Faces of dyslexia: How a suburban carpenter, a hockey pro and The Fonz are working with it

  • Henry Winkler, the actor who played the Fonz on "Happy Days," visits Longwood Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 to promote his latest children's book and encourage children with learning difficulties, like his own dyslexia, to work through their challenges.

      Henry Winkler, the actor who played the Fonz on "Happy Days," visits Longwood Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 to promote his latest children's book and encourage children with learning difficulties, like his own dyslexia, to work through their challenges. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

  • Brent Sopel, a defenseman on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, has started a foundation to support people with dyslexia, which he discovered he had at age 32.

    Brent Sopel, a defenseman on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks, has started a foundation to support people with dyslexia, which he discovered he had at age 32. Daily Herald file photo, April 2010

 
 
Updated 10/12/2019 5:16 PM

The Fonz from "Happy Days," a defenseman with the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks and a construction contractor living in Bolingbrook all have one major thing in common: The way their brains work.

Actor Henry Winkler, hockey pro Brent Sopel and carpenter Jeremy Bailey have dyslexia, a learning disorder that experts say affects as many as one in five people to some degree. They've all struggled with self-esteem, self-acceptance and everyday literacy, and they're all speaking out to encourage others to seek diagnosis and assistance during October, which is Dyslexia Awareness Month.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Dyslexia isn't what many people think.

It's not the simple flipping of letters or numbers. It's a diversity of brain function that causes difficulty recognizing word parts, sounding out words, spelling, reading and attaining language fluency. It is the most common neurocognitive disorder, affecting between 80% and 90% of people who have learning disabilities, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

The disorder is treatable with tutoring and the use of strategies to break words into chunks, identify them and connect them with meaning. But it never goes away. And it often hides.

Winkler, Sopel and Bailey all were diagnosed with dyslexia as adults and all still confront challenges with reading. Here are their stories.

Actor and children's author Henry Winkler tells students at Longwood Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 how he was accepted into Yale despite having undiagnosed dyslexia.
  Actor and children's author Henry Winkler tells students at Longwood Elementary in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 how he was accepted into Yale despite having undiagnosed dyslexia. - Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer
An actor's story

The Fonz, aka Henry Winkler, tells his story often.

When he visits schools promoting his latest children's books, he wants his audiences to know how little was expected of him growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia in the 1940s and 1950s in New York City, and how far he has come. He wants adults to listen, too, so they can be aware of the reasons children with dyslexia struggle with reading and how to get them help.

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"The great thing about children getting identified early is they don't have to travel 30 years, 40 years thinking they're stupid," Winkler said.

He didn't have that luxury.

Winkler's parents thought he was lazy when he didn't achieve in school, he said during a visit this month to Longwood Elementary in Naperville, where he promoted his new book "Alien Superstar." His parents were disappointed, the 73-year-old Emmy award-winning actor said, that he would never follow his father in the business of "buying and selling wood."

Despite their doubts, he wanted to act. "I never let my dream out of my brain."

It was through practice, determination and improvisation that Winkler got into Yale and snared acting parts like his famous role as Arthur Fonzarelli in the 1970s and '80s sitcom "Happy Days."

"There's always a way to figure out how to do what you don't know how to do," Winkler said.

Figuring out life with dyslexia has involved forming partnerships, like Winkler has with co-author Lin Oliver. Partnering up is how a man who admits he can't spell and can't sound out certain words (example: schedule) has written the popular "Hank Zipzer" and "Here's Hank" series.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"I have learning challenges," Winkler told Longwood students. "You never get rid of them. You learn to negotiate them."

Winkler and Oliver's newest book is written with "struggling readers" in mind, Oliver said. The story has plenty of pictures to provide a break from decoding language, and it has short chapters -- something Winkler said he always wished for, yet never received, in the books he had to read for school.

Winkler's message, shared by his co-author, is one of understanding and assistance for people whose brains struggle to recognize the building blocks of language.

"The earlier their challenge is given a name," Oliver said, "the better their self-esteem."

Brent Sopel of the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks now works to promote understanding of dyslexia, which has caused him difficulties with reading and school.
  Brent Sopel of the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks now works to promote understanding of dyslexia, which has caused him difficulties with reading and school. - Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer, May 2010
An athlete's story

Hockey wasn't a game or a job for Brent Sopel. It was "a lifeline." His words.

The importance of the sport he played professionally -- including with the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks -- in the life of this 42-year-old with dyslexia illustrates how emotionally demeaning it can be to struggle with words.

That's why Sopel said he speaks so often, through the foundation he formed, about "the self-esteem side of things." "I tell my story very raw," he said.

Growing up in Canada, Sopel said, he hated every moment in class and entered high school reading at a fourth-grade level. But, at least in part because of his athletic prowess, he simply advanced along from grade to grade. His stepmother did most of his homework.

Later, he said in a video online, his struggles caused him to turn to alcohol and to wind up in rehab.

"I thought I was dumb," Sopel said. "I acted out. Nobody understood what it's like."

Only when his daughter -- now a high school senior taking advanced placement classes -- began to struggle with reading did Sopel figure out what had caused his learning challenges all along. Winkler, similarly, discovered his dyslexia when his stepson exhibited reading troubles and got diagnosed.

"When you're in the middle of it, you think you're the only one," Sopel said.

Not true. Dyslexia affects some people more severely than others. But in total, it affects roughly 20% of the population, according to the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity.

Since his diagnosis, Sopel has focused on helping others and easing the anxiety and isolation the disorder can cause.

His foundation promotes the Wilson Language Training system, which worked to improve reading ability for Sopel's daughter. The organization offers teacher training so educators can become certified in the Wilson system. (For details, fill out the form on the Contact page at https://www.brentsopelfoundation.org/.)

But Sopel hasn't taken lessons himself.

"I'm not mentally there to tackle that," he said. "I'm more in the world of helping everyone else. It's not about me anymore."

Jeremy Bailey, 47, of Bolingbrook recently began receiving tutoring for his dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until he was 46. He was unable to read until he began working with tutor Lori Jurjovec of Naperville on strategies to break apart and understand written language.
  Jeremy Bailey, 47, of Bolingbrook recently began receiving tutoring for his dyslexia, which went undiagnosed until he was 46. He was unable to read until he began working with tutor Lori Jurjovec of Naperville on strategies to break apart and understand written language. - Brian Hill | Staff Photographer
A carpenter's story

Jeremy Bailey has built frame houses without instructions and always fixes his car himself. He's repaired printing presses, forklifts and tractors without mechanical training, and he's worked in excavating, road construction and carpentry.

Bailey is 47 and runs his own contracting company, but he couldn't read. Until a year ago, he never knew dyslexia was the reason why.

Since then, Bailey has been getting help from tutor Lori Jurjovec of Naperville.

One of the main things she's teaching him is not to guess. Using the Barton Reading & Spelling System, Jurjovec is helping Bailey learn prefixes and suffixes and how to sound out, then piece together, letters into words into meaning.

"When you're dyslexic, you have to learn to read in chunks," Jurjovec said. "You lack the region of your brain to store word form."

Bailey never had the ability to read a restaurant menu or to pay his bills. Memory and his roommate, Todd Thode, have been his crutches.

"I'm able to actually figure out words now," he said. "I've always wanted to learn how to read; I just couldn't do it."

As a child in Oswego, Bailey said, he was placed in special education and pushed along to the next grade, regardless of his lack of progress, just like Sopel.

He isolated himself, never really dated and always felt like he had to fend for himself. He moved out at age 17 and has worked a string of labor-heavy jobs ever since.

"When you grow up with dyslexia, it's hard for you and it makes your self-esteem low," he said. "I did not live a very good life because of all the problems I've had."

Like Sopel, Bailey used alcohol to deal with the stress.

"I kept myself down. You feel like you're useless," Bailey said. "You feel like people treat you different because you're dyslexic."

Bailey's goal now is to learn enough reading from Jurjovec and then enough math from Thode to be able to pursue his GED. He knows he'll need the certificate of high school completion to find work less physically demanding than carpentry.

"Eventually, my body won't be able to handle it," he said.

Advocate Jenine Hanson of the Dyslexia Action Group of Naperville said she is amazed by Bailey's progress.

"Everything is getting better in my life," Bailey said. "Good things come with learning to read."

Hanson supports the work Bailey, Winkler and Sopel are doing to encourage childhood detection of the disorder.

"It's a really powerful message about identification of any learning disability," Hanson said. "Because the impact it could have on your life is quite tremendous."

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