NDP hopeful Paul Dewar shaped by his dyslexia

NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar believes mastering the challenge of dyslexia has made him more determined to overcome other obstacles thrown in his way.
NDP MP and leadership candidate Paul Dewar used to talk openly about his dyslexia as an elemetary school teacher, especially with kids struggling with their own learning disabilities. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He may not have Winston Churchill's gift for oratory, Ludwig van Beethoven's musical genius, Albert Einstein's Nobel prize or Bill Gates' billions.

But NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar shares a common trait with many of history's greatest over-achievers.

He's dyslexic.

"There's a lot of people who wouldn't know because I don't broadcast it," the Ottawa MP told The Canadian Press.

"It's not all of me. It's part of me…I've never believed that it's something that I needed to tell the world about."

As an elementary school teacher, Dewar used to talk openly about it, especially with kids struggling with their own learning disabilities. Since becoming an MP in 2006, however, the subject hasn't come up — until now.

"I just thought, why not now?…I've always said, someone asks, I'll talk about it. You asked."

Louise Ward, for one, is glad Dewar is stepping forward.

"That's fantastic," says the president of the Canadian Dyslexia Association. "It's very important to change the image of dyslexia."

Ward believes there's still a stigma attached to dyslexia in Canada, where few politicians — let alone someone aspiring to lead the official Opposition with hopes of becoming prime minister one day — have been willing to talk about their struggles with reading, writing or verbal expression. It's quite different, Ward notes, in the United States where dyslexic presidents have practically been the norm: George Washington, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, George Bush and George W. Bush are all commonly said to have been dyslexic.

"Dyslexics are very good as leaders," Ward says. "They might be pure hell as secretaries but for leading they're fantastic."

Despite the lengthy list of famous dyslexics through history — Picasso, Mozart, Edison, van Gogh, Galileo, to name a few more — Ward is irked that dyslexia is typically referred to as a "disability" in Canada. She prefers to think of it as "a different way of thinking," one that's frequently accompanied by higher than average intelligence and exceptional skills or talents in other aspects of a dyslexic's life. 

In Dewar's case, he believes it made him a better teacher — he won Queen's University's A. Lorne Cassidy award for his work with special needs kids — and a better politician.

"I certainly identify strongly with people who are needing help in taking on things, be it with learning challenges, life challenges in general," he says. "It's about empathizing and understanding."

He believes mastering the challenge of dyslexia has also made him tougher, more resilient, more determined to overcome other obstacles thrown in his way.

'It's allowed me to really take things on'

For instance, when party icon and former leader Ed Broadbent was coaxed out of retirement in 2004 to jump into the NDP nomination contest in Ottawa Centre, Dewar, who'd been campaigning for weeks, refused to pull out. He was slaughtered but when Broadbent re-retired in 2006, Dewar tried again and finally captured the nomination. He's held the seat for the NDP ever since and is now considered virtually unbeatable, scooping up more votes in last May's election than all his rival candidates combined.

"I never saw this as something that held me back. In a sense, it kind of allowed me to go further ahead in a way…It's allowed me to really take things on."

The current obstacle standing in Dewar's way is his laboured French. Learning a second language is often particularly difficult for dyslexics. But Dewar knows the party — having vaulted into official Opposition status for the first time in its history, thanks to the orange wave that swept Quebec last May — expects its next leader to be fluently bilingual.

"Just like everything else, I'll take it on and we'll get there."

He'll have to work harder at it than most but he's used to that. Because his brain is wired differently and doesn't process written words the same as most people, Dewar has had to learn a variety of strategies to "break the code of language" —giving himself plenty of time to read or write something, breaking text into small chunks, reviewing, rewriting, re-reading until it makes sense.

"I just have to work harder," he says, adding that it becomes second nature after a while.

As an MP, that work ethic has gained Dewar a reputation as someone who knows his files and who, occasionally, gets frustrated with colleagues who are less well-briefed.

"I've been known to comment, 'Doesn't anybody read anymore?' " he said, without a hint of irony.

Because he processes information differently, Dewar says he's also sometimes able to "make associations others don't see." For instance, in poring over the 2009 budget, he noticed the government had booked $2 billion in sales of federal assets which Finance Minister Jim Flaherty later admitted might not occur, blowing "a gaping hole" in his deficit projections.