Being told I was dyslexic aged 18 changed my life

Had I been told that I would go on to read speeches on live TV I wouldn’t have believed you (Picture: PA Video/PA Wire)

Many of you will know me as the man who stood in front of a lectern in Downing Street, explaining the latest coronavirus data to the nation, during the first 18-months of the pandemic.   

However, what you won’t know is that behind the scenes, England’s deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Vam-Tam – or JVT as I like to call him – spent half an hour helping me learn to read the word ‘dexamethasone’ before one particular TV press conference. 

Why? Well, like 10% of the population, I’m dyslexic and I was so worried that this would hinder my reading during the Covid press briefings that I asked for help on some of the tricky words that I thought could trip me up.

It was moments like this that made me realise I had to do something to help others suffering with the same difficulties. So, last December, I launched my dyslexia campaign for universal screening in primary schools in England. This means that no child leaves school not knowing if they’re dyslexic. 

Six months on, I’ve been struck by the number of people who have written to me to tell me their stories about living with dyslexia. Whether only being identified later in life, being called ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ at school, or freezing in horror when asked to deliver a speech or presentation in public, dyslexia can cause huge challenges. 

Incredibly, only around one in five dyslexic children are identified in primary school, while the remaining 80% leave without a diagnosis. I was one of those children.

In fact, I didn’t know I was dyslexic until I was 18 years old, during my first terms at university. They say ignorance is bliss but I spent my childhood avoiding any subject that needed reading or writing, thinking I just wasn’t very good at English.

No matter how brilliant my teachers were or how much work I put in, I just found these subjects more difficult than my friends. 

Had my teenage self been told that one day I would go on to read and deliver speeches on live TV, in front of the nation, every evening, I wouldn’t have believed you, because I wrongly thought it was beyond my capability. 

I am one of the lucky ones. I got into a top university. Once I had been there for a term, my tutor, Dr Hart, took me to one side and said: ‘Matt, you’ve got the gift of the gab, but you can’t put it down on paper’. 

I was then sent for an assessment and following my identification as having dyslexia, I was retaught how to read and write, understanding words as shapes rather than reading letter by letter. 

Five common signs of dyslexia in adults

  • A mismatch between what you seem capable of verbally and your written communications is a strong indicator of dyslexia
  • Dyslexics see the big picture
  • Dyslexics are imaginative innovators
  • Dyslexics are master communicators and storytellers
  • Dyslexics have strong emotional intelligence

You can find out more here

Some say that we shouldn’t identify people for dyslexia because this will have negative impacts on mental health and self-esteem. This is complete rubbish – it changed my life. 

My diagnosis was a lightbulb moment and it allowed me to deal with the challenges of dyslexia, while maximising the advantages of this neurodiverse condition. Had I been identified and given the correct support at an earlier age, I would have discovered my love of reading much sooner, rather than being daunted by it. 

It’s a scandal that only 20% of dyslexic children get identified at school. While those in private schools more often get the identification and support that they need, early diagnosis is much rarer in state schools.

It cannot be right that private schools offer children screening for dyslexia and provide teachers with the right training, while state schools, and the children they educate, do not have the same luxury. 

Impressive independent schools like Millfield, in Somerset, have universal screening for dyslexia and every teacher has been trained using Made By Dyslexia’s free 2-hour teacher training course. These are cheap and effective measures that will have hugely positive impacts on all children – and shouldn’t be the preserve of the private sector. All children need and deserve a good education.  

My Dyslexia Screening and Teacher Training Bill, introduced in Parliament earlier this month, aims to address this injustice. 

My proposals would result in every child being screened for dyslexia by the end of primary school and teachers being given adequate teacher training to support dyslexic children.   

This would help every child to make the most of their potential and is vital to achieving the laudable target of 90% of primary school children achieving the agreed standard in reading and writing by 2030.

My friend Nadhim Zahawi is an evidence-driven Secretary of State, as every good Cabinet Minister is, and he knows that we cannot solve literacy without solving dyslexia. 

We sadly know what happens when this support is not given

Do not be mistaken. This is not only a matter of social justice, but also an economic necessity 

With half of jobs expected to be done by machines in just three-years, the skills of creativity, empathy and lateral-thinking will become far more important in the modern workplace.

These are the skills that dyslexics have in abundance. Failing to invest and capitalise on this immense level of human capital will condemn yet another generation of talent to under-performance through no fault of their own. 

And we sadly know what happens when this support is not given. It saddens me that over half of all prisoners are thought to be dyslexic and that 57% of prisoners have a reading age lower than an 11-year-old. 

It’s why I’m also calling on the Ministry of Justice to improve in-prison education – and make prison Governors accountable for teaching prisoners to read so it doesn’t get ignored.

But this restorative measure is not enough. We need a preventative approach to our prison system, and this starts at school, and with my plan for universal screening for dyslexia. 

It has been very promising to see the Government taking this issue extremely seriously, since I started my campaign. Through many meetings with ministers and officials, I am sensing a change in their mindset, but there is more work to be done. 

I was delighted when the Education Minister committed to early identification and teacher training for neurodivergent conditions. Now is the time for action. 

If we fail to act now, we will be falling behind the rest of the world in solving one of the last major equality hurdles we face.

It was hugely encouraging to see the very impressive New York City Mayor, Eric Adams, announce recently that every child in New York City will be screened and every teacher will be trained for dyslexia. This hugely progressive step will help to equalise opportunities for children in New York City and prepare the next generation for the workplace. 

My bill would make the UK a global leader in empowering dyslexics.

The second reading of the bill is on Friday, 16 September and I am pleased to say I have cross-party support, from Labour’s John McDonnell to former Conservative leader, Iain Duncan Smith. 

I hope by raising this issue I’ll gain the support of all my colleagues across Parliament, and in Government, to make this much-needed change. 

As Countdown’ star Susie Dent tweeted in her support for the bill last week, ‘this isn’t a political issue, it’s a human one’, and I will not rest until we achieve this.

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