James Ross spent his childhood not knowing he was dyslexic. After a diagnosis at 19, life was on the up. But then in 2002, his boss tried to fire him for not disclosing that he had a "disability". Ross won reinstatement and a payout. He tells Carly Gibbs why he never gave up.

The teacher had instructed her students to read out loud from the same story.

Swallowing hard, a young James Ross nervously looked around the classroom, trying to anticipate the part he would have to read.

Peering down at the text in front of him, he sought out words he didn't recognise. He waited desperately for someone else to read them so when his turn came; he wouldn't be humiliated.

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His mind was racing. The room was quiet. It was his turn now. He stood up. Stumbled.

He could see the teacher roll their eyes before he'd finished, followed by "Thank you, James, sit down."

He'd been outed. It became a familiar feeling of shame of his early life. Years of pressure and self-blame. He was stupid and everybody knew it.

James

Ross is a survivor.

It took years to feel comfortable in his own skin and, even now, fleeting glimpses of that doubt still flicker through.

The dad of three, who turns 50 next month, went through his entire childhood not realising he had dyslexia - a language-based learning disability. He was diagnosed with it only at age 19.

Years of fighting to keep up with his peers, bad report cards, and always being told he needed to "try harder" impacted his confidence.

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From the dining room table of his immaculate Ohauiti home, spec-wearing Ross, in a plaid checkered shirt and slacks, speaks in a soft and calm voice.

They're two characteristics that demonstrate the quiet battler he is.

His round, speckle-bearded face, lights up when he smiles - and he smiles a lot. It's also a hint at his resilience through a heartbreaking journey.

After beating all odds to gain civil engineering qualifications from Taranaki Polytechnic, his former employer, Waimakariri District Council tried to dismiss him for hiding his "disability".

The case made national headlines in 2002/03 and went to the Employment Relations Authority, where Ross was reinstated as well as receiving damages.

He went on to set up the Know Dyslexia Charitable Trust, as well as become a public speaker and advocate for those suffering from dyslexia.

He has also studied and advocates the Ron Davis method of treating dyslexia, where students are taught three-dimensionally by working with clay to make a visual representation of words.

Davis, the author of The Gift of Dyslexia, explains that dyslexics are visual, multi-dimensional thinkers, using all the senses to think and learn, which is much quicker than verbal thinking.

Ross set up the Know Dyslexia Charitable Trust. Photo / George Novak
Ross set up the Know Dyslexia Charitable Trust. Photo / George Novak

As a child, Ross was able to solve theoretical problems through visual thought processes, but his limited vocabulary made it hard getting it down on paper.

"The harder you concentrate, the more the brain starts to look at things from all angles, and the words start to wiggle," he explains.

"I found myself humiliated in class because when the teacher would write on the blackboard, I'd put my finger out so I could keep the words still."

He has always thought in pictures, but his problem was expressing those images in words.

Growing up in 1970s Opunake, dyslexia was recognised nationally, but many teachers were unaware of the signs at a local level.

Even SPELD NZ, a not-for-profit organisation founded in 1971 to help those with learning difficulties, hadn't fully "unpacked" what dyslexia was, he believes.

That has changed in recent decades, says SPELD NZ Executive Officer, Jeremy Drummond.

"This is as a result of research on the neurological causes of dyslexia and the brain's plasticity or capacity to change," she says.

"There is now compelling evidence that shows learning outcomes for an individual with dyslexia can be vastly improved with specialised one-on-one intervention."

She said it was never too late for intervention and that more adults were now seeking help.

"The gift of literacy can absolutely transform their lives."

Ross' school report cards frequently read: 'If he tried harder, we would get there.'

"It was all failing, all the way through. I just felt so guilty all the time," he says.

The Ron Davis method uses clay. Photo / George Novak
The Ron Davis method uses clay. Photo / George Novak

He wishes his parents had sought some guidance outside of school, but they never did.

"The answers were only an inquiry away. They just had to step outside the school to find the answer, and they left me in that space without any answers. To see your child battle and not do something; you've got to own that," he says.

While his peers would progressively move up in spelling levels throughout the year, Ross would steadfastly stay on level one.

He remembers feeling frustrated at learning a word one day and forgetting it the next.

In desperation, he developed strategies to try to get out of class.

He would play up and then be sent to do rubbish duty.

"It didn't work if you got sent to the principal and got the strap," he muses. Although, at times, the strap still seemed a better alternative.

With persistence and diligence, he made it through his schooling years. Ironically, Ross found solace at the school library, immersed in books on warplanes, their generous illustrations fueling his imagination.

These days, his home office pays homage to that part of his life, with framed images of vintage planes.

His post-school prospects looked grim, after failing university entrance plus an attempt to study architecture, but he managed to get into a civil engineering course.

He'd spotted an advertisement at Taranaki Polytechnic, offering private assistance for reading and writing, and plucked up the courage to walk through the doors of a learning centre. When he did, a woman ran him through some tests.

"James, you're dyslexic," she told him.

Years of fighting to keep up with his peers impacted Ross' confidence. Photo / George Novak
Years of fighting to keep up with his peers impacted Ross' confidence. Photo / George Novak

It was a word he'd never heard, and its meaning surprised him.

"I just thought I was as thick as two, short planks."

Further tests showed that at 19, he had the reading comprehension of a 9-year-old and the spelling level of a 7-year-old.

He was told to get glasses with colour-tinted lenses so that words didn't move as much and remedial tutoring helped him get to an adult level in reading.

He sought help for 18 months - long enough to enable him to complete his qualification and go on to work as a local body engineer in Taranaki and then move to Canterbury to work for the Waimakariri District Council as an asset engineer.

Life was looking good. "And I thought that was the end of it," he says sheepishly. "Until I got fired for being dyslexic."

Ross was 33, and thought his miserable school days well behind him when he was confronted for his "fraud". He'd been found out by a supervisor, who confirmed a suspicion by making him read reports out loud and making Ross constantly rewrite them.

As his anxiety worsened, the supervisor became to doubt his ability, and he was sacked for alleged serious misconduct, accused of misrepresenting his qualifications and failing to disclose his dyslexia on a job application form. Ross challenged his dismissal in the Employment Relations Authority and his lawyer took the case on pro bono.

Ross won back his job and $10,000 in damages and costs.At the time, the NZ Herald reported the late ERA member Neville Taylor stopped short of finding the council guilty of discrimination. He believed, however, its discovery of Ross' disability might have limited its view of him, prompting his unjustified dismissal.

This was after Ross refused an offer of alternative work as a front-counter customer services officer, which would've come with a 50 per cent pay cut. He and wife, Kristy, had just had their third child.

"The pressure was huge," Ross says.

Kirsty refers to the time as "horrid".

Ross challenged his dismissal in the Employment Relations Authority. Photo / George Novak
Ross challenged his dismissal in the Employment Relations Authority. Photo / George Novak

Ironically, he is also thankful for that experience because he finally saw that he had nothing to be ashamed of.

"I'd still been carrying a lot of guilt. I still thought I was intellectually suspect. That just doesn't fritter away because you now know the answer. I wept when (my supervisor) confronted me."

A subsequent IQ test showed he had a general IQ of 123 - a score between 90 and 110 is considered average. Over 120, superior.

He was told that if he'd had the right intervention strategies, he's likely to have been top of all of his classes.

"Now, that was an incredible feeling. All of those years of just feeling rubbish about myself and it was just not true. That was something I would never have had the courage to face myself."

It should have been hard to go back to the same job, but it wasn't.

"I should have been chest-out, 'I'll show you', but I was just relieved. It was something I'd felt really ashamed of, so to go public was really a big deal."

Going public saw Ross become an advocate for those with dyslexia. He moved to Tauranga in 2005 and by 2014 was presenting a local TEDx talk.

Kristy says when her husband first told her he had dyslexia not long after they met, it was like "a fake drum roll".

"It didn't make any difference to me," she says, adding that she found it emotional from a mother's perspective, creating a photo album for him which documents his dyslexia journey - a mixture of school report cards, newspaper clippings and photos.

His "crappy" time at school has helped his youngest child's journey, as she too is dyslexic.

"James set her on the right path and her favourite place at intermediate was the library, and she was top of English last year. It's just remarkable."

Ross with his wife Kristy. Photo / George Novak
Ross with his wife Kristy. Photo / George Novak

Her husband's mission is to show parents that their child with dyslexia will be okay. He runs civil engineering business, Ross Consultancy Services, and some of his new acquaintances with dyslexia have PhDs.

Sadly, they still hear stories of some kids falling through the cracks, and it shouldn't be that way in 2019.

Late last year, it was announced that all children would be screened for dyslexia, giftedness and other special learning needs and recorded in a national database, under a new draft Government Disability and Learning Support Action Plan.

"We've had parents where it's like their child has got a disease and they're about to die," Kristy says.

"They are just beside themselves, but hey, this is awesome that they think differently.

"I look at James and think: 'Yeah, he has had a remarkable journey, but he's a remarkable man. I found it quite sad, but I don't look at him as a victim or someone with a disability. He's just James'."

Where to find out more

# https://www.speld.org.nz/success-stories
# http://www.dyslexiafoundation.org.nz/
# James Ross' TEDx talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfsU_3WEUNQ