Bristol Evening Post ‘Seven magazine’ 4th April, 2003Share
Having been branded a dunce at the age of six, Antonio Farruggia left school virtually illiterate. He’s now close to completing a PhD on a subject close to his heart – dyslexia. Tom Henry meets this remarkable man who has embraced dyslexia and made it his great strength.
As names go, Antonio Giuseppe Farruggia is somewhat harder to commit to paper than John Smith. Even as I write it, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve got the Giuseppe right. Is the ‘I’ before the “e”, or the “e” before the “i”?
He laughs about it now, but this is the sort of scenario 38-year-old has had to face ever since he started school. When other kids were clumsily learning to spell their names, Antonio was drawing a blank over his own, and eventually it has to be abbreviated to “Tony” to make it easier for him. When elementary reading lessons began, Antonio could not grasp the differences between the “ch”, “th” and “sh” sounds and he began to fall behind“
The one person who should know is Mr Farruggia himself – but even he, I feel, is not entirely confident. Recently, he was asked to write out his middle name at an office counter, but he just couldn’t remember how to spell it. With a queue of increasingly impatient people behind him, he had to ring his dad to ask him.
That was it from then on,” he says. “When I was 10 I was still on the Peter and Jane books. I just couldn’t get it, and yet when I was about six years old I went to Sicily one summer with my parents and I came back speaking Sicilian. Instead of the school recognising and encouraging me, the teacher folded up a piece of paper into a cone, wrote a ‘D’ for ‘dunce’ on it, put it on my head and made me stand in the corner for three days.
“I was crying and crying, and it was a horrible feeling to know that you’re missing out on what the rest of the class is doing. I fell badly behind after that, and by the time I came to take the exam for secondary school, I had a definite knack for trouble.”
Antonio was dyslexic, of course. He was one of the unlucky generation which the education system failed because his difficulties with reading and writing were not spotted by teachers who considered he was “thick”, “unteachable”, “backward”, “slow”, “remedial” or, in one phrase Antonio vividly remembers, had “bad blood”.
“It was because my dad is Sicilian,” he laughs. “I think they’d been watching too many episodes of the Godfather!”
Nonetheless, leaving school almost illiterate was no laughing matter, his frustration at falling behind resulted in him becoming extremely aggressive. He joined a gang in Birmingham, and violence became a way of life for several years to come until he eventually channeled his energies into boxing, and through a boxing coach who became a sort of mentor, he went on to train other youngsters.
Remarkably, Antonio is now in the middle of exhaustive research for a PhD in the condition which disrupted his early life. He is now able to see that dyslexics are not “handicapped”, but instead have talents, abilities and ways of learning that are different from what we might describe as “normal” and it is this positivity that will eventually lead to him being called “doctor”, not “dunce”.
“After I left school I ended up in the building trade and I moved around the country doing flooring for new Sainsbury’s stores,” he said. “I could get the concept of the design in my mind very easily, and I was able to create come lovely flooring which really gave me confidence.
“I eventually set up in business on my own, but the recession came and I lost a lot of money. I decided to change career and because I’d had experience coaching boxing to youngsters I applied for some youth work jobs. But I needed a qualification and so I applied to a college. The entrance exam I took was scribble, but to my surprise I was offered a place.
At first, Antonio felt like a “fraud”. Although his literacy had improved since school, thanks to his own effort, he still struggled with the written work, and would still misinterpret what he was told. “We did quite a lot of role play,” he said, “and one of the assignments was to act out a scene which involved working in Paris . I had all these images of France going on in my head, but when I was figuring out what I was going to do I looked around the class and everyone else seemed to be doing something different.
Eventually, the penny dropped. “I was supposed to be working in pairs, not Paris! I’d completely misread the instructions.”
Despite such elementary mistakes, Antonio’s determination to succeed saw his marks go up. He passed the course, then went on to take a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in education and community youth work. Now there was no stopping him. Although he wasn’t sure himself, a friend in the world of academia encouraged him to go on a PhD course.
As a result of his research Antonio is now of the opinion that dyslexia is something to be embraced, not overcome. “I’m not broken and I don’t need to be fixed,” he asserts. “I have got confidence in the fact that I have a different way of expression than other people. We can’t all play or read music, for example, and if you cannot so it is accepted and understood. However, we are only taught to read and write in one way, and it’s a case of ‘one-size-fits-all’.“But we are all individuals and we all do things in different ways. A lot of my research is based around the ‘person-centred’ approach to the teaching of dyslexics, which finds out what the child is interested in and teaches skills based around that core interest. “The perception a person holds of their own dyslexia is far more important than what a professional tells them it is. Personally, I’m proud to be dyslexic. It’s something special, something different, and for me it is about exploring that difference and celebrating it.”
Tell us Your Dyslexia Story
We all know about famous ‘dyslexics’, but what about every-day people that have overcome barriers despite dyslexia?
Send us your story, along with a photo or video, for Dyslexic Brian’s Inspirational Stories section.