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Dyslexia is a different way of thinking: A conversation with David Boies

Categories: Education & Teaching, Featured, Learning Disabilities, Public Policy/Advocacy

David-Boies-Boies-Schiller-Flexner1-300x400Even though he's one of the most celebrated and sought-after lawyers in the world, David Boies is approachable and generous in sharing counsel outside the courtroom. At 75, he's a dynamo of energy, still running the law firm that bears his name - Boies, Schiller & Flexner. I first encountered Boies in 2013 at HBO headquarters in New York, where he was helping to launch the premier of Jamie Redford's "The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia," a documentary in which he shared candid insights into how dyslexia shaped his career path.  We met up again this spring for a conversation in Washington, DC at the U.S. Senate HELP Committee Hearing on Dyslexia, where Boies delivered moving testimony to legislators and an enraptured audience of parents, kids and teachers. - Doug Sprei What's your perspective on living with dyslexia in an era when it was not at all understood, and yet managing to accomplish so much in your field? Dyslexia is permanent; it doesn’t go away. But the disadvantages of dyslexia are temporary. It happens unfortunately at a time when people are at their most vulnerable – in their adolescence, where you care most about how you’re doing, you’re uncertain about your place in the world, and peer pressure is enormously important. And reading, and the information that reading gives you, is what you’re tested on. What’s hard to sometimes realize is that this is temporary.  You can work around the reading issues – including by getting information in other ways. Even more important, when you grow up, nobody cares how fast you read. What they care about is: what kind of person are you? What’s your character? What’s your commitment? How intelligent you are – and of course, dyslexia has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence. David Boies, Bennett & Sally Shaywitz, Doug Sprei David Boies, second from left, flanked by Bennett Shaywitz, Sally Shaywitz, and Doug Sprei[/caption] Nobody hires me as a lawyer because they want to know how fast I read. They hire me because they think I can present their case in court; I can cross examine the witness; I can talk to a judge and jury; I can analyze a legal problem. None of those things depend on how fast I read. All of those depend on what kind of person I am, what kind of knowledge I have, what kind of ability to think and reason I have. What about an education system that looks upon dyslexia as a deficit rather than an expression of neurodiversity? Does the system have a lot of catching up to do? Oh, I think it does enormously – although I do see progress.  I’m old enough to have seen what it was like 25 years ago, and there’s been enormous progress.  I have two children who are dyslexic. The first was diagnosed in 1975, and I can tell you over those 40 years, we’ve come an unimaginable distance. What do kids today have that your son didn’t have in '75? First of all, they have an opportunity to have dyslexia understood and dealt with, so that you can focus on the fact that there are ways of trying to deal with and improve your reading. And there are alternative ways of getting information.  You know, forty years ago, people thought, “Well, if you’re slow in reading it must mean you’re unintelligent. If you’re unintelligent, you can’t get information." And that breaks down the self-esteem pretty badly. Right, and it’s a vicious cycle also because as it breaks down self-esteem, that means you don’t try or look for alternative ways of getting information. And one of the great things is that we are now making huge progress in recognizing dyslexia for what it is, and beginning to deal with it – so that you can find alternative ways of getting information. You find ways of trying to work around in terms of tutoring, reading, and decoding.
Nobody hires me as a lawyer because they want to know how fast I read.
All of those things are great; and I think even more important is that people now are recognizing what dyslexia is NOT. You know, it’s not anything to do with how smart you are; it doesn’t have anything to do with what you’re going to do in life. It’s not going to limit you, and as long as you realize that, you’re going to be fine. (laughter) But there will be hurdles for which you’ll have to find accommodations… more time to take tests, ability to listen to books.  How does that translate into the field of law?  I imagine you have had to do a lot of memorizing and absorbing information. Well, it’s more thinking than memorizing.  In real life, it’s how you think and what your judgement is, how hard you work. And I’ll tell you, people who have dyslexia learn how to work hard, okay? And those skills are very valuable. And we learn how to think and how to be creative. The correlation of dyslexia with creativity, I’m not sure whether that’s neuroscience-based or an accommodation that you learn. What happens is that one way or another, people with dyslexia learn to work hard and be creative. And those are skills that are enormously important to your life. Imagine an eight-year old girl in front of you, and her mother, and they’re confused and anxious about this dyslexia journey. What would your message be to a family that doesn’t know the first thing and is really struggling? Three things:   One, understand that while this is going to be very difficult over the next few years, it doesn’t have to affect what kind of life you have, the person you are and what you can accomplish. Second, be patient. There are going to be all sorts of things that are really hard. You’re gonna have to grow up maybe faster than other people do. And third, that patience will be rewarded, because when you grow up and get out in the real world, nobody’s going to care how fast you read. All they’re going to care about is the kind of person you are, what you can accomplish, the quality of your thinking, the quality of your judgement, the quality of your character. And those things are not limited at all by how fast you read.

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View David Boies's testimony and that of his fellow panelists at the U.S. Senate Full HELP Committee Hearing, Understanding Dyslexia: The Intersection of Scientific Research & Education.


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