It only took a few sets of 140 jumbled characters to make things clear to IndyCar driver Justin Wilson.
Soon after he joined Twitter about two years ago, Wilson began getting replies to his tweets telling him that he’d been sending out some strange-sounding stuff with more than a few odd spellings to boot.
The reason was simple: Wilson has dyslexia, a learning disability that affects the way he sees words, making it more difficult for him to read and write.
While he had never hidden his dyslexia, he never really talked about it publicly either. That changed on Twitter, where Wilson decided it was time to tackle things head-on. He did so by adding a frank caution to his Twitter profile: “WARNING: Dyslexic in control, tweets might not make sense.” At about the same time, he began looking for ways to do more for others who share his learning disability.
“It’s just kind of evolved from there,” he said. “I’m just trying to let others who have the same problem know that it’s just a different way of learning and you have to apply yourself.”
Wilson began working with the International Dyslexia Association (IDA) earlier this year to try to raise awareness about the learning disability, and he has become a spokesperson for the group.
The causes of dyslexia are both biological and genetic, and it affects people from all walks of life. As part of his new role with IDA, Wilson invited a group of nine children with dyslexia to visit his Dale Coyne Racing team in Toronto during last weekend’s IndyCar race at Exhibition Place.
The difficulties children face as they cope with dyslexia is something Wilson knows firsthand – he experienced some incredibly tough days growing up in England.
“It beats you down and knocks the confidence out of you; you go to school and all of a sudden feel stupid because you can’t read the book that everyone else in the class has been told to read, and you just sit there and stare out the window thinking: ‘I can’t do this,’” he said.
“I think that’s why I liked racing, because I could escape from all that: I could get in a go-kart and drive and nobody could tell me what I was doing was wrong. I was in control and just driving around enjoying myself and escaping from everything. And that gave me focus.”
Wilson's engine supplier, Honda, has a dedicated program that helps its drivers connect with organizations outside racing that fit with their personal interests and it played a key role in establishing the relationship with IDA.
The 33-year-old driver showed the group of youngsters his car and gave them a detailed explanation of the functions of all the buttons on the steering wheel. He also chatted with each child individually and signed autographs for them.
Wilson certainly made an impression on 11-year-old Sophie Brugman, of Richmond Hill, Ont., one of the children who spent about an hour with him in the IndyCar paddock last Friday.
“It was exciting to meet somebody who has gone through all the difficult things that I am going through now, and who has accomplished so much,” said Brugman.
“It made me feel good about myself, and that I might also have a bright future ahead of me. He is very inspiring, and it was nice of him to spend his time with us.”
One of the reasons Wilson wants to increase awareness is to ensure that parents understand how important it is for kids to be diagnosed early. In his case, Wilson was tested for dyslexia at school when he was 11 years old but the diagnosis came back as a severe case of laziness, rather than a learning disability. He was only confirmed as dyslexic after his mother took him to a special clinic for more testing. He was 13 when the diagnosis was finally made.
“It was pretty late,” said Wilson, who is already looking for signs of dyslexia in his two young daughters, Jane, 4, and Jessica, 2.
“The sooner you find out, the better it is. I had extra lessons from that point on at school but I never really caught up. I was telling the kids ...and their parents that it’s only recently that I worked out what I was doing wrong: When I start reading things, I read the first two or three letters and the last couple of letters and kind of guess at the word – I just make it up and see what fits.” As such, Wilson can read the same sentence three times and come away with three different versions.
Children who are identified early and given special instruction as they enter kindergarten or Grade 1 have significantly fewer problems in learning how to read at their grade level than those who are diagnosed just two or three grades later.
Although diagnosing dyslexia is still far from perfect, it’s getting better.
“Research has come a long way to give us the tools to identify at-risk students at a much younger age,” said Michelle Halsey, executive director of the IDA’s Ontario branch.
“We also know which interventions and strategies work with these kids. The key is getting the information into the hands of parents and professionals, so they can support students right from the beginning.”
About 20 per cent of any population has some symptoms of dyslexia, such as slow reading, poor spelling or mixing up similar words. Most figures peg about 1 in 10 having dyslexia or roughly two kids in every classroom.
When it comes to racing drivers, three-time Formula One world champion Jackie Stewart and F1 veteran Johnny Herbert also have dyslexia. Another famous racing dyslexic is actor Patrick Dempsey, although he’s best known as “Dr. McDreamy” on TV’s Grey’s Anatomy. Dempsey drives in the Grand American Series.
Coincidentally, Wilson’s career in car racing began with a couple of seasons driving for Paul Stewart Racing in Formula Vauxhall and later he raced with Jaguar’s F1 team in 2003, an outfit formed when Ford bought Stewart Grand Prix, owned by Paul and his father Jackie.
Having the opportunity to spend time with Jackie Stewart helped Wilson deal with his learning disability, and simply watching the three-time champion gave him plenty of inspiration.
Now, he finds himself in a similar situation, helping youngsters deal with some of the same barriers that he faced two decades ago.
His advice to the nine kids who joined him last week was all about believing they can also achieve their goals. Dyslexia might make things a bit tougher sometimes, he said, but it won’t stand in the way unless you let it.
“I told them it’s not because you aren’t as smart as the next kid,” Wilson said. “In my case, I had people saying there was no way that I could drive racing cars because I was not smart enough but I just kind of dug my heels in and said I was going to prove them wrong.”
Brugman also had some advice of her own for children with dyslexia after meeting Wilson and seeing his success: “Keep on trying, don’t give up and you will make it.”
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