Henry Winkler health: ‘It was horrific’- The ‘Fonz’ on struggle with learning difficulty
In a candid interview with CBS, Winkler spoke out about his severe struggle with dyslexia, which started in school and continued to affect him in his professional acting career. The star explained that he had to quickly learn improvisation skills to get into the Yale School of Drama when auditioning with a monologue as he struggled to read a passage. In fact, the star confessed that he didn’t read a book until he was 31 years old.
Speaking honestly about how dyslexia affected him on Happy Days, Winkler confessed: “I could not read [scripts] out loud.
“We sat around a table Monday morning at nine o’clock for the producers, directors, prop people, costume designers, everyone had to know what my job was that day. And when we read it out loud, I couldn’t do it. I stumbled over every word.”
The star went on to explain that he used to make jokes in order to cover up his difficulty with reading, but some were not so forgiving.
“I screwed up other people’s timing, so those people were angry. I took a little more time and so those people were angry because they needed to get out and get on and build the set for the show. It was horrific.”
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The NHS explains that dyslexia is a common learning difficulty, but it can cause people to have trouble with not only reading but writing and spelling.
Importantly, unlike a learning disability, dyslexia doesn’t affect intelligence, but is still estimated to affect up to one in every 10 people in the UK in varying different ways, and for their entire lives.
Signs that an individual may be dyslexic usually become apparent when a child starts school and begins to focus on learning to read and write.
These can include:
- Reading and writing very slowly
- Confusing the order of letters in words
- Putting letters the wrong way round (such as writing “b” instead of “d”)
- Having poor or inconsistent spelling
- Understanding information when told verbally, but have difficulty with information that’s written down
- Finding it hard to carry out a sequence of directions
- Struggling with planning and organisation.
Struggling with some of the above symptoms himself, Winkler continued to explain what both his parents and teachers thought of him when growing up as no one, not even himself knew that he was dyslexic, until he was 31 years of age.
“They were convinced that I was lazy, that I was not living up to my potential,” he shared.
“Teachers said the same thing. So I was grounded most of my high school career. I was completely befuddled by school.
“I took geometry for four years, the same course over and over again and I did not graduate with my senior class. I finally passed geometry after doing summer school and eventually I graduated. But after all that at no point in my professional life, from June 30 1970 when I graduated to May 2014, not one human being has said the word hypotenuse to me! So did I really have to feel so bad and struggle so much and think I was so stupid for so long?”
“I didn’t read a book until I was 31 years old when I was diagnosed with dyslexia. Books terrified me. They made me nervous,” Winkler added when asked what his favourite book as a child was, admitting that even after battling his dyslexia he still finds reading “difficult”.
The NHS adds that with appropriate support, there is usually no reason why a child cannot go to a mainstream school, wth plenty of techniques and support that can help your child.
- Occasional one-to-one teaching or lessons in a small group with a specialist teacher
- Phonics (a special learning technique that focuses on improving the ability to identify and process the smaller sounds that make up words)
- Technology like computers and speech recognition software that may make it easier for your Child to read and write when they’re a bit older.
Higher education establishments such as universities also have specialist staff who can support young people with dyslexia.
Winkler learned to manage and learn with dyslexia, and has even gone on to write a successful series of books titled The Hank Zipzer: The World’s Greatest Underachiever, which focuses on a dyslexic child.
Talking about his inspiration to write the series, Winkler confessed that he thought he was “too stupid to write a book,” but with help from a writing partner they have created a series that makes it easier for dyslexic children to read.
Winkler added: “One thing we do is have a lot of white space in the books. Sometimes a chapter is 12 pages long, but sometimes it’s a paragraph long. Sometimes it’s a list. If a child has a hard time reading, they can still read a whole chapter of my books. Kids who have never read before, reluctant readers, can read my books.”
For those who think their child might be dyslexic can find support first by talking to a teacher or a school’s special educational needs co-ordinator (SENCO) about your concerns. From there they can offer additional support.
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