Transcript of Dyslexia Reading Well Interview with Ben Foss about his New Book:

The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A blueprint for renewing your childs confidence and love of learning from Random House Books

October 2013

DRW: Hi everybody this is Michael Bates with the Dyslexia Reading Well, and on the line with me today is Ben Foss. For those who don't know Ben, he is an entrepreneur, founder of both Headstrong Nation, a website on dyslexia and recently a venture capital company: Integrated Ventures.  He also invented the Intel Reader for Text to Speech. Of course recently he is the author of The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, A Blueprint for renewing your child's confidence and love of learning, from Random House Books and was released just at the end of August. He is from Newhampshire, which almost makes him an honorary Canadian. Ben we are thrilled to have you join us for the launch of the Dyslexia Reading Well.  

BF: While thank you very much, I'm thrilled to be here, it's a great project.


DRW: Before we talk about your book I want to ask you about being a dyslexia champion. With your book launch, your high profile, your website it's almost official: you're the Head of State for Dyslexia Nation. How do you like your job?


BF: If I am, the election was rigged.  I love my job and I love being dyslexic. The message I have for people is that dyslexia should be about strengths not about shame and up until now, people have really focussed on the narrow view of what people are, a view that is centred around trying to make everyone 'normal'. I try to highlight to people that normal is just a setting on your dryer and doesn't really exist in the real world. If we can de-centre that idea and get people bought into the idea that you need to find your strengths and play to them everyone is going to do a lot better, dyslexic or otherwise.


DRW: Do you feel the pressure of being the champion. Do you say, "gee Im not on CNN this week, Ive got to do more"?


BF:   Well, I will tell you this, I know that there are a lot of people out there who are reading the book and telling the stories in their communities and it's about those one on one interactions; because dyslexia is a complicated story. You have to walk people thru it and really change their vision of how the world works in order for them to understand what this profile means to an individual.


DRW: OK, lets talk about the book.  I want to start out with a fascinating statistic and here is what it says: dyslexics are 10% of people, 35% of entrepreneurs and 41% of prisoners.  Have we grossly underestimated the cost to society of failing to help dyslexics thrive?


BF: I think we have grossly under measured or under called the cost and we have under called the upside to doing it well and those three numbers tell a lot about this community. The 10% number, some people will say 15 or 20%, I go with a conservative number 10%. In any given country its true, in Canada its true, in China it's true, in France, there is roughly the same population, independent of language. I would highlight that that statistic just says that this is a big number,  there are a lot of people out there. Then you go to the 35% of entrepreneurs. People who are global entrepreneurs who are well known, someone like Richard Branson from the UK or Charles Schwab from the US and then companies like IKEA, Makers Mark, AT&T Wireless, Dreamworks, Steven Spielberg has just announced that he is dyslexic.  That's a a great upside: so...35%.  And people ask,  why is it that dyslexics are such great entrepreneurs? Well,  I think it's multiple things: One factor is we learn to fail, we learn to have resiliency when we go into school and we are told we are stupid or lazy, and we don't believe it and we get up and do it again. And a good business person is a person who failed multiple times and then eventually succeeded.


You see it in Government. You see it in many different areas of life where people are resilient and come back and do great things. Then there is the third number which is the number of people who are prisoners. Now both that 35 and 41% are based on US statistics, but I am  guessing that there is an over representation of dyslexics in the Canadian prison system.  And I'm guessing that because you also have to put into the mix "Context" So if someone is from a community that doesn't have a lot of access to education and they become an entrepreneur, that might be stealing cars or selling drugs.  Or doing something that is a risk taking behaviour that is a stupid idea. The result is that people end up going from the school house to the jail house. There is a direct pipeline that happens there when someone didn't get identified and supported.


I always try to say to people that there are three types of reading, there is eye reading, which is reading with your eyes, as mainstream people do, there is finger reading which is what blind folks do with Braille and then there is ear reading, which is using your ears to listen to listen to content. Those three different forms of learning should all be equally valid. We shouldn't judge a person who is blind for reading braille, in the same way that we shouldn't  judge a person who reads with their ears as I do.  So when I did my law degree and my business degree, I didn't crack a paper book the whole time. I used audiobooks  and that was my way of being independent.


DRW: And that's actually a perfect little segue into my next question because this idea of going beyond eye reading is a game changer in terms of where our focus is for literacy and learning. You've said in the book that eye reading, reading with the eyes does not equate with literacy and learning. There are many ways to learn,to read, audio, visual or print. How do we make the change so that that is the norm?


BF: I think you need to get in there and have the conversation. Parents have a challenge in front of them which is that school is set up to a number of defaults. The school is set up to expect the average child. Well, the interesting thing is that the average child does not exist, this is a mythical child. No child is average, every child has strengths and weaknesses. And what they do is they say we will accommodate the middle 80%. The 10% at the bottom, well we will put you in a special program,  and 10% at the top, we will put you in what we call the gifted program and in the middle we will just give you all the same thing and if it doesn't quite fit you, well you will figure it out.


And so it's a hard one on one conversation that's got to happen. In the context of this people need to know that they have a legal right to education and they have a right to an education that will make it so that their child can learn. Playing to strengths shouldn't be a problem for the school in principle. I can tell you that there are free services that are available. For example Bookshare is a service where you can download audio books online. I am a little unsure of how it operates in Canada so I don't want to overstate the case. But I will tell you that I know that the Royal Canadian Institute for the Blind offers audio books for blind students.  So if a student was blind in your kids school, would the school fight them on using audio books. No.


I think the challenge is that there is a period of uncertainty. And you do want to play to strengths, so if your child is a good eye reader, go with it. It's a lot easier to get into buildings if you can climb up stairs because most buildings have stairs. Some buildings don't have a ramp.


Same thing with reading. It's easier in life if you can read with your eyes. You do want to go after an Orton-Gillingham methodology which is a multi-sensory method and spend 2-3 years making sure you are getting the most functionality out of that part of your child's profile. However after 2-3 year's you want to transition and start using their other strengths. Because if you don't, it will result it what I like to call 'slow drip trauma', your child being forced to use their eyes to read in perpetuity, will set up an expectation that they are the problem and that can lead to some really unpleasant outcomes. I have seem children begin cutting themselves, I have seen children subject to bullying, I have seen children doing other risk taking behaviours, in some cases as serious as contemplating suicide.  And we really need to move that out of the range of what is acceptable for our children.


DRW: One of the things you have done a great job at as a champion is focusing on developing the person , and not using words like disorder to be diagnosed and treated. That dyslexia is simply an identification, like being left handed or Canadian. In other books, some of the other leading thinkers are still using the words diagnose and treat and so on. Can you comment on that?


BF: Sure. We come from a culture that wants to treat everything like a disease. You mentioned I'm from Newhampshire. We don't diagnose me as being from Newhampshire, I'm just from Newhampshire and the same thing is true of my dyslexia. If this were something I was trying to get rid of, if this was cancer or if this was a cold, then yes I have that and we will cure it.  It plays into what I call the medical model where medical doctors tell us they have a medial solution to a medical problem . But the problem is your child is not sick, because there is no disease here, this is just a profile.


What created this profile was the insistence that we use eye reading as the primary way to learn. If you go back in time, it's the Sumerians that came up with using print to represent language.  Language is a natural human skill.  Socrates actually came out firmly against books. He hated books  because he thought it would make us lose our memories and that we would become lazy in how we retained information. So these are all culturally shifting norms.


When I talk about the medical model people often say well you are diagnosed with dyslexia or you overcame dyslexia or you struggled with dyslexia. Well I didn't  overcome being from Newhampshire and I didn't struggle with being from Newhampshire, Im just from there.


When we use those words we stigmatize and I think it's very dangerous to perpetuate that. Now I get that there is a transition that happens. There are some works in the past and I want to be respectful to them because they actually did a great job establishing that dyslexia existed and communicating that it was an important part of the educational conversation. But everyone has to evolve their language in the same way that if you look at terms around race it used to be that people used to call someone coloured. At some point that changed to being not the way we would do it. 


I believe we need to make that transition and stop using words like diagnosed and replace them with words like identified. I noticed at the beginning of the interview you didn't say diagnosed, you said identified or that you found out the profile. We don't remediate dyslexia, we train the individual to ear-read. We need to change these terms away from the medical model that stigmatizes and really brings on shame and that self harm. So the risk is that children will cut themselves or worse , think of ending their own lives if we don't change our own language. 


DRW: I think you're on to the right approach and I think a lot of people are starting to recognize that. I'm excited about bringing more of that kind of philosophy into the website. Just to wrap up I'm wondering what's next for you. You're coming off the high of the book. Where do you go next?


BF: I've put a lot of time into a nonprofit  that I started a number of years ago called  That website has some great information. Videos on how to get a child using talking computers, or information on dyslexia, like brain images you can show people. So I've put a lot of time into Headstrong and then I am also interested in the long term in telling this story outside the context of dyslexia, and maybe changing our whole school system so that we don't use standardized testing as the only way to evaluate people.  So the website is a place where I put a lot up. And if you want to follow what I'm doing on a regular basis I am on Twitter it's @BenFoss and there you can keep track of what I'm working on day to day. 


DRW: We will be and I'm sure a lot of the people who come to our site will be as well.  Best of luck with the book and with Headstrong Nation and your other ventures Ben.  Thank you for joining us for the launch of Dyslexia Reading Well, really appreciate it.


BF: I wish you all the best.




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