A man of his word

7th April 1995 at 01:00
Jonathan Croall reports on Thomas West's relentless fight for the extraordinary skills of dyslexic people to be recognised. By his own admission, Thomas West is "relentlessly positive" about dyslexia. "Most people in the field," he says, "deal with the negative side, they look at how to fix problems. But I like to consider people's strengths as well as their weaknesses."

Critical of conventional, word-based education systems which work against dyslexics, he believes technological change is affecting what is valued as intelligence and could soon make dyslexics "special people in touch with the future". He suggests that a different set of talents will be wanted. Different kinds of problems might favour "different kinds of brains".

"For the past four or five hundred years schools have been teaching the skills of the medieval clerk - reading, writing, counting, memorising texts.

"But now machines can do the low-level work, we'll need people with the kind of high-level spatial and visual skills that many dyslexics have."

For dyslexic people, their families and teachers, this kind of upbeat message can make a welcome, often inspiring change. It also helps to explain why this engagingly enthusiastic American, based in Washington DC, is increasingly in demand as a speaker in many different countries, and why his book In the Mind's Eye, published in 1991, is already in its fifth printing, and has spawned a Japanese translation (re-titled, somewhat crudely, Geniuses Who Hated School).

Last month he addressed a conference of business people in London, brought together by the Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Personnel and Development. In the same week he addressed two conferences arranged by the Adult Dyslexia Organisation, for dyslexic adults, their tutors, trainers and employers.

His authority with these and other audiences is clearly enhanced by his own dyslexia. The son of two artists, he struggled in his elementary school, but managed to do reasonably well at high school and college.

"I didn't learn to read until I was 11, and that was traumatic. I got sick very easily in order to avoid school: I was always afraid of failing in the most humiliating way. I also couldn't spell very well, and foreign languages were a nightmare. My German teacher at college thought I was some kind of idiot with sight reading, because I would falter and sound like a dummy. For two years, whenever I went into that building, I could feel myself getting smaller and smaller."

Later he went to graduate school, where he specialised first in literature and then, in stark contrast, international relations, in which he took a master's degree.

"Dyslexic people often find it easy to go from one field to another, to get to the heart of the matter, see similarities and make connections, but not get overwhelmed with the detail," he says.

Making connections is a skill much in evidence in his absorbing book, in which he looks at the links between creative ability, visual thinking, academic learning difficulties, and a number of eminent people - including Einstein, Faraday, Churchill, Edison, James Maxwell, W B Yeats and Lewis Carroll - who all had this combination of characteristics.

His intention is to show how the education system has often failed those with the greatest high-level skills, especially when they are mainly visual rather than verbal. He's fascinated by the fact that such outstandingly original thinkers and scientists tended to have major problems at school, notably with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation and memory.

"People wonder how such folk can be so good at words and yet have such trouble with them," he says. "Yet when you think, for instance, of powerful writers, they're people who create wonderful visual images, who connect different things in ways that don't come into the minds of ordinary people.

"These are all dyslexic talents, and quite different from spelling or grammar or handwriting."

He talks at length about Yeats - "a classic dyslexic, who couldn't read his poetry out without faltering or getting the rhythm wrong" - and about Churchill and his need to memorise his speeches. "Once when he was young he lost his train of thought and was phobic about doing it again".

Both his book and lectures are full of examples of less exalted figures - architects, engineers, scientists - whose particular talents have gone unrecognised because of specific difficulties. He was greatly encouraged by the British CBIIPD conference where, significantly, the discussion revolved around the dyslexic people as "the hidden resource" that should not be wasted.

"It was all very positive," he says. "Where companies identified dyslexia and did a little bit of tutoring, people were being turned around. Their whole attitude was changed, they were no longer frightened of being discovered. These people are much smarter than they think they are, or than their employers think they are."

He acknowledges that in America, as in Britain, there's still a long way to go. "There's an enormous diversity of opinion there," he says.

"Some people are attuned to it, but others refuse to believe dyslexia exists. They think that's it's malingering, or people trying to get round the system. This is true at all levels of education, and particularly in areas such as law or literature. There are still professors who refuse to believe anyone can be intelligent and make the kind of mistakes dyslexics make."

So the battle for recognition continues - though he makes it clear that he doesn't care for giving people a "legalistic hammering" over dyslexia. Meanwhile he believes that, in the age of the super-computer and data visualisation, images will soon be more important than words. Difficult problems in molecular biology or higher mathematics, for instance, may be cracked in future by designers of animated computer graphics.

His case is made more convincing by reviewers of his book, including Dr J Jerry Uhl from the department of mathematics at the University of Illinois. Dr Uhl, who has reformed calculus teaching using high-level mathematics software alongside computer graphics, says Thomas West has provided new insights into the central role of visualisation.

"In our project, Calculus and Mathematica, we have learned the effectiveness of teaching the concepts visually using graphic software prior to verbal explanations. Our students have gained a deeper understanding of the subject and they can recall and apply the material long afterward, which is rare for students taught with conventional methods."

While looking to the future West himself also has an eye on the past. "The same skills that made you a good hunter enable you to see patterns," he says. "Reading is just an eye-blink in the culture of human beings; it's not important in the long run."

In the Mind's Eye is published by Prometheus Books. Copies are available for Pounds 23, including post and packing, from Lavis Marketing, 73 Lime Walk, Headington, Oxford OX3 7AD

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