Dyslexia can damage a child’s confidence and self-esteem – but it doesn’t have to. Rising singer/songwriter Lydia Baylis tells Piers Townley how she came to terms with the reading disorder and how it kick-started her musical career
‘People just thought I was thick. It was a struggle,’ says Jamie Oliver about his own dyslexia. He recently admitted that he had only just finished reading his first book (Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire, since you ask). ‘I never really understood dyslexia and who could bring out my strengths,’ he says.
This has historically been part of the condition – it wasn’t fully understood, leaving children labelled as stupid and parents in the dark about how to help them.
Recent figures from the charity Dyslexia Action reveal that up to six million people in the UK may be affected by learning difficulties in varying degrees. It can be particularly disruptive in children’s first steps in learning, with an estimated one in five children experiencing some problems with classroom reading.
Thankfully much has changed, particularly when it comes to education and the techniques that allow children to adapt to it as they grow up.
Baylis knows this only too well. She’s following in the footsteps of dyslexic artists Joss Stone and Noel Gallagher by carving out a music career. ‘I was diagnosed when I was 11, when I moved schools,’ she says. ‘Immediately my English teacher said, “I know what this is.” I think my mother would say she knew from when I started learning to read.
‘Dyslexia affects people in different ways and in varying levels of severity. For me, particularly when I was younger, I found reading out loud very difficult because my dyslexia is phonological. I can’t figure out how to pronounce words and obviously when you’re younger it makes you look stupid and you’re not. You’re just struggling to say things.’
“It isn’t reflective of intelligence and it’s not reflected in talent or anything. It’s just a problem in learning and that’s all it is”
The British Dyslexia Association says this is the difficulty of diagnosis, particularly in young children. It’s also extremely difficult for those who’ve never experienced it to fully understand how it manifests itself.
‘It’s tricky to explain,’ says Baylis. ‘For me, I have trouble figuring out the phonetics of words. It’s just not logical to me as it is to other people. It’s really frustrating. Being able to communicate how you feel or mean something is completely integral to children’s learning and inevitably other people’s perception of you. Dyslexia can make you think, “Gosh, maybe I’m stupid.” But that’s not the case at all. It’s got nothing to do with intelligence.’
Baylis’s career is a good example. She went on to Oxford University to study and next month releases her debut single, with an album to follow. She’s already gaining critical acclaim and being labelled as one to watch.
‘I think my love of music was born out of my reading being quite slow,’ she says. ‘I was able to express myself more easily through music. It’s been hard with songwriting – there have been moments when I’ve written down the wrong words or the wrong spelling or said things a little bit back to front. But it’s actually made quite a good lyric! Some of the inverted lyrics and song structures are quite classic dyslexic traits.’
With a supportive family and, more importantly, a framework at school that helped to adjust how she was taught, dyslexia hasn’t been a career barrier at all. She has a particular admiration for her English teacher, a ‘dude’ who played the guitar and encouraged her musical ambitions.
“With songwriting, there have been moments when I’ve written down the wrong words or the wrong spelling and it’s actually made quite a good lyric”
Bayliss cites perseverance, particularly with the music business, as key to making it, along with developing a very thick skin. ‘Being on stage and singing bares your soul for everyone to see, for everyone to judge,’ she says. ‘If you can understand and deal with that, you’ll be halfway there. It’s taken a lot of hard work and along the way I’ve had lots of help with building up and maintaining my confidence.
‘It’s tricky growing up trying to put aside the stigma of being dyslexic, particularly if you want to be a performer, I guess. It requires help and understanding. Luckily, there’s much more of an understanding about it now and there are lots of ways that you can approach learning for dyslexic people.’
Bayliss believes that for anyone who has concerns about dyslexia it’s vital to remember that it’s not a reflection of who you are or your abilities.
‘The big thing for me was realising and being confident in the fact that it isn’t reflective of intelligence,’ she says. ‘It’s not reflected in talent or anything. It’s just a problem in learning and that’s all it is. The key is not to be shy about it. Don’t feel embarrassed about it – there’s nothing to hide.’
Lydia Baylis’s debut single ‘Mirrors’ is out on 12 August. You can listen to it here.