By MATHEW DEARNALEY
James Ross hid his dyslexia from the world, overcoming the learning disability to gain professional engineering qualifications, but remaining fearful of being unmasked as "stupid".
Now, after losing his civil engineering job but winning a battle for reinstatement, the 33-year-old father of three is held up as an example to thousands of others suffering in silence from the condition.
Mr Ross says he "went through the mill" at school, struggling through to the seventh form with the spelling age of a 7-year-old.
But remedial tutoring after he was diagnosed dyslexic at 18 boosted his reading to an adult level. After six years of tertiary study he gained his New Zealand Certificate in Engineering.
Quiet survival techniques got him through jobs with the former Kiwi Dairies company and as a local body roading engineer in his native Taranaki, then he moved to Canterbury in 2000 to work for the Waimakariri District Council.
But he was "found out" by a supervisor, who confirmed a suspicion that he had a disability by making him read reports out loud and rewrite them again and again.
As Mr Ross' anxiety deepened, the supervisor became dubious about his qualifications for his job as an asset engineer, and he was dismissed last May for alleged serious misconduct.
He was wrongly accused of misrepresenting his qualifications and of failing to disclose his dyslexic condition in a job application form.
There turned out to be nothing flaky about Mr Ross' engineering certificate, which he gained from the Taranaki Polytechnic and Open Polytechnic.
It is also illegal under the Human Rights Act to discriminate against suitably qualified staff on the basis of any disability that does not affect their work performance.
Mr Ross challenged his dismissal in the Employment Relations Authority and won back his job with about $18,000 in damages and costs.
Although authority member the late Neville Taylor stopped short of finding the council guilty of discrimination, he believed its discovery of Mr Ross' disability might have limited its view of him, prompting his unjustified dismissal.
This was after the engineer refused an offer of alternative work as a customer services officer on the council's front counter.
"If I had accepted their judgment of me, that would have denied all my achievements," Mr Ross said. "What would that have done for my self-esteem for the rest of my working life?"
He is now in keen demand to address schools and business groups on how he turned the tables on a disability that afflicts millions.
"I did the utmost to conceal my dyslexia, but once it was discovered, that released me."
Mr Ross said he was able to solve complex theoretical problems at school through visual thought processes, but his limited vocabulary made it difficult getting the results down on paper.
"Dyslexia is not an intellectual handicap. I think in images and my problem was in expressing those images in words."
The clinical director of the Seabrook McKenzie centre for learning disabilities in Christchurch, psychologist Anne Stercq, said she knew of other employees who had lost their jobs because of dyslexia, after lacking confidence to stand their ground.
She said Mr Ross, whom the employment authority commissioned her to assess, was a rare example for many others. Her report described Mr Ross as an "extremely able young man" with mild to moderate dyslexia that was unlikely to affect his work.
What is dyslexia?
Dyslexia is a condition that hampers a person's ability to read. Speld, which is devoted to helping dyslexic people, says as many as 10 per cent of the country's schoolchildren suffer from it in varying degrees.
Estimates in countries such as the US are higher.
Sufferers include the Mad Butcher (Peter Leitch), Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein.
What Speld says
Rae McKeown, an Auckland director of remedial teachers for Speld, says sufferers are often gifted people who make good engineers because of their spatial awareness and an ability to "think outside the square".
Many schoolchildren go undiagnosed and the Education Ministry refuses to pay for remedial tutoring, unlike authorities in Australia, Britain and the US.
She says mainstream teachers are desperate for material on how to cope with dyslexic children, many of whom become highly disruptive out of frustration.
Herald Feature: Health
By MATHEW DEARNALEY