Creating a level playing field

Carolyn O'Grady reports on a design project that is giving hope to young dyslexics

Photographer Chris Smart's schooldays were a nightmare. He says: "They left me with no self-confidence and a feeling that I was no good." It wasn't until he was well into a photography course, where his dyslexia didn't count against him - "I was on a level playing field" - that he found his confidence along with new talents and skills.

Years later he was appalled to discover that the situation for many young dyslexics had not changed; many were left to sink or swim at school without special help.

At the Rural Media Company in Hereford, Chris Smart has been able to change this. RMC is a charity that aims to give the West Midlands rural population a media voice by providing access to video, photography, design and sound. It receives core funding from West Midland Arts, and money for individual projects from a wide variety of organisations.

Recent projects include people with learning difficulties making a video in which to argue their case for a better deal, and a tape-slide programme on the theme of race and racism in the countryside. The company also organises the Herefordshire Photography Festival every September, which is a showcase for local photographers.

Last year Chris Smart set about designing a media project to pro-mote awareness of dyslexia. Almost immediately it was obvious he had struck a nerve. "We sent out the press release and as soon as the news appeared in the papers the phones were ringing for a week with calls from young people who wanted to take part," he says.

A group of 11 young people, aged between 10 and 17, was selected to participate in the project. Called Talking Pictures and funded by organisations including the Reader's Digest Trust and Hereford city council, it comprised eight drama, photographic and design workshops. Participants worked with Therese Collins, a dyslexic playwright, and Rural Media Company staff to create a set of individually designed posters about dyslexia.

The workshops were heavily influenced by the work of Ameri-can Tom West, who, in his book In the Mind's Eye, promulgates the radical thesis that dyslexia can be an asset, pointing out that dyslexics often succeed in spite of missing out on aspects of their education, becoming architects, photographers, film-makers and designers. The reason, he suggests, is that they may have better visual spatial skills and more imaginative ways of thinking than other people.

"Dyslexia doesn't necessarily mean you're an Einstein," Chris Smart emphasises. "But there's a good chance that a talent or ability has been overlooked. The world is becoming more computerised and visual, and we need to be tapping into other abilities apart from reading and writing."

The posters designed by the group play with both the positive and negative aspects of dyslexia. One uses the slogan, "The Next Generation", with the subtitle "in the future we'll all communicate by pictures and then dyslexics will come into their own." Another reads: "Sticks and stones may break my bones . . . and sometimes words can fail me."

They illustrate the difficulties of living with dyslexia as well as giving hope. James West, aged 15, says: "Before, I had put myself in a box. The workshops blew away the box. It's like you are actually doing something about it. I see it more as a gift now than I did before. I feel a lot more confident. "

The company hopes to attract enough funding to put the posters into mass-production and to produce a CD-Rom, which would be, says Chris Smart, "a visually stimulating encyclopedia on dyslexia".

* The Rural Media Company, St Peter's Church House, St Peter's Square, Hereford HR1 2PG. Telfax: 01432 344039270539.

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