Chapman University’s inaugural Dyslexia Summit: Strength in Cognitive Diversity drew an overflow crowd of more than 300 people to the Bush Conference Center on Friday, Oct. 23. “You will notice the word ‘inaugural’ — that’s an ambitious title,” said Chapman Chancellor Daniele Struppa in his welcoming remarks. “It means we’re going to be doing this again — this is a
from Chapman University, and I invite all my colleagues here to listen to the experiences and the science presented today, as a way to figure out what our next steps are.”
The morning-long conference achieved its goal of attracting an audience of academics, health professionals, nonprofit agency representatives, students and families, all there to hear a roster of distinguished experts talk about their personal experiences of dyslexia and how they developed innovative ways to think creatively to make up for their reading challenges.
The conference opened with a
video from Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson
, who greeted the Chapman audience and urged the “many of you who are, like me, dyslexic” to “be yourself, embrace your strengths, follow your brilliant ideas with a passion — and your opportunities will be limitless.”
Ben Foss, author and cognitive diversity activist who now advises Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with dyslexia, spoke of his own experience with the reading disorder, recalling that teachers labeled him “lazy” and told him that if he’d just apply himself he’d be more successful. After deciding to “own” his dyslexia, he developed his philosophy of focusing on what he COULD do instead of what he couldn’t — which led to his book,
The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan
, and his now highly successful career. He urged schools and universities to do away with standardized testing, which tends to stigmatize those who have reading disabilities but may be gifted in many other areas.
Fumiko Hoeft, Ph.D. of the BrainLens neuroimaging lab at the University of San Francisco medical school, presented on the new science of dyslexia, which shows that the brains of people with dyslexia seem to be fundamentally different from those of non-dyslexics. She noted that those with dyslexia have been proved to show strengths in other areas, such as creativity and reasoning.
One of the stars of the morning was the famed paleontologist Jack Horner, who chronicled his life journey for the attentive crowd. Not knowing he had dyslexia, he was labeled a failure in school — yet he grew up to become one of the world’s leading experts on dinosaurs, whose work inspired Michael Crichton’s
and the subsequent movies. He spoke to the crowd about how he found the first dinosaur eggs ever discovered in North America – by deciding to “crawl around in the dirt” (which apparently no one had ever thought of doing in Montana, where dinosaur bones usually are easy to see sticking out of the earth). He was the first to think of slicing open fossil dinosaur eggs to study the embryos inside, and the first to conceive of slicing dinosaur bones to examine their inner structures. All this without being able to complete a doctorate (“I dropped out of college seven times,” Horner confided).
Chapman students added their voices to the mix on a panel with noted short-story writer and novelist Richard Bausch, who has dyslexia. The students — Claire Bendig, Tera Gaines and Christopher Matista — shared their experiences growing up with dyslexia and how they cope with it at Chapman. Gaines commented that even the ticking of a clock in an otherwise silent classroom during a test distracts her. Matista said he’s always been a reader — he finished off the Harry Potter series by reading the seventh (and longest) volume in three sittings — but has also been diagnosed dyslexic. He has “very high sentence comprehension,” he said, but can get to the end of a novel and not be able to name the main characters. “I can tell you what their names look like on the page, but I don’t know how to to pronounce them.”
Chapman Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Students Jerry Price summed it up as the conference came to a close: ” Chapman University is not just about the practical pursuit of providing physical accommodations for students — it’s about a shift in our way of thinking, from a focus on minimizing our students’ deficits to maximizing their talents.” At the second Dyslexia Summit next year, the organizers hope for more shared ideas and experiences to move Chapman – and all universities – further toward recognizing the strengths that can be discovered in cognitive diversity. As Struppa said, “A new science of dyslexia is being developed, so universities will look at dyslexic students as assets, not simply as a group that needs special accommodation.”