Wednesday 19 August 2015

Dyslexia Blog - Day by day

For those of you who haven't read my dyslexia blogs before, here is a little preamble and introduction, so you know who I am and what I do and why I write this stuff. For those of you who know the story, skip to the end of the paragraph for todays installment. Let me give you a bit of Background so you know who I am and what I do. I was born in 1962. I didn't start talking until I was 4 years old (at all, not a single word). My parents thought I was deaf. My reading age at eleven was 5. When I was fifteen I started a rock and roll band called the False Dots, the band is still going strong. When I was 16 I started a business called Mill Hill Music Complex (although then it was simply called the studio), a rehearsal studio, as we had nowhere to rehearse. The business has grown into a very successful enterprise, one of Londons biggest and most well respected independent studios. We now have 16 studios and a music shop and also have a photography/video studio and a dance studio. I also have done IT work, mostly on a freelance basis since 1983. In 2012 I also moved into film production, producing two highly acclaimed documentary films, both of which had screenings at the House of Commons. When I was 31, a friend suggested I had a dyslexia test. To my surprise I was told I was moderately dyslexic. This made me interested in the subject. To my amazement, what I have learned over the years is that my lack of educational aptitude, my feelings of anger and injustice and the core of my personality have been formed by the fact I cannot read words in a linear fashion. In 2013, I have set one of my objectives to use this blog to let dyslexics know they are not alone, to suggest that people who think they may be dyslexic to get an assessment and toget people who have dyslexic children or siblings to understand the issues that they face.

So far this blog has largely been about how I coped (or didn't) with dyslexia when growing up. I was chatting with a friend, who asked why I've not really bothered with how I deal with dyslexia as a 52 year old. My initial response was "it's become a non issue for me, so there isn't much to say".  But this isn't 100% true.  At school it was a huge issue because school is all about measuring you against your peers. When your brain is wired so it processes information in a less efficient manner, this can be a rather unpleasant experience. But when you become an adult, things change. Many people say "your schooldays are the best of your life". For me, they were the worst. I vaguely remember my pre school days as being blissful. I remember the joy of the summer holidays, but I have few happy memories of Primary school. Secondary school improved as it went. By the time I finally left Orange Hill Senior High aged 18, I was quite sad to leave. The last year of my A levels was far and away the best year of my education.

I'd already started my studio business then, albiet in a very small way. I started out renting some space from my father, to use as a band rehearsal space. This was initially for my band, The False Dots. As we didn't have the necessary equipment, we came to a deal with the Malone brothers and between us we cobbled together enough gear to have a basic rehearsal room. The deal was that they could use the space and we could use their gear. I then started letting other bands use the space for a small charge. At this time, this was just one of many schemes I had to cobble together enough money to go to gigs and the pub.

It is amazing to think that these humble beginnings grew into Mill Hill Music Complex. As initially the studio was one room and didn't bring in anything like the amount of money necessary to live on, I had to get another career. Despite having A levels in Physics, Biology and Maths (not great grades though), I decided that painting and decorating was the way to go. This allowed me to duck in and duck out as the band required. By the time I was 21, I realised that this was going nowhere. So I did a TOPS course in Computer Operations. TOPS courses were a brainchild of the Thatcher government and were a response to the mass unemployment of the early 1980's.  I was paid £40 a week for eight weeks, to learn the art of operating computers. The college was in Euston. This was the first time I'd come across a privately run educational establishment. The rules were different to school. It was all about making sure the college met the government targets for finding work placements for students. The actual educational element was secondary.  In my mid teens, I'd developed coping mechanisms for dealing with my moderate dyslexia and so found the course easy. I had chosen the course purely because it was the shortest course and promised big bucks. I hadn't even known what a computer operator was when I started the course. When I found out that it was the bloke who spent his life loading paper onto printers, tapes onto tape machines and disc cartridges into disc cartridge readers, I was horrified. Worse still, jobs in computer operations were usually run on rigid shift patterns. This meant that it would massively interfere with the band rehearsal schedule. This was a disaster. As interviews were lined up and pressure was exerted to take anything offered (so the college could meet its targets and get its money), I realised I'd made a horrible mistake. As ever I relied on the one thing which has always seen me through. Good luck.

After attending two disasterous interviews, one with an insurance company and another with an oil company, I was told it was my last chance, when I was sent for an interview at one of the UK's leading software companies. It didn't help my mood that the other two candidates were the star performers on the course. As ever, nursing a big chip on my shoulder, I was convinced I'd been sent as a makeweight. As I turned up for the interview at the swanky office just off Tottenham Court Road, I felt a bit intimidated. There was a rather attractive female on reception who beckoned me to take a seat. I felt defeated before I started. After a few minutes chatting to the receptionist, my classmate emerged with a big grin on his face. With that I was ushered up. My interviewer was a man called Peter Southerby. He had the look of King George V and a rather posh accent. He asked me what I knew about the company. I knew nothing. I replied "Well I was told that its one of the UK's leading software companies, but thats about it". He then asked why I wanted to work in the IT industry. I replied "When I left school I lived in Stockholm for six months, then worked as a painter and decorator to fill in. I thought it was time to get a sensible sort of job and IT seems quite well paid". Peter laughed. He asked "What were you doing in Stockholm?" I replied "I had a Swedish girlfriend, so I thought I'd spend some time with her". He asked "Did you like Stockholm?" I replied "I loved it, made some great friends there. Would have stayed if I could". We chatted for a while about travel. Peter asked me about my A levels. I said "Well I didn't really do as well as I should, I had a brilliant Maths teacher for the first term of A levels, that was why I took maths. Then he left and the school had a succession of rather poor teachers, who just didn't inspire me. In hindsight I spent too much time concentrating on my band". We then spoke about the band. Peter then looked at the clock and said "Oh dear, I had only allocated half an hour for the inteview and you've had forty minutes. Sorry I'll see you out".

As I walked back from Tottenham Court Road to the college at Euston I felt awful. I thought "what a nice bloke, made an effort to humour me". We hadn't talked about IT at all, except for me to establish that I really had no interest in the subject beyond earning some wonga. Why couldn't I just stick to the script? The college taught us what we should and shouldn't say in interviews. They helped us write CV's and told us to bring out the good things. There was me, walking in and telling King George V's cousin how much I loved clubbing in Stockholm with my beautiful Swedish girlfriend. Lord help me.

No sooner had I arrived back to the college, when the PA system summoned me to the careers office. I was expecting to be told I was a useless idiot. I sat down and the careers guy said "You certainly made an impression at that interview". The years of poker taught me to keep a straight face. "They want to offer you a job, starting on Monday, intial salary £6,200 PA". I nearly fell off my chair.

Six months later, I was having a beer with Peter Southerby, we had become friends, when I asked him "Just out of interest, why did you employ me? The other two candidates were the stars on the course and knew far more about IT". Peter's reply surprised me "Yes, but they had no social skills. I wanted someone I could work with. Our firm sends people all over the world and they have to be able to fit in and represent the company well. When you said you'd moved to Sweden at age 18 and made a stack of friends, it was clear you were just the man for the job". What was even better was that the job wasn't a classic computer operations job. The company had a machine they used to develop software on. It needed paper changing, tape backups etc, but this was only 5% of the job. The rest was doing all manner of things which at any other company you'd need years to get into. System configuration, machine room management (overseeing maintenance etc), programming, installation of software packages. In short, it was a highly interesting job, where I could make my own schedule. So long as everything was done,they didn't care how. Not only that, but the firm took on 30 graduates every year, so there was a ready made social circle of people my own age, most of whom were in London and on their own.

I worked for the company for 2 1/2 years. I only left as they were taken over and the new bosses had a graduates only policy for technical staff. Since then I've worked in IT on and off in parallel with running the studios. In the early 1990's I decided to work as an IT contractor, as this was better paid and offered more flexibility. Which brings us to the subject of dyslexia. During my IT career, I realised that technology is a blessing for people with dyslexia. Autocorrect is perhaps the greatest tool. There are many words that I just cannot spell, no matter how hard I try. Autocorrect fixes this. Another blessing is that when you proof read a document and realise you've written nonsense, you can change it without typex or rubbing out. As I have to reread everything, generally this means that unlike my non dyslexic peers, if I write something stupid or ill considered, the fact I have to reread it means that I often have a "think pause". One of the modern curses is the instant reply that causes a huge row. My guess is that dyslexics are less prone to this because rereading tends to make you think twice before firing off angry emails.

Another asset I have is that as I find reading from a script stressful, if I have to give a presentation, I don't write a script. I simply write a whole series of notes which detail the points I have to cover. I also write how long I have to speak for at the bottom. I can waffle so if I don't do this I tend to come unstuck. I would urge any dyslexics who have to deal with public speaking to adopt this strategy. I was speaking to a non dyslexic colleague recently who saw a presentation I had to give. He saw this long stream of words and numbers on a piece of paper and asked what it was. I said "This is my presentation". He was bemused. I explained that if I write a script it is wooden and dull. By just having joggers for the key points, I find I can do a more interesting presentation. A couple of weeks later, he told me he'd tried the technique and found it worked far better. Another thing I try and do is talk to people rather than exchanging endless emails. I find that as reading is not my strong point, I sometimes miss nuances, therefore a conversation often makes more sense. This has the added benefit that a five minute chat will usually resolve issues that seemed implacable previously.

Many of the coping strategies I use for dyslexia actually work well for everyone. Rereading emails, using joggers rather than script and talking to people where possible rather than exchanging emails are all techniques which everyone should consider. I am often surprised that people who are good verbal communicators are dyslexic. When you discuss this with them, you find that at school they were often the shy ones who hid in class. It seems that the communications skills were developed outside of the educational environment. Often the skills are developed as a way of deflecting attention during stressful periods at school. When I was at FCHS, I was labelled a troublemaker because I would usually give teachers a cheeky riposte when they tried to verbally bully me. A typical example was our highly sarcastic history teacher Mr Linane. He asked me if I was practising to be an idiot. I responded by saying "No sir, I just try and model myself on my teachers". The whole class erupted in laughter and I got a slap around the face for being cheeky. But after that Mr Linane chose other people to verbally abuse. Not all teachers resorted to violence though, some enjoyed it and would give as good as they got. Mr Shuttler, my favourite teacher of all, once picked me up on my atire when I entered a lesson "Have you ever considered dressing yourself before you come to school?" I had a shirt haning out and my tie wasn't done up. I responded "With all due respect sir, you are not exactly a style icon, are you" (Mr Shuttler was a beardy with the ambience of a real ale fan). He simply laughed and said "I suppose I should be flattered that you've taken my look and taken it to a new level, but I don't think you've really understood the style properly, so now sit down". I saw him recently at a school reunion and he told me that he always enjoyed the banter and felt if you couldn't give as good as you got, you were probably in the wrong job.

Mr Shuttler was a good example of what a teacher should be. He never needed to be intimidating or violent. He engaged students and made the subject interesting. He would spend time with pupils if he fel they'd benefit and he'd try and bring the subject to life. I would not have a physics A level without his influence. I have no idea whether he had an inkling I was dyslexic, but he certainly gave me and all of my classmates the time and support we needed in lessons to excel. The one thing I got from him was that if you have a good teacher, dyslexia can be overcome. That is why I have respect for the man.

Dyslexia throws up many challenges in everyday life. I cannot fill in a form to save my life. My wife does all of these. If she doesn't I tend to tick the boxes that say I'm female or that I only have one leg. Sometimes this has caused all manner of issues. The most serious example was when I was 25 and I misread the usage rules on a bottle of antibiotics. This resulted in me nearly dying and spending months in hospital and a medical condition that haunts me to this day. As a result I have learned to reread the dosage instruction numerous times as a result and in this information age, always read all of the contraindications of medicins before I take them. This has prevented me drom taking highly unsuitable prescribed medicins on three occasions, so there is a high degree of swings and roundabouts with this.

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