Learning to spell success

The BBC's former Geneva correspondent, Sophy Fisher, was among the first generation of people in Britain to be properly diagnosed as dyslexic
I cannot remember a time when dyslexia did not colour my life. It has shaped my friendships, what I do in my spare time, and - obviously - my career.

However, it has never been something that I talk about. Partly because I wanted to believe that in my professional life it was irrelevant, that I should be judged on what I do now - not on what I couldn't do before. But also because experience has made me wary of discrimination - of people who believe that dyslexia is something it isn't, a form of mental retardation.

Because dyslexia is invisible, it has always been easy to dismiss - as an invention of middle-class parents with stupid children. This was the view when I was growing up, to the extent that, when I was eight, and unable to read or write a word, my parents were advised that I would never pass my academic exams. It was suggested that I should earn a living cooking or cleaning.

However, since then scientists studying the brains of dyslexics have found that the left side - the side which is involved in language - is different from normal. It seems that some of the neural circuits which process language are simply not there.

For me, even these tentative findings came as a relief. Although I learnt to read and write many years ago and my literacy is in no doubt, it was finally proof that there was something there, that I wasn't just stupid after all.

But of course, I'm one of the lucky ones. There are estimated to be about 2.5 million dyslexics in Britain alone, including about 350,000 children. Many are in effect disenfranchised from modern life.

Adults try to hide their problems; children can't. I see children today doing everything I did to try to stop people seeing their failings - disrupting the class, lurking at the back, faking illness, losing homework. I even learnt the textbooks by heart, to hide the fact that I couldn't read them. Letters on a page appeared a meaningless jumble - with no more logic than alphabet spaghetti. I could never remember if the lines went from left to right, or right to left. Lower case ds and bs confused me completely. I could make no connection between what I heard and what appeared on the page.

But in my small village school, I couldn't really hide the fact that I was the class idiot. In the search to get some kind of official recognition that the problem wasn't just stupidity, my parents took increasingly desperate measures. I must have seen half the child psychologists in southern Britain. Aged nine, I spent a week in hospital having tests - in what we discovered afterwards was an adult mental ward. I became the subject of medical school lectures.

In the end I was lucky. We found a school that believed dyslexia existed. I had extra, specialist training. At the age of 12, I was sent to a secretarial college to learn to type. So for the first time someone could read the little I could write, and start correcting it. I spent my secondary school years lugging around a typewriter that was half as big as I was. Being without it was like having a limb chopped off.

A place at Cambridge University gave me the chance to be judged only on my merits. Later I was offered one of the coveted BBC graduate traineeships. But then there was a hitch, a cryptic telephone call, requesting another interview. The personnel department had discovered I was dyslexic. "Isn't that some kind of mental disorder?" they said. The job offer was withdrawn. Only when I had seen both a psychologist and a doctor was the contract confirmed.

Now, after years as a foreign correspondent, I can finally say that it doesn't matter. In English and French I have competed internationally with my peers and have not been disgraced. At the moment I am learning Cantonese. Dyslexia hasn't gone away. It can't be cured. But it can be overcome. It can be made irrelevantn

Famous dyslexics

Leonardo da Vinci

Auguste Rodin

Albert Einstein (left)

Charles Darwin

Winston Churchill

George Washington

David Bailey

Richard Rogers

Whoopi Goldberg

Susan Hampshire

Eddie Izzard

Jackie Stewart

Spotting the signs

Early signs of possible dyslexia in a pre-school child:

l Persistent difficulties in getting dressed efficiently;

l Obvious "good" and "bad" days, for no apparent reason;

l Enjoys being read to, but shows no interest in letters or words;

l Excessive bumping into things and falling over;

l Difficulty with catching, kicking or throwing a ball;

l Persistent jumbled phrases, eg "tebby dare" for teddy bear;

l Confusion between directional words, eg, up, down; in, out;

l Difficulty learning nursery rhymes.

NB: Many young children make similar mistakes; dyslexia is indicated where these difficulties are severe and persistent.