Over the past 20 years, Stu Shader, of Pleasanton, has worked for some of the biggest tech companies in the country, including Apple, Hyperion, PeopleSoft and Microsoft, where he currently sells software to eBay and Intel.
What are the keys to his success? He’s a brilliant communicator, able to see the big picture and “boil things down” for his clients. He is perceptive, intuitive and, perhaps most importantly, Shader, 49, says he knows when and how to make accommodations in areas where he feels challenged.
“In big meetings, that means sitting in the front row,” he says.
Shader assures his colleagues that he’s not “kissing up.” He has dyslexia, a brain-based learning disability that impairs a person’s ability to read — in this case, words scrawled on white boards. Sentences can appear as a jumble of symbols. School, as such, can be one long, devastating experience.
“Oh it was awful,” he recalls. “I barely graduated from high school and didn’t think of going to college.”
But dyslexics are hardly deficient. Over the years, neurology researchers at Yale University have identified in dyslexics an array of higher critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, like those Shader displays, fueling a movement to reframe the condition as an asset, not a disability.
A new HBO documentary by Marin’s James Redford (son of actor Robert) is leading that charge. “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” a 2012 Sundance Film Festival Official Selection, features interviews with super-achieving dyslexics, such as California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, about their struggles with reading and writing but also how dyslexia contributed to their success. The film debuts Monday.
Instead of struggling to interpret stacks of business reports, Branson, a high school dropout who went on to start Virgin Records and Virgin Airlines, received his reports face-to-face. Because he couldn’t decipher speech notes, noted attorney David Boies — who helped gay and lesbian couples in overturning California’s ban on gay marriage — cultivated oratory skills and an uncanny ability to recall a key fact or legal citation under intense pressure.
“I had to speak from the heart,” he says in the film. “I couldn’t B.S. anyone.”
Redford hopes these stories shed light on the gift dyslexia can be, especially for the one in five children who have the condition and consider the act of reading a hurdle that blocks their success in school and life.
“We want dyslexics and their families to see that the challenges of early education will be behind them one day and that the future can and should be brighter,” says Redford, who cast his dyslexic son, Dylan, in the film.
Dylan was functionally illiterate in the fourth grade but is now a freshman with honors at Middlebury College in Vermont. Like many dyslexics, he got there by advocating for accommodations, such as books on tape and more time for test-taking, Redford says.
Adi Gilo, of San Mateo, learned to rely on proof readers instead of spell-check after sending out a résumé blast a few years ago seeking a “potion” instead of a position.
“I read it 20 times, and it didn’t look wrong to me,” recalls Gilo, a cooking teacher who works with kids at the Rainbow School. She was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 6 and attended Charles Armstrong, a transitionary school in Belmont for students with language-based learning differences such as dyslexia. “Written communication with parents is still hard for me. I’ll never be good at grammar or spelling.”
Gilo, now 26, says she thought baking, which relies on exact, step-by-step chemical reactions, would be especially difficult for her to teach because she doesn’t think linearly about a problem. As it turns out, because she understands what is happening conceptually, she can explain the reaction occurring between ingredients in a creative way more accessible to kids, she says.
“It all boils down to the way dyslexics’ brains are wired,” says Claudia Koochek, the head of Charles Armstrong School. “It’s all about the right brain for them. They are very creative, empathetic people who see the big picture. We have dyslexics who are brilliant mathematicians. They can solve the most complex problem in their head. They just can’t show you their work.”
British entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson
California Lt. Gov., Gavin Newsom
Attorney David Boies
William Morris co-CEO
Author John Irving
Surgeon and Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove
James Redford’s documentary, “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” an Official Selection at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, debuts at 7 p.m. Monday on HBO. It will also screen at 1 p.m. Nov. 8 at the Napa Valley Film Festival. For more information and additional screenings, go tohttp://thebigpicturemovie.com.