Splashed diagonally across Dean Bragonier’s business card in bright orange lettering is the phrase “dyslexic before it was cool.” It’s a statement that has a powerful meaning for him and his wife, musician Sally Taylor.
Both are dyslexic, as is their 10-year-old son Bodhi. Several of Bragonier’s family members are dyslexic, as are Taylor’s — including her mom, musician Carly Simon, and her brother, Ben, who is also a musician. “It’s all in the family,” she said with a laugh.
Married for 14 years, Bragonier, 44, and Taylor, 43, share similar stories from their youth about being viewed as “slow” by teachers and peers.
“What we heard was ‘You are broken because you don’t read well. You are insufficient,’” said Bragonier, who three years ago founded NoticeAbility, a nonprofit aimed at helping dyslexic children.
He has teamed up with educators from Harvard Business School, Harvard School of Education, and MIT to create a curriculum that will help dyslexic children learn in different ways and change the conversation around dyslexia.
“We’re often labeled as having a learning disability. We don’t,” he stated during a recent interview in the Cambridge home he shares with Taylor and Bodhi.
Taylor added: “The messages that we’re given are often more disabling than anything else, in my opinion.”
It is estimated that one in five people in the United States has some form of dyslexia, which Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — and herself dyslexic — described as having “difficulty with reading words accurately or fluently, or spelling.”
“The main reason why readers with dyslexia struggle is due to difficulties processing the sounds of language, and in mapping those sounds to letters and letter combinations,” she said. “This issue with word recognition or decoding can impact other skills such as reading comprehension or writing.”
Luckily for Bragonier and Taylor, they had encouragement along the way. He graduated from Bates College and was a restaurant owner on Martha’s Vineyard before transitioning to the nonprofit realm. Taylor graduated from Brown University and was a busy touring musician before she also started working in the nonprofit sector, founding Consenses in 2012 — a multi-platform, interactive arts initiative using artistic mediums as a means of gaining a better understanding of ourselves and others.
Taylor said the idea for Consenses came from an Indian fable she read while studying anthropology at Brown. It tells the story of six blind men who happen upon an elephant and each, upon exploring different parts of his body, reaches a different conclusion about what he has found. One, holding the elephant’s tail, thinks he has found a rope; another, exploring the elephant’s leg, is certain it is a tree. As the blind men argue, a king appears and urges them to stop arguing and to listen to what the other has to say to gain a better understanding of what is before them.
“When I first heard that fable, I was like, wow, we’re each like a blind man on this planet, with each of us getting to feel only a tiny sliver of space and time on our entire journey of our lives,” she said. “Then one night when I was on stage, I thought that while I was performing, I was only feeling one part of the elephant and relaying my version through music. Wouldn’t it be great if there were more blind men — more artists — to explore this with me?”
So Taylor gathered photographers, sculptors, dancers, and poets to “explore the elephant” by interpreting each other’s works of art and creating multidimensional exhibits.
Meanwhile, Bragonier’s NoticeAbility organization had received a grant from the Peter and Elizabeth C. Tower Foundation to create a curriculum that uses teaching methods other than the written word to focus on the abilities of dyslexic students.
“Take graphic, pictorial, and video-based methodologies. … They are seamless for the dyslexic,” he said. “We learn very, very quickly when we are presented information in these formats.”
The first installment — entrepreneurship — debuted last year in the Martha’s Vineyard public schools and was well received.
“Dean’s program accentuates the gifts that children with dyslexia might have and it is very motivating,” said assistant superintendent Richard Smith.
After the success of last year’s program, Bragonier teamed up with his wife and her Consenses platform to develop an arts-based curriculum for the dyslexic community. The pilot program is being unveiled in Martha’s Vineyard public schools this month, with plans to expand the curriculum and make it available in the near future to other school districts.
“Basically, NoticeAbility is getting a dyslexic-centric version of Consenses, and Consenses is getting a formalized curriculum as a result of my team’s input,” Bragonier said.
Schlichtmann, in addition to teaching at Harvard, is executive director and chief scientist at EdTogether Inc., a nonprofit that focuses on creating sustained change toward the inclusion of people with disabilities in general education classrooms.
“I think so often kids with dyslexia are put in remedial classes and never get to show their strength or engage in areas of interest and really have that sort of positive experience. What you see by the time they get to middle school are pretty serious emotional issues,” she said. “I think this program helps to really give them a space that accommodates their weaknesses while allowing them to thrive in their strengths.”