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When you think of dyslexia, your mind may go to one’s tendency to write letters backwards or to switch the order of letters in a word.
However, letter reversal–especially with children–isn’t a telltale sign of a dyslexia diagnosis. Dyslexia, a learning disability in reading, affects people in different ways. People with dyslexia struggle to read without making mistakes at an average pace because of their reduced ability to match letters to sounds. Reading comprehension, spelling, and writing may pose challenges for people who have dyslexia because of their difficulty with decoding words.
This life-long condition affects 5-10% of people, but with proper support and instruction, many people with dyslexia have been able to succeed and accomplish very impressive things in life. In fact, many don’t refer to dyslexia as being a disability, but rather consider it to be a unique way of mentally processing language.
People who have dyslexia often experience some positive impacts, such as enhanced creativity, an increased awareness of the big picture, and the ability to bring material together from various subjects to solve problems. So in this article, we are going to look at 9 people who have defied expectations and become very successful in life despite their struggle with dyslexia.
But first, let’s take a deeper look at what dyslexia is and how it can affect people.
What Is Dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a general term for a learning disorder that impacts one’s ability to read or interpret words, letters, and symbols, but does not affect general intelligence. Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about dyslexia.
What are the signs and symptoms of dyslexia?
No two people with dyslexia are the same, and symptoms can range from mild to severe. When dyslexia is mild, one may just need to work harder than others to gain skills with decoding and encoding language. In severe cases, reading and writing may be impossible without supportive strategy interventions and accommodations.
The most common sign of dyslexia in children is when one’s rate of learning to read is not on par with their other learning abilities. Children with dyslexia have difficulty with pre-literacy learning such as rhyming and letter recognition, and once they’re 7 or 8, they may continue to have trouble with letter and number reversals.
While people with dyslexia have normal intelligence, they may have trouble saying what they’re thinking because this disorder can lead to disorganized writing and a lack of coordination when forming sentences. The variation in the severity of signs and symptoms that can occur is why many people with dyslexia go undiagnosed. Some other possible symptoms are:
What causes dyslexia?
Dyslexia can be either acquired or developmental. Acquired dyslexia can surface after suffering from a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or ear infections that occur in early childhood. Developmental dyslexia, on the other hand, results from congenital and genetic factors that some people are predisposed to from birth.
Both acquired and developmental dyslexia are the result of neurological abnormalities within the brain's ability to process language.
How can people with dyslexia succeed?
Dyslexia is an unexpected difficulty in reading experienced by people who are otherwise intelligent. Successful people with dyslexia are able to find their strengths or gifts in life and pursue them.
There are many successful people with dyslexia in the world. Researchers have found that people’s IQ and reading ability track together and influence each other over time, which we have discussed before in articles about the benefits of reading. But for people with dyslexia, IQ and reading are independent from one another, which explains why someone with dyslexia can be of average or above-average intelligence, but not read well.
No matter where you are in the world, you’ll encounter dyslexic people who didn’t let their early difficulties with literacy impact their drive to succeed. Let’s take a look at how these 9 people with dyslexia learned to overcome their struggle and become successful.
9 Successful People with Dyslexia
1. Tom Cruise
Tom Cruise, one of the world’s highest-paid actors, is open with the public about his battle with dyslexia. Diagnosed at the age of 7, Cruise tried to hide his inability to read and write fluidly from his friends. Cruise claims that upon graduating from high school, he was functionally illiterate and even struggled to read movie scripts when starting his career. While he was embarrassed by his dyslexia as a child, he has since learned to accept it as an adult and overcome this adversity he faces thanks to hard work and strategy interventions.
2. Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver’s dyslexia hasn’t stopped him from becoming known as one of the world’s greatest chefs. Oliver’s dyslexia caused him to struggle as a student and deeply impacted his performance in school. He was put in special needs classrooms by his teachers because, at the time, neither his teachers nor he knew that it was his diagnosis of dyslexia that was keeping him from excelling.
But while academics weren’t Oliver’s strong suit, he knew he had talent and didn’t let his trouble in school hinder his drive to succeed. As he started to excel while working in restaurants at a young age, Oliver’s skills quickly prospered despite his dyslexia. Because Jamie Oliver didn’t allow his dyslexia to restrain his career, he’s now recognized as a celebrity chef around the world.
3. Anderson Cooper
As a child, Anderson Cooper certainly didn’t expect to be the face of news around the world, winning six Emmy Awards as a journalist. Anderson struggled with reading growing up, and sometimes even pretended to make sense of what he was reading in order to keep up with his peers.
Luckily for Cooper, his teachers were keen to his intelligence aside from his challenges with reading, and set up proper supports within the school to give him extra help with a reading specialist. With helpful resources in place, Cooper started to make great strides with his literacy, and ended up being accepted to Yale University to study journalism.
Cooper reports that as a successful adult, he is grateful for the teachers at his school who saw his potential and were proactive about his struggles with reading.
4. Whoopi Goldberg
When looking back on her childhood, Goldberg notes “The thing that crushed me more than anything was: I didn’t understand how they didn’t see I was smart, I just couldn’t figure things the way they were doing it.”
Whoopi Goldberg’s self confidence was negatively impacted when kids at school would call her dumb before she knew that she had dyslexia. But Whoopi’s mom helped keep her head up high when she would constantly remind her that she could grow up to be anything she wanted to be.
After learning of her dyslexia diagnosis, Goldberg believed her mother and went on to become one of only a few people who have earned not only a Grammy, but also an Academy Award, an Emmy, and a Tony Award. Looking back on her success, she says that thinking in the unique way that she does has played a big part in helping her achieve great things. She believes her dyslexia actually put her at an advantage for her success. “I think the advantage is my brain sees and puts information in my head differently, sometimes more interestingly than I think the way everyone else does,” she said.
5. F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Key Fitzgerald is best known for his novels such as The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night that depicted the flamboyance, prosperity, and excess of the post-World War I Jazz Age. He published a total of four novels, four story collections, and 164 short stories during his literary career, but is believed to have had dyslexia. He was kicked out of school at the age of 12 for “refusing” to focus or complete his work.
It has been reported that literary critic and former classmate of Fitzgerald, Edmond Wilson, declared this author’s typo-filled draft of This Side of Paradise as being “one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published.” Furthermore, Fitzgerald’s editor referred to his spelling as “lamentable” and noted his inability to even spell the names of some of his closest friends.
Although he had a very hard time spelling, his love of creativity and storytelling was able to help him overcome this struggle and succeed as a writer, despite his disability.
6. Steven Spielberg
ET, Indiana Jones, and Jaws are just a few of the legendary films that Steven Spielberg has directed. So how did a child who was so far behind in school end up winning two Academy Awards for Best Director?
Celebrated film director Steven Spielberg was in his 60s when he was diagnosed with dyslexia. As a child, teachers thought he was lazy, his classmates bullied him, and he was made to feel like an outsider. But it was these adverse experiences that helped him succeed when co-writing The Goonies–a classic about an odd group of friends who didn’t quite fit the mold. Spielberg reports that finding out about his dyslexia as an adult was the answer to a great mystery he had kept to himself.
When talking about his success despite his dyslexia diagnosis in an interview with Spielberg, he said “It’s of critical importance to me that I read books and scripts…It takes me about two hours and 45 minutes to read what most people can read in about an hour and 10 minutes. I just know that I’m still slow at reading but I’ve learned to adjust.” Spielberg went on to claim that his slow pace of reading allows him to absorb the content and retain what he reads.
7. Richard Branson
Richard Branson is a British entrepreneur who has achieved great success and enormous wealth through the business he founded in the 1970s, Virgin Group, which controls over 400 companies worldwide today. Branson believes his struggle with dyslexia in childhood helped him gain adaptive thinking skills that worked to his advantage as an adult.
Today, Branson strives to stop the stigma that surrounds dyslexia. He advocates for future generations to learn how to take a different approach when it comes to their difficulties in order to turn them into opportunities to think outside of the box. He works to ensure schools currently have the knowledge and tools that are needed to identify children with dyslexia, and the support required to help them thrive.
When recounting his own experience with dyslexia, he notes that his mind opened up as soon as he was able to move on from the standard structure of schooling. Once he was working in the real world, his dyslexia worked to his advantage by helping him think creatively and find solutions where other people could only see problems.
8. Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso received numerous accolades for his unique style of 20th-century art and his perseverance with creating paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Picasso has changed the way that people all around the world view art through his paintings that reflect unique viewpoints and perspectives that are both artistic and literal.
One artistic vision that Picasso is known for is flipping objects around–either backwards or putting them out of order. But, as someone who grew up struggling to grasp the meaning of letters and numbers, it’s now thought that this style was Picasso’s method of demonstrating how his dyslexia impacted his art.
Picasso was labeled as being “reading blind” as a young student, but it was his unique viewpoint and perspective that allowed him to create some of history’s most famous works of art.
9. Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein, the most influential physicist of the 20th century, loved math and science, but very much disliked grammar and spelling. It has been reported that the headmaster of Einstein’s school declared him as being borderline intellectually impaired and suggested he attend a trade school. Due to his struggle with language, many professionals today believe Einstein had dyslexia.
Not only was he extremely delayed with his speech as a child, he also faced difficulty when trying to record his thoughts on paper, retrieve words, and read out loud. Einstein described his thought processes in letters to peers by saying “Words or language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought…I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterwards.”
However, his contributions to theoretical physics can be partially attributed to his unique approach to problem solving, which is one personal strength associated with dyslexia.
Final Thoughts on Successful People with Dyslexia
Dyslexia hasn’t held these people back from being successful and living up to their potential in their chosen fields. These people are role models for those who are facing a challenge in life that may make success seem a little bit more out of reach. Hopefully you’ve found these stories inspiring.
For more inspiring stories about people who overcame challenges, check out these articles that recounts 11 inspiring famous people with autism spectrum disorder and 9 successful people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Connie Mathers is a professional editor and freelance writer. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and a Master’s Degree in Social Work. When she is not writing, Connie is either spending time with her daughter and two dogs, running, or working at her full-time job as a social worker in Richmond, VA.