Hero Dr. Bruce Willett

Dr. Willett has been a General Practitioner since 1989 and has been the practice owner of Victoria Point Surgery in Brisbane since 1992.

In addition to his practice duties, Dr. Willett is also a GP supervisor for General Practice Training Queensland (GPTQ) and a Supervisor Liaison Officer. He is currently a board member of The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) and Chair of their Queensland faculty. He is also passionate about helping the next generation of doctors, by training registrars in his practice, supporting supervisors across Australia, and influencing the industry through leadership positions.

It is our great honor to have Dr. Willett onboard as a Code Read Hero, as he is well-respected in the medical field and our cause to raise more awareness for dyslexia will benefit greatly by having him in our court.

Below you can learn more about his experiences and insights as a dyslexic.

How was your early school experience?
Difficult, Like many kids with dyslexia I struggled most with the early school years. There was some talk of me repeating grade 1. Those early years are the most difficult largely because the skills required in early school are the skills that kids with dyslexia have the most problems with. Mathematics in later life was my best subject. However, the mathematics of early primary school is more akin to learning spelling and grammar rules, the abstract thinking and problem-solving come later. So even mathematics is difficult in those first few years.

How did you find out you had dyslexia?
My mother became suspicious when I became “ill” every Friday morning. Every day in Grade 2 we were given five spelling words to learn, I would generally get around 3 to 4 of the correct per day. On Friday we had “the big test” all 20 words were retested. I would usually get between 3 to 4 out of 20 on the Friday test. My teacher would then send me to the office on Friday mornings after the test for not doing my homework and learning my spelling. I got the cane every Friday, I did not tell my parents about it, I felt ashamed. This was the late 1960s, it was a different time. My mother had not had a great deal of formal education, but I was incredibly lucky that she recognised that something was amiss. She went up to the school and demanded that this stop and somehow arranged for me to get testing at a Brisbane Teachers College. So, I received a diagnosis at age 7, which is incredibly early for the late 60s.

How did you feel about the diagnosis?
Probably worth saying that I suffer more from dysgraphia than dyslexia. My reading is not too bad, although I think I have to concentrate more than average when reading. Where I really struggle is with spelling and writing. My spelling is extraordinarily poor.

With a diagnosis at the age of seven, I do not think I really understood the significance. The main thing was to not feel that I was just dumb, which is of course what my teachers thought. I was very lucky to have fabulous family support and encouragement, I know without that, I would not be where I am today.

How did you navigate high school and further education?
Late primary school through to high school was a revelation. Suddenly for the first time in my life, I could do things that other kids struggled with at school, rather than the other way around. Maths and science were my saviours. It took a while for me to realise that I was actually good at it. In the competitive environment of senior high school Maths and Science, dyslexia still affected me. I needed to factor in the fact that I would bleed a certain amount of marks through what I called “silly mistakes” e.g. transposing numbers or failing to copy them correctly from one place to another. While it was a bit frustrating because often the difference between getting top marks is coming second or third was one mark. It was something I accepted.
English remained a huge problem for me. I had to repeat year 12 to pass English despite getting very high marks in all my maths and science subjects. It was a requirement to have past English to attend university. I passed English the second time and started medicine at UQ. Medicine was not easy. Lots of reading and lots of rote learning. I often felt I would have been better off doing engineering, maths or physics but the clinical practice is wonderful. Starting work as a clinician was again a revelation, I feel very comfortable problem-solving and with communication skills. Worth it in the end.

How does dyslexia help or hinder you now?
Remains a hindrance, but much less than as a child. In the modern world, we spend so much time with written expressions now, social media, emails and texting. I tend to avoid social media, it tends to attract a few unkind comments about spelling or grammatical mistakes. They tend to be interpreted as stupidity or lack of education.

What strategies do you find helpful? Unhelpful?
Computers are a blessing. I sometimes regret not being born 20 years later. Spell-checking and grammar-checking are sensational. I use dictation software. Typing rather than writing is better. Going back to early education. Lots of teachers and others would often say things like “ can’t you see that that word just does not look right”- my answer was always “ no I can’t”., still can’t.

Breaking things down into rules is helpful. I remember a small child learning- b has a bum, and d has a trial-like dog to help tell the letters apart. Building up word spelling from base words etc. Phonics and “what looks right” are much less helpful strategies.

A dyslexia champion is a person who helps and supports people with dyslexia to understand dyslexia and how to navigate around it.

Was there a particular champion in your life or did you work things out for yourself?
My mother and my older sister. My mother was convinced that I was not dumb and told me so, my older sister is quite a bit older. She became a teacher and developed an interest in special education. She was incredibly helpful both in terms of advice and helping me find help.

If you could give your dyslexia back would you?
Absolutely. It still makes my life difficult, although it is much less of a problem than it used to be. The optimistic view of dyslexia is of course that the parts of my brain that do not work well are because they are being used for other functions and that explains why I am good at some other things. Perhaps this is true, but I am not so sure.
What would you like the general public to know about dyslexia? Do you think it’s well understood?
Dyslexia is a specific learning disorder, it is not the same as a generalised learning disorder, these kids have normal or better intelligence. It is more akin to tone deafness or even colour blindness.

Do you have a message for education ministers and policymakers?
Modern society increasingly requires people to read and write at high levels, we have a moral responsibility to help these kids but even if we don’t they are a fabulous return on educational investment. The only treatments we have for Dyslexia are educational, it does require special skills by the teachers. Investment in those skills is required. Specialist teachers in dyslexia can help hugely.

Do you use any technology to assist you daily?
Dragon Dictate, spell checkers, and grammar checkers.

What message would you have for teachers?
These kids are not lazy, sloppy, or dumb. They do not need to try harder or concentrate more. Be alert and look out for these kids, often this will be a widely varying performance across various aspects of the curriculum. He will need to explore different teaching techniques for these kids, if you are not comfortable refer them on to a teacher who has some knowledge of teaching kids with dyslexia.

What message would you have for young people who have dyslexia?
Hang in there. Don’t let them get you down, you are not dumb. It is not fun, but there are ways around it and it does get easier with time.