fact, my family was involved in the creation of The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia. It’s a film that puts dyslexia success stories at its center. It uses these stories to help demystify and destigmatize dyslexia.

But my son, Dylan, whose story is included in the film, recently offered another perspective. In an interview with Understood expert Elizabeth Hamblet, for her book From High School to College: Steps to Success for Students With Disabilities, Dylan explained why he thinks we need to expand on our success stories.

Dylan agrees that extraordinary stories serve an important role. Students who struggle in school are often perceived to be less smart than their peers. These stories help chip away at that myth. But he warns that they can also deliver a confusing message about the definition of success.

What about those dyslexic role models who are quietly living and working in a job they love?

Do you really need to become a billionaire, win special awards, or become famous to qualify as a successful person with dyslexia?

By highlighting the extraordinary success of some people with dyslexia, have we set an unrealistic standard? Do we run the risk of limiting the imaginations of the very kids we mean to inspire? Or worse yet, are we adding unnecessary stress to kids who need less pressure, not more?

Of course, we don’t have to replace one kind of story with another. But we can and should share more stories of people with learning and thinking differences who are flourishing outside the spotlight. I’m talking about our co-workers, friends, and community members.

Success stories serve an important place in every civil rights struggle, including ours. They’re a vital part of the effort to make schools places where all students can thrive.

But I believe we need to rethink how we use these inspiring tales. To better serve our kids, exceptional success stories need to be seen in a larger context of learning and thinking differences. We must take care not to hold them up as expectations or norms. We want kids to know that they don’t have to become a household name to consider themselves successful.

As my son points out, students with learning and thinking differences can benefit from a broader range of role models. Not just famous people. But successful, everyday individuals they can relate to.


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