Dyslexic spies: There are benefits worth waiting for

GCHQ has an army of dyslexics to analyse complex data, it has emerged. Oliver Wright, The Independent's Home Editor, who has the condition, spells out their special skills
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

It may have been more than 30 years ago now but the weekly misery of English spelling tests is still engrained in my mind. Nesesery. Becose. Rerly. Thort. Or, for that matter, speling itself.

Each week – it was a Tuesday morning, as far I remember – we would spend the first 15 minutes of the lesson being tested on 20 random words. The papers would then be passed around the room for other children to mark. Each week, without exception, I would score 2,3,5 out of 20 (although on one particular memorable occasion I managed zero). The humiliation was compounded by the format: everyone else in the class new (deliberate mistake) exactly how badly I'd done.

But then no one in those days knew much about dyslexia. In the words of my teachers, I was "careless", "didn't concentrate" or, if they were feeling irritated, "lazy". I had a problem without an explanation for it.

Thirty years on, I am still dyslexic, I still can't spell but am rather more militant about it. In fact – I think it's your problem. After all, as the dyslexic journalist AA Gill pointed out, you're the people who thought it was a smart idea to spell phonetically with a "ph".

But there is a serious point. And this was highlighted at the weekend by the revelation that GCHQ is now employing 120 "neuro-diverse" intelligence officers. These individuals, who suffer either from dyslexia or dyspraxia, are employed precisely because GCHQ has recognised what some parts of society still does not: that these conditions are far from disabilities – they are simply differences. And, arrogantly, I may be worse than you lot at some things, but I'm a whole lot better than you at others.

Take writing, which I do for a living. I don't think I'm too bad at it – and suspect that's because of my dyslexia. When I stopped trying to follow the rules of sentence construction (which I didn't comprehend anyway) and wrote as I spoke, I found that I could usually explain and articulate an idea more clearly than someone who was an expert on the past participle.

Equally, I found that I could skim-read endless impenetrable documents and identify the fact or idea that was interesting. That's quite a useful skill for a Whitehall Editor – or a GCHQ analyst for that matter.

The interesting thing is that if I am reading that document out loud, I will still miss out words and unwittingly change the sentence construction – but that doesn't really matter: I know what it means and I know what's important about it.

And my experiences are far from unique. Dyslexia experts make the point that most of what is done in the classroom in the early years of education focuses on acquiring rote skills that are dependent on perceiving visual or auditory things clearly, and learning automatically to the point where you don't have to think about them. These are just the kinds of skills that dyslexics like me tend to have difficulty with.

But the strengths come later. Strengths such as the ability to change perspective and see a situation or event from multiple viewpoints, or to see the "gist" or big picture surrounding a situation or problem. That I think I have.

Other dyslexics – although not me – are good at spatial reasoning, so find it easy to put together three-dimensional perspectives. Others are problem -solvers or spectacularly creative. What do Jim Carrey, Albert Einstein, Richard Branson, Winston Churchill and Agatha Christie have in common? They were all known or suspected dyslexics. So was Alan Turing, the mathematician and cryptanalyst whose work at Bletchley Park helped break the Nazi's Enigma code during the Second World War. In fact, almost one in 10 of us is believed to be dyslexic.

The truth is that dyslexia needs to be seen by society not as a "learning disability" (a phrase which is as patronising as it is incorrect) but simply as a difference.

Yes, it's harder when you're younger, but there are benefits, and those benefits are worth waiting for. I just wish someone had said that to me when I was 10. I veermently hope that they're saying it now.