Disability rights activist Ben Foss

The successful entrepreneur and prominent disability rights leader explains how best to think of dyslexia.

As the inventor of the Intel Reader, a mobile device that helps people who have difficulty reading, Ben Foss tapped into his creativity and resourcefulness to change the world. He's also founder of Headstrong Nation, a nonprofit dedicated to the dyslexic community. Foss was eight years old when his dyslexia was identified and, after years of hiding it, became successful by developing a unique approach to his disability. He earned a JD/MBA from Stanford and worked for Intel to develop technology for people with disabilities. In his first book, The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan, he shares his personal triumphs and failures and provides an approach for success.


Tavis: Whoopi Goldberg, Steven Spielberg, Magic Johnson, Harry Belafonte and Tom Cruise have all been diagnosed with dyslexia, a reading disability that hinders the way text on the page reaches the brain. Writer Ben Foss was eight years old when teachers realized that he had dyslexia. As an adult, he developed a unique approach to the challenge of accessing information.

And, in his new tome, “The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning,” he argues that, in order to help people learn, we have to stop thinking of dyslexia as a disease and instead recognize it as a different way of absorbing information. Ben Foss, good to have you on this program.

Ben Foss: Glad to be here. Thank you.

Tavis: Let me start with that, a different way of absorbing – easy for me to say – information.

Foss: Yes. Well, up until now, people have thought of this as a disease. You were not normal. As my mom liked to say, normal is just a setting on your dryer [laugh]. So what I like to do is think about peoples’ strengths. People have made dyslexia about shame, about feeling like you’re less than other people, and it should be about your strengths, your strong auditory ability, your strong creative ability, athletic ability. Whatever your strength is, you should play to that.

I think parents are often frightened. They have a perfectly healthy child who’s doing great and then suddenly they hit first grade and everything falls apart. They can’t read, they can’t spell and the assumption is that they’re then stupid or slow.

The worst is the schoolyard bully who will attack them for going into the slow kid class or being on the short bus. And that shame leaves a mark, so I think it should be more about strengths and less about shame.

Tavis: How much of this, diagnosed or not, has to do, to your point now, with a lack of confidence in these young persons?

Foss: Well, it starts off a person is slightly behind their peers because everyone starts off not being able to read. Reading is not a natural skill. Language is a natural skill. Babies just learn how to talk, but we have to sit them in school for five years to teach them how to read. But over time, that spreads.

And the reason it hits confidence so heavily is that this is the first thing you’re heavily evaluated on after you leave your house. So you grow up, you’re one of the kids, everything’s fine and then you separate from your mother and father and you start looking up to your teachers and your friends.

Well, if you don’t read and you don’t spell well, which is the first thing you’re asked to do, they assume you’re stupid or you’re not trying hard. That’s almost even worse. And you end up left out and that loneliness does impact confidence badly.

Tavis: Tell me more about your own personal journey starting when you were about eight, I guess.

Foss: Well, yeah. I was identified young. I was part of the first generation of people to be formally identified in the public school system. I always use the word identify because, you know, it’s like I’m from New Hampshire, but we don’t diagnose me as from New Hampshire. I just am from New Hampshire [laugh].

Tavis: Right [laugh]. That’s cute.

Foss: I just am.

Tavis: I like that, yeah.

Foss: So I’m from dyslexia is the way I think of it. It’s as though I was born in dyslexia and I immigrated here and I’m now in the mainstream trying to figure out how things work. So I was picked up early. They brought my parents in. They gave my mother a box of tissue in case she burst into tears and she said, “Yeah, I thought so.” My father said, “How do you spell that?,” which I thought was a great answer to what is dyslexia.

They immediately started focusing on my strengths. They said, “Well, Ben is smart and capable” and they talked to the school and worked out a plan to help me learn, which made a big difference.

Tavis: You talk in this text about understanding the rights that these children have.

Foss: Yes.

Tavis: Tell me more what you mean by that.

Foss: Well, you know, people should understand that the law is on your side. I like people to think of the law kind of like a bodyguard. A good bodyguard just stands in the back, wears sunglasses, earpiece, doesn’t do anything, right? You don’t want your bodyguard to need to engage, I mean, to fight somebody because they’re a bodyguard and it gets ugly.

What you want is people to know that you know the rules. So if you say to someone in passing, “I believe my child is due a fair and appropriate education” which is a legal phrase, “and that might be something you might want to check into. I think it’s called Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.”

Immediately, everyone sits up and says, whoa, this person knows what they’re doing [laugh]. So this plan in this book, “The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan,” is giving people sort of a boilerplate. These are the steps you need to go through. These are the things you need to get in there.

And one word I like to point out to people is the word disability. In certain contexts, this can be a gift. In certain contexts, this is a disability and you shouldn’t dump that term because it has legal force and that protects your kid when someone in the school doesn’t want to play ball.

Tavis: At this point, have we developed – notwithstanding your text, have we developed in public schools a best practices plan for dyslexic students?

Foss: So there is a best practices model. What you do is you start out with early identification. The school will often delay that process because it’s expensive to help a kid who has a disability of any form. So a parent needs to ask for a formal identification. There’s letters in the book that teach you how to do that. Then you want to get what’s called Orton-Gillingham Remediation. Orton-Gillingham – everyone calls it OG. It’s not like Original Gangster, just OG [laugh]. And Orton-Gillingham is a methodology. Now it’s important to remember that you do that for two to three years and then you want to move towards accommodations.

Think of it like this. If your kid was in a wheelchair, you’d spend two to three years working on getting him to have more strength and to be stronger, but you wouldn’t spend all 18 years of school on walking lessons. You’d start using ramps, you’d start lowering sinks. You’d start teaching them how to talk about their wheelchair and then they can be an independent advocate. So a good school will identify early, put a kid in Orton-Gillingham and then start adding things like a talking computer or books on tape.

There are free services available, the great services or low-cost services. Bookshare is a service that offers digital talking books for free to kids. Learning Ally offers audio books. They’re a low-cost service, so they have human readers who’ve read every book a child encounters out. So they can get “Harry Potter,” they can get – which turns out to be pretty important if you’re gonna be popular on the schoolyard. You better know what’s going on. It’s also going to have your history textbook and other things like that.

So think of it like this. Mind you, there’s three types of reading. There’s eye reading, standard reading with a book. There’s ear reading, and there’s finger reading. So blind people read with their fingers.

Tavis: Sure.

Foss: Braille.

Tavis: Braille, yeah.

Foss: Mainstream people read with their eyes. I read with my ears. So, for example, I have this which is the audio book, right? This is CDs. I record this myself. Now for a dyslexic person, that was not fun. This was like, you know, “Dante’s Inferno,” you get further and further down in? This was like level nine [laugh].

What I did it to do that was I had my computer read a sentence aloud to me and then I said a sentence and then my computer read a sentence and then I said a sentence. There’s 4,502 sentences in this book, so we did like 5,000 takes and then we just strung them together. Now it sounds great when you hear it now.

Tavis: Yeah, it’s a lot of work.

Foss: But it’s a lot of work along the way. But I did it because people need to know that kids are broken and that parents aren’t alone.

Tavis: Speaking of a lot of work, why is it that we think, without regard to what you’ve just said, why is it that we think that public schools can handle teaching students with dyslexia who require a different level of attention? Why do we think that they can do that job when there are many people who don’t believe that they can do the job of educating kids who don’t have dyslexia, as evidenced by some of the numbers we see coming out of these schools?

Foss: Well, there’s two reasons. One, we have for many years in this country had a principle that separate is not equal.

Tavis: A principle at least.

Foss: It is a principle. And I think it is a goal we should aspire to. If you segregate, you stigmatize. And if you segregate in practice, I think that is awful. It is worse to segregate by policy. So in my view, schools should be able to do this. It’s not that hard if you get onboard with a few basic things. I just described some services that are free or low-cost. You will also find that, if you don’t do this, you’re gonna miss out on some up sides and you’re gonna have some down sides.

Up sides, you mentioned a few people, people like Steven Spielberg, people like Charles Schwab, people like Richard Branson. These people were all dyslexic, are all dyslexic. They did not do well in school in their early years, but they went on to create great companies, to create great art and we’re gonna miss that if we don’t support dyslexic kids.

The other half is that 41% of the U.S. prison population, by the best estimate, has a specific learning disability, dyslexia being the most common. 41% is a massive number.

Now think about the lives that were impacted negatively by people who didn’t get a good education. If you want to start a new business and you’re not doing well in school, that can look a lot like stealing cars and then it works up from there, right? So entrepreneurship, we are 35% of entrepreneurs, which is an amazing fact, but we’re 41% of prisoners. That kind of, to me, tells the story of what’s going on here.

Tavis: Once dyslexic, always dyslexic?

Foss: Yes.

Tavis: Why the number so high? And it is high. 35%, that’s a high number.

Foss: Well, 35% of entrepreneurs.

Tavis: Right.

Foss: So in the general population, estimates range from about 10 to 20%. I go with 10, conservative number. That’s still 30 million people. There’s 2.3 million kids in the public school system.

Tavis: But why such a significant slice of entrepreneurs? That’s a lot of folk who beat the odds.

Foss: Well, here’s what it is. We learn how to fail early. And you know what the path to success is?

Tavis: Failure.

Foss: Yeah, absolutely. So we fail early and often. The ones that make it out build resiliency. You know, the way you build resiliency is two things. You give a kid unconditional love and you give him responsibility. And we go in and we’re not allowed through the front door, right?

So I tell a lot of stories in the book. I tell a story about how, when I was in high school, I desperately wanted to take an honors English class, right? Which one did I pick? Shakespeare. Why did I pick Shakespeare? I can rent all the plays on VHS and watch them. And, in fact, Shakespeare’s almost better watching it live.

So I put in extra time to watch every play all the way through rather than go and read the text, which is what everyone else was doing. So I came out the long way with a slight advantage ’cause I knew what it looked like onstage and could talk about it. But I hadn’t read it and I couldn’t pronounce certain names of characters and I had other things that tripped me up.

So I think the reason it’s high, think of it this way. In the world of computers, there’s a dominant operating system, right? Windows, right? Then there’s the Macs. We’re the Macs, right? We’re the Apple products. We’re the ones that don’t fit into the mainstream, but actually can do very well if you give us a good job.

Tavis: I’ve just a minute to go. Speaking of inventions that Apple puts forth, tell me about your own invention that I mentioned at the top of the show here.

Foss: Yes. So I was the Director of Access Technology at Intel and my role there was to create technology to help people with disabilities. So I made a product called the Intel Reader. It could take a photograph of printed material, read it aloud on the spot.

I did that because, when I was a kid, my mom read out loud to me. When I went to college, I would fax my term papers home to her in New Hampshire and she’d read them to me over the phone. And that’s not good for me, not good for my mom, right?

So having a tool which you can be independent with, now I can have my cell phone read a book out loud. I can have a book on tape in my car. I can be doing the dishes while reading. And I can also do it at a much faster rate. When I was in law school, ear reading is about 100 words a minute. I had to speed it up to about three times that.

Blind people do this all the time. So Stevie Wonder or someone like that, he listens to speech very, very, very fast. Your kids can learn that if you walk them through doing it. So I also have a nonprofit, headstrongnation.org. And we have videos on how to do this for free there. Headstrongnation.org, and there’s free videos that teach you how to use these kind of technologies, very simple, very basic.

But if I’m gonna leave it on anything, it really has to be about the emotional question. You can’t get a kid to adopt these technologies until they like who they are. And if they feel like they’re stupid or they feel like they’re lazy, they’re gonna be left out and it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. The path to success is through failure, but figure out a way to get that kid a ramp into a book and a ramp into life.

Tavis: Here’s a book for you on the ramp. It’s called – I can’t say it – “The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan.” I can read, but I can’t talk [laugh].

Foss: Well, we’ll get you the audio version [laugh].

Tavis: Yeah, get me the audio version [laugh]. Thank God, they invented the audio version, bam! The book, once again, is called “The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning,” audio book, regular book. This one’s for me. I’m glad to have you on.

Foss: Thank you, man.

Tavis: Good to see you, man.

Foss: All right.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

[Walmart sponsor ad]

Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: September 9, 2013 at 3:33 pm