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Dyslexia no bar to student’s sci-fi success

Adam Cohen (26) was advised to choose a ‘safe’ undergraduate degree after dyslexia made his screenwriting ambitions seem like an impossible dream. Now, after embarking on an MA Writing for Screen and Stage at Regent’s University London he’s being courted by major film producers.

I still feel the terror I used to have going into exams at school. It doesn’t exactly scream professionalism if you present a piece of work that’s littered with spelling mistakes.

In school I always knew more than I could put on paper, but when someone suggested I might have dyslexia the teachers just laughed. ‘You’re not that bad,’ they said.

Throughout school I learned that special educational needs (SEN) support and funding is reserved for problem cases and, as a ‘B’ student, I wasn’t seen as a problem.

Spelling tests were my worst nightmare. I had to create reasons that words were spelled in a certain way – if it was ‘Sphinx,’ I’d tell myself the nose had fallen off, so it needed an ‘X’ added.

By the time I started applying to universities my teachers encouraged me to choose any subject, just so long as it got me a place. That’s how I fell into a quantity surveying degree, but I knew it wasn’t for me.

One big positive about university was that I was finally tested for, and received a diagnosis of dyslexia. It was a relief in many ways. At last I understood why I’d never excelled academically despite my best efforts.

In higher education anyone can be assessed for SEN, but the support is at the wrong end of the pyramid. School taught me to be terrified of receiving an ‘F,’ but failing is a part of life. Children should be encouraged to embrace ‘failure’ and take it on as a challenge.

Our education system’s testing of children is archaic. Does anyone’s modern working experience honestly involve sitting in a room with a fountain pen, no Internet, no spellcheck and a one-hour time limit?

In a generation of apps and innovative start-ups, measuring ability is being limited by exam conditions.

Three months into my year-long placement as a Trainee Quantity Surveyor I made the decision that changed my life. At the time I’d also been tutoring for a family in Chelsea and the mum was a pop singer. A few months into the role I tentatively presented a sit-com script to her, a comedy based in part on her own frenetic family life.

Rather than being asked to pack my bags, she introduced me to her contacts at Tiger Aspect Productions who liked what I’d done and filmed a pilot episode. I was hooked.

Throughout this time, although I’d never hidden my dyslexia, I was constantly coming up with mechanisms and strategies to help manage it.

Film and TV producers who know I’m dyslexic ask why there aren’t any mistakes in my scripts? Simple - it’s because I’ve sent them to my mum and ten friends to proofread beforehand.

Ultimately you develop coping strategies that gradually build your confidence. I have a computer programme that reads my scripts back to me, and if something doesn’t sound right I change it.

I want to give a good impression and prove that I’m good at what I do. I certainly don’t want my scripts to feature a disclaimer at the top saying ‘hey, I’m dyslexic, ignore any mistakes.’

I next scripted a short film titled ‘Ups & Downs,’ about two brothers’ twisted family dynamics.

The film was screened at 20 festivals around the world, including Cannes, where I met international filmmakers I’d never normally be able to connect with. One of these was a producer from Spier Films who was making a Sci-fi movie set in the Kalahari Desert with no dialogue.

Recently I decided to invest in my career through an MA Writing for Screen and Stage at Regent’s University London. With no exams and one-to-one tuition it was ideal.

One of the first tasks on my MA was to write a 10-page vision and sound piece, so I created a treatment for the sci-fi idea and sent a completed script to the producer. The following week I had a voicemail from her asking me to get in touch. It turned out their writer had dropped out and she liked my proactivity.

I’m now developing the story, called First Man, into a feature length film and working with a fantastic director called Jamil Qubeka. First Man is set 100,000 years ago in the Kalahari and the action starts when an ancient tribe’s men disappear after seeking an audience with their gods, forcing the women on a damning exodus to find them.

I’ve learnt good sci-if is ‘real.’ You need to believe in the characters’ and their actions. I’ve been speaking to an expert in primordial man about how the characters might react in certain scenarios. The film is still in development at script level, but I’m really excited about where this journey is leading.

I still tutor children aged 7-11 who have dyslexia, to help them prepare for English and Maths exams. I don’t actively meet parents and introduce myself as dyslexic, but when they start talking about the challenges their children are facing, I’m able to say ‘it’s okay, there are ways round this.’

Talking about her little girl, one mum said ‘whatever you do don’t mention spelling tests, she’ll get too upset.’ I can really relate to this. After a while we were able to look at words like ‘pneumonia’ using visualisation strategies, like the ‘n’ and the ‘u’ are lungs, working either side of the ‘e.’ It works.

These children may never be the fastest writers, but they can learn how to produce efficient stories. Why should it matter if you’re dyslexic? As long as you can fulfil your potential, it’s just about looking at something differently.

I still feel some of the fear from my school exam days. When I’m tutoring and a student asks how to spell a word, I may have to look it up on my phone. I’d still be no good in an exam. I hate updating my CV and looking back at my grades. The playing field was never level for kids like me.

If I can offer anyone in a similar position advice it would be that saying ‘no’ is the real way to fail. Be open to any opportunity and present yourself as someone who people want to work with. It will undoubtedly lead you somewhere unexpected.

Find out more about Regent’s University London’s MA Writing for Screen and Stage by clicking HERE.