Dr. Sally Shaywitz – Yes, she is David’s mom – has brought an entrepreneur’s mindset to her life’s work in dyslexia, recognizing the condition as a prevalent and underappreciated need, then working tirelessly to advance the science and enact the policy required to fully unlock the potential within so many brilliant individuals. Sally has helped a huge array of individuals access what she has famously termed their “sea of strengths”.
The daughter of two immigrants who had escaped Eastern Europe at the turn of the century and arrived in America in search of a better life, Sally was born and grew up up in the Bronx, New York. The family wasn’t well-off: her father was a dressmaker, her mom, a homemaker. Yet she describes her childhood, with her parents and older sister, Irene, as “overflowing with love.”
Sally attended college at the City College of New York (CCNY), and after initially contemplating a career in law, found herself drawn to medicine, and was accepted early into the medical school of her choice, Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Tragically, the same year, Sally’s mom was afflicted with endometrial cancer, and despite what initially seemed like an encouraging prognosis, she grew progressively ill and ultimately passed away, a particularly devastating experience given the family’s especially close emotional bonds.
While entering medical school with a heavy heart, Sally soon found she resonated with what she describes as the humanity and warmth of medicine; she was especially drawn to pediatrics, pursuing it herself and marrying a pediatrician, Bennett Shaywitz, she met the summer after her first year of medical school.
While Sally was one of only four women in a class of 100, she generally found the men to be far friendlier; similarly, during her pediatrics training. When she wanted to organize her schedule so she could take time off to be with her first child, it was her female colleagues, she said, who resisted and rejected the idea.
After completing her training in pediatrics and a fellowship in developmental pediatrics, Sally and her family – now with three children – moved to Dayton, OH, where her husband had been assigned by the Air Force to run a research center during the Vietnam War. Sally decided she wanted to focus on her children, and put her career on hold. She loved the experience, and wrote about it for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, focusing on the contrast between, as she describes it, what “enlightened women” were taught about motherhood and how, in her experience, it was so much more instinctive, positive and fulfilling.
The family subsequently relocated to suburban Connecticut after Bennett accepted a position at Yale Medical School. Sally says she initially planned to be a stay-at-home mom, but found the available social environment intellectually deadening. She began to see patients out of her home – an experience she wrote up for Ms. Magazine – and was soon recruited by Yale to care for the learning disorder patients that apparently no one else was interested in seeing. The field was viewed at the time as a bit of a backwater (the starting point of so many entrepreneurial journeys!), but Sally found she really enjoyed taking care of patients with dyslexia, and was determined to drive their care forward. This mission would come to define Sally’s career (and soon, Bennett’s as well, as they began to work as a team), starting with a transformative longitudinal study (now in its 37th year, and counting!) that evolved into an extensive clinical research program. Their research revealed that dyslexia was surprisingly common – affecting about 20% of the population – and that it doesn’t spontaneously regress with age.
Sally developed what’s now commonly called the “sea of strengths” model, which describes dyslexia as a localized deficit in the way language is processed, so reading takes longer. It is a problem often seen in children with tremendous strengths; thus, it becomes particularly important to evaluate dyslexics on what they do know – their reasoning ability, say – and not to mistakenly undervalue their potential simply because they are slow readers. Accommodations such as additional time for tests can prove transformative in allowing a dyslexic’s intrinsic ability to be revealed and meaningfully assessed.
As a consequence of impact of this research, Sally and Bennett achieved exceptional academic success – both are endowed professors at Yale Medical School, elected members of the National Academy of Medicine, and have led many NIH grants and program projects. Yet – like many entrepreneurs — they were also determined to drive the science into palpable change, in this case for dyslexic students and their families. Together they co-founded the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity and have relentlessly focused not only on advancing the research, but also on ensuring the knowledge finds expression in public policy. They frequently testify before Congress and state legislatures, for example.
In 2003, Sally summarized her learnings in her best-selling book, Overcoming Dyslexia; earlier this year, she released a completely-revised and updated second edition, which has been similarly well-received.
We are grateful to Manatt Health for sponsoring today’s episode of Tech Tonics. Manatt Health integrates strategic business consulting, public policy acumen, legal excellence and deep analytics capabilities to better serve the complex needs of clients across America’s healthcare system. Together with it’s parent company, Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, the firm’s multidisciplinary team is dedicated to helping its clients across all industries grow and prosper.
“Catch-22 For Mothers” – by Sally Shaywitz, New York Times Sunday Magazine, March 4, 1973
About the Yale Dyslexia panel – 2015 – featuring Ari Emanuel, Diane Swonk, Brian Grazer, Toby Cosgrove, David Boies, with remarks by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Bill Cassidy (R-LA), and by Valerie Jarrett.
“Success Stories” – profiles of exceptional dyslexics, from YCDC site
“The Couple Who Helped Decode Dyslexia” by Katie Hafner, New York Times, September 21, 2018
“Test Early To Detect Dyslexia – Our Children Deserve Nothing Less” by Ruben Navarrette Jr., Washington Post Writer’s Group (syndicated column, October 2020).
Overcoming Dyslexia, 2nd Edition (Knopf, 2020)