Dyslexia and me: why I define dyslexia as an ability, not a disability

Posted on: 3 October, 2023

As part of Dyslexia Awareness Week, UCEM’s Dr James Ritson has shared his experiences and how he has come to view his dyslexia in a positive light.

My name is Dr James Ritson, and I am neuro-diverse; it sounds like some great confession, or something said at the start of a group therapy session. But it is me; my brain is wired differently than most people. But that different wiring gives me skills most people do not have.

James Ritson

Dyslexia is often described as a disproportionate distribution of our different cognitive abilities. I find writing and spelling very difficult; I find repetitive tasks infuriating. But when I look at a building, I instantly spot defects, I can see in my brain’s eye how the building is constructed in 3D, a very useful skill in construction and architecture.

My dyslexia allows me to absorb huge amounts of information and read at great speed, but conversely makes any form of writing very difficult. One quirk I have is the difficulty in remembering people’s names. However, I can, for example, remember exactly what dose of medication their elderly relative was taking from a conversation months earlier! My brain also then makes a sudden link to a snippet in a scientific journal article about an alternative form of delivery of that medicine, which has seen a set percentage increase in effectiveness. This ability to make connections and see anomalies in data or a defect in a building that everyone else missed is my gift. The price I pay for this gift is my difficulty with language.

Taking ownership of my dyslexia

Without sounding like some awful social media influencer, I took ownership of my dyslexia while studying for my doctorate. I came across a phrase ‘If you measure a fish’s ability to climb a tree, it will always do poorly’. I realised that I had spent too much of my time trying to force my brain to work in a normal way rather than letting it work the way it was wired to work; so, as the data in my research got more complex, my dyslexic brain started to notice patterns in the data and connect this to other research, and in a flash, I was discovering new findings in the field of sustainability. I was allowing my brain to swim rather than trying to force it to try to climb a tree.

I still struggle with writing, but I have learned techniques that suit me, I have learned to ask for help from colleagues and taken advantage of technological advances to assist my writing. But I have also realised I have the advantage of making abstract connections and developing new solutions to problems that no one else has seen. It is this skill I now focus on developing and pushing my brain in the way it was wired to pursue.

This is why I define my dyslexia as a different ability rather than a disability.

Yes, I struggle with some tasks that most people find easy, which is frustrating, but I far exceed most people in some other tasks. By recognising your abilities and then, in turn, focusing on boosting your strengths and getting help with your weaknesses turns your neurodiversity to your advantage. This sounds simple, but that process can be difficult and extremely stressful; just remember, most of the great minds in history have been neurodiverse.

Read Dr James Ritson’s article on the climate crisis: Climate chaos, societal change and the shifting role of the built environment