Cher: Entertainer, Actress
Cher, one of the world’s most beloved and acclaimed entertainers, has struggled with both dyslexia and dyscalculia, a learning condition which makes math extra challenging. Not only did words feel like another language, numbers also felt foreign, she said in her autobiography, The First Time.
“I couldn’t read quickly enough to get all my homework done, and for me, math was like trying to understand Sanskrit,” she wrote.
Teachers also could not figure out what was holding Cher back, she said, noting that the student was not living up to her potential in the classroom. To get through, Cher said she taught herself to learn through listening.
It wasn’t until she was already a mother of two that she discovered the source of her learning difficulties: dyslexia. In her autobiography, Cher said she had taken her son Chaz Bono, who was having trouble reading, to a testing center when doctors told her he, too, had the trait. Finally, the puzzle began to take shape.
“I told them how my mind raced ahead of my hand, how I’d skip letters in the middle of a word. I told them how I kept transposing numbers, and that I’d get so cranky trying to dial long-distance calls that someone would finally have to take the phone and dial the number for me,” she wrote. “It was like a big, Ohhh…Now I understood everything, why I had so much trouble with school. It all fit together.”
Cher said he still has “no relationship” with numbers today, and struggles with reading at times, but she’s learned to embrace her dyslexia as something that makes her unique.
If she could change that about herself, would she?
“No! It caused pain, but it’s me!” she told a fan online.
Anderson Cooper: Journalist
Six-time Emmy Award winning journalist Anderson Cooper is the face of news to millions across the world, but it’s an accomplishment he never thought he’d achieve as a boy struggling to read.
Growing up “in a home where reading and writing had great value,” Cooper said he tried his best to keep up with his brother, an avid reader, but oftentimes was left to simply “pretend to read it, because I had trouble reading and making sense of words, in particular, letters,” he has said.
His teachers could tell the bright student had tremendous reading challenges, and ultimately it was through weekly meetings with the school’s reading specialist that Cooper began to make strides. After high school, Cooper went on to study journalism at the prestigious Yale University.
Looking back, he said he’s grateful for his school and the teachers who recognized his potential and took his issues with reading seriously and with care.
“To a child with a learning disability, school can be an incredibly isolating place,” Cooper said. “[My school] made all the difference in my life early on. And the good news is that there are great schools out there, able to provide the necessary resources and support.”
Robin Williams: Comedian
Known as one of modern history’s most iconic comedians, Robin Williams has made his early struggles with “severe” dyslexia known throughout his career.
In true form, Williams made light of his difficulties with reading, telling Johnny Carson once: “I suffer from severe dyslexia. I was the only child on my block on Halloween to go ‘trick or trout’ … Here comes that young Williams boy. Better get some fish.”
Keira Knightley: Actress
Actress Keira Knightley said she owes much of her professional success to an unexpected source: author Jane Austen.
As a girl, Knightley struggled with reading due to her dyslexia, but it was a screenplay written by Emma Thompson of Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” that helped the actress push through the challenges.
“My mum got me a copy of the screenplay Emma had written,” Knightley told The Guardian. “And I was – am – dyslexic, and the way she got me over it was to say: ‘If Emma Thompson couldn’t read, she’d make sure she’d get over it, so you have to start reading, because that’s what Emma Thompson would do.'”
Albert Einstein: Physicist
Perhaps one of the most famous figures known to have dyslexia is Albert Einstein, a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 and has become synonymous with intelligence and wit.
Though as a child and teenager Einstein showed signs of brilliance and creativity in his interests in geometry, he also showed signs of weakness in speech and verbal development, as well as several school subjects. “Nothing would become” of the boy, his teachers believed.
“Words or language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought,” he wrote to mathematician Jacques Hadamard in 1945.
To his friend Max Wertheimer, a psychologist, Einstein further explained that: “Thoughts did not come in any verbal formulation. I very rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words
Throughout the years, he described writing as being a “difficult” task in which he communicated “very badly.”
But the scientist pressed on in his studies, using his unconventional thinking and methodology to discover what has become the most famous mathematical equation of all time.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Pablo Picasso: Painter, Artist
One of the most prolific and creative artists of the 20th Century, Pablo Picasso created paintings that reflected viewpoints and perspectives, both artistic and literal, that changed the way the world looked at art.
Through his cubism and other works, Picasso often flipped objects around, backwards or out of order for what seemed like artistic vision, but to the painter, who grew up struggling to make sense of letters and numbers, was actually showing the world the impact dyslexia had on his talent.
Though his school applied the term “reading blind” to Picasso as a young student, a term meant to help explain his difficulties in reading, it was Picasso’s different viewpoint that gave him the unique perspective he needed to create some of the most famous works of art in the world.
“I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them,” he has said.
Whoopi Goldberg: Comedian, Actress
When actress and talk show host Whoopi Goldberg discovered the reason for her difficulties in reading stemmed from her dyslexia and from a lack of trying, she was relieved.
“It was nice to know I wasn’t just lazy and that I didn’t have to explain to people anymore that it wasn’t that I didn’t want to [read], it’s just that I was having a hard time,” Goldberg said. “Back in the old days, they just assumed you were lazy and stupid.”
She said her mother knew something was amiss with Goldberg’s learning habits, but without the knowledge on dyslexia that exists today, her mother had a hard time understanding what was making her daughter struggle.
“The thing that crushed me more than anything was: I didn’t understand how they didn’t see I was smart, I just couldn’t figure things the way they were doing it.”
Now, Goldberg is among a coveted group of only 20 who have received an Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Oscar award — and she thanks dyslexia for having a “large hand” in getting her where she is today.
Through her journey, she was able to use her dyslexia to bolster her imagination and creativity, which she’s in turn used to explore films and characters that take her to other timer periods, or even galaxies.
“I think the advantage is my brain sees and puts information in my head differently, sometimes more interestingly than I think the way everyone else does,” she said.
“I think it’s less challenging now because we have some idea about it, but I think the challenge will always be: How do we see ourselves? Not as folks with a handicap, but as folks with an interesting perspective.”
Richard Branson: Entrepreneur, Investor, Founder of Virgin Group
Billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson said his childhood struggles with dyslexia led him gain adaptive thinking skills that later in life have become major advantages. In speaking about his experiences and how they’ve shaped him, Branson said he wants the stigma around dyslexia to end, and for the next generations to learn how to turn their difficulties into opportunities to think outside the norm.
“It is time we lost the stigma around dyslexia,” Branson said. “It is not a disadvantage; it is merely a different way of thinking.”
“Once freed from archaic schooling practices and preconceptions, my mind opened up. Out in the real world, my dyslexia became my massive advantage: it helped me to think creatively and laterally, and see solutions where others saw problems.”
He wants to ensure schools today have the knowledge, tools and interventions needed to “not only… identify dyslexia, but also the support necessary to champion dyslexics and enable them to thrive.”
“To change perceptions, we must celebrate all that dyslexic people have achieved, so that young people no longer give up before they have even started.”
George Washington: First U.S. President
One of the most famous figures in American history, General George Washington, the first President of the United States and one of the nation’s founding fathers, overcame extreme difficulties in reading to help lead America through the Revolutionary War.
Historians believe Washington’s issues in reading and grammar likely stemmed from dyslexia, but that the Commander in Chief eventually taught himself workarounds so that he could make sense of the written word.
From these struggles and the effort required to overcome them, Washington gained the knowledge, strength and self-confidence to become one of the most respected political figures and thinkers in history.
It also gave him a sympathetic perspective when it came to perceived failure.
“When a man does all he can, though it succeeds not well, blame not him that did it.”
Henry Winkler: Actor
The actor famous for his portrayal of “The Fonz” on “Happy Days” wasn’t always as confident as his suave character seemed. Henry Winkler said because of his struggles with dyslexia, he didn’t read his first book until he was 31 — an experience he described as “horrible,” “humiliating,” and “scary.”
At the time, not much was known about the condition, and Winkler said his German-immigrant parents and strict teachers were less-than-supportive of the young student, Winkler told CBS.
“They had an affectionate phrase for me: Dummer Hund. And for those of you who don’t understand German, that means ‘dumb dog.’ They were convinced that I was lazy, that I was not living up to my potential. Teachers said the same thing. So I was grounded most of my high school career.”
“I learned to memorize as much as I could from any page and then improvise,” he said.
As he grew into his career, Winkler said he found dyslexia also affected other key things, like the physical coordination needed for the Fonz’s signature habit of motorcycle cruising.
But as he grew older and came into his own, Winkler said his confidence grew. Now, he wants to help spare other struggling kids from facing the same self-doubt he did.
In recent years he’s worked alongside Lin Oliver to write a series of children’s books centering around the life of Hank Zipper, fourth-grade boy who has trouble reading. So far, he’s helped put 4,476 words on the page (yes, he’s counted).
“I am an actor, a producer, a director,” he said. “With Lin, we have written 32 novels, and I am in the bottom three percent academically in America.”
Caitlyn Jenner: Olympic Gold Medal-Winning Athlete
Before marrying into one of America’s most famous families, Caitlyn Jenner was busy winning gold medals as an Olympic athlete — a feat she credits to the lessons she learned in dealing with her dyslexia. In 1976, Jenner took home the gold medal for competing in the decathlon.
“If I wasn’t dyslexic, I probably wouldn’t have won the Games,” she’s said. “If I had been a better reader, then that would have come easily, sports would have come easily… and I never would have realized that the way you get ahead in life is hard work.”
Though Jenner underwent extensive training and preparation for the Olympics, it was overcoming herself that ultimately helped her to push through her struggles.
“The biggest problem with dyslexic kids is not the perceptual problem, it is their perception of themselves. That was my biggest problem,” Jenner said.
“I firmly believe that deep in their soul everyone has a champion that can overcome obstacles and do great things.”
Octavia Spencer: Actress
Before Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer was teaching the world about the “Hidden Figures” in NASA, she was a little girl growing up in small-town Alabama.
Early on, she knew she had a difficulty when it came to reading aloud — an issue that at first left her “paralyzed” with fear in front of her cohorts.
“I was paralyzed with fear because I kept inverting words and dropping words,” she’s said. “I didn’t want to be made to feel that I was not as smart as the other kids — because I know that I am a smart person.”
But as time went on, Spencer said the support of her mother and her school helped her recognize other talents in herself that distinguished herself from many of her classmates, and eventually she tested into her school’s gifted program.
“I just remember thinking differently,” Spencer has said. “I could solve puzzles quicker than the average child. I would start with the mazes at the end and go to the front and be done in, like, 30 seconds. My deductive reasoning was very important.”
As an adult, in addition to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Spencer has written two books — a fact she’s very proud of, but is still affected by her dyslexia.
One thing dyslexia doesn’t affect for Spencer: her sense of self. She said she doesn’t want kids who have issues reading to feel like they can’t achieve their dreams, like she has.
“It doesn’t matter your situation in life; your path is what you choose it to be.”
Want to learn more about professional trainings that help educators support students with dyslexia? Check out information on the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education’s Orton-Gillingham training here.