Unlocking the power of dyslexics

New Island middle school program kicks off with bicoastal aquathon.

Dean Bragonier and his son Bodhi swim at Bend-in-the-Road Beach. — Sam Moore

That damn Industrial Revolution.

If you were a dyslexic before then, you could kind of fly under the radar, but then it happened: the invention of the printing press. And along with it came the insistence that text-based learning be the standard for the transmission of education. Because right there, 20 percent of the population had a collective brain freeze. The one out of five people in the world who were dyslexic could make little to no sense of a printed page, and to them, technology became the enemy.

Now, nearly 600 years later, Dean Bragonier is making technology an ally of dyslexics, and beginning this fall, the curriculum he developed will be introduced to all Island middle schools and the Charter School.

If the name Dean Bragonier sounds familiar, it’s probably because last year he was in the news for becoming the first swimmer to officially circumnavigate the Vineyard. He did it to raise awareness — and money — for his nonprofit organization, NoticeAbility. And he succeeded, dare we say, “swimmingly.”

“Last year’s swim generated global interest in what I’m doing,” said Mr. Bragonier at an interview in The Times office. “in fact, the swimming wasn’t the hardest part; it was answering all the emails I got,” he joked.

Mr. Bragonier’s goal for last summer’s swim was $125,000 — he raised $143,000.

In addition, NoticeAbility applied to the Tower Foundation, and was awarded nearly $74,000 to underwrite a two-year program on the Vineyard called the Martha’s Vineyard Learning Difference Community Enrichment Project. The program begins this fall.

Mr. Bragonier is himself dyslexic or, as it says on his NoticeAbility business card, “Founder and Executive Dyslexic.” He knows firsthand the frustration and alienation young students feel when they’re desperately trying to decode words while the rest of the class speeds ahead. But he also knows the upside. Because dyslexics are constantly forced to create workarounds, they tend to excel at out-of-the-box thinking. Thirty-five percent of entrepreneurs are dyslexic. Forty percent of self-made millionaires are dyslexic. Fifty percent of NASA employees are dyslexic. And so many people at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have dyslexia that it’s been referred to as the “MIT disease.”

The curriculum created by Mr. Bragonier has been designed to capitalize on the strengths of dyslexics; they tend to excel in architecture, entrepreneurship, the arts, and engineering. And the target group for the program is middle school students.

“The last gasp of innocence for dyslexics is middle school,” Mr. Bragonier said, “because in high school, the workload increases tenfold, and the pressure to define themselves among their peers is huge. The dyslexic acts upon this fictitious notion that they’re not as smart as others … we want to expose them to the cognitive assets that they have … we can do things other people can’t, in ways they never dreamed of, so let’s introduce students to that so they can counterbalance the negative commentaries they’ve adopted.”

The NoticeAbility program does not attempt to teach students reading skills — it leaves that to the schools. “Reading remediation is hallowed ground for dyslexic students,” said Mr. Bragonier. “I don’t want to interfere with [that] process by distracting them with something else. They need to learn to read just like I did, just like my wife did, and just like my son is doing.” Mr. Bragonier’s whole family is dyslexic — he refers to them as “purebreds.”

After securing his funding, Mr. Bragonier worked with Harvard School of Education, Harvard Business School, and two dyslexic-specific institutions — the Carroll School and Landmark School — to refine the curriculum.

The two-year program beginning this fall in Martha’s Vineyard schools will start with teacher training. “We conduct a five-hour seminar for teachers,” said Mr. Bragonier. “We give them a curriculum that’s plug-and-play… teacher scripts … user material for students produced in video and audio so the students don’t stumble on reading.” Mr. Bragonier also intends to spend at least a day a week co-teaching with Island teachers for the duration of the two-year pilot program.

The first of the four dyslexic “strengths” the curriculum focuses on will be entrepreneurship. The students will work in small groups to come up with an idea for a fictional product, develop a business plan, and work on all the tenets of entrepreneurship such as generating a market, marketing analysis, and accessing stakeholders. “It’s a stealth way of teaching kids the skills they’ll need to succeed in life and that dyslexics struggle with,” said Mr. Bragonier, “things like time management, conflict resolution, and long-term planning. We’re teaching techniques that apply to entrepreneurship, but are really learning techniques that will apply in high school and college and beyond.”

In addition to Martha’s VIneyard, the NoticeAbility program is being used in three learning-disability-specific schools, a juvenile justice facility in Berkshire County, and by home schoolers in Australia, Britain, Botswana, and Macedonia. “I know, it’s amazing,” said Mr Bragonier; “they just called.”

Bicoastal aquathon

In order to continue to raise awareness for dyslexia, Mr. Bragonier is going back into the water, but this time he won’t be alone. He and several dyslexic students will join marathon swimmer Kerry Yonushonis for what is being billed as the world’s first bicoastal aquathon.

Ms. Yonushonis, who is also dyslexic, gets in the water at Catalina Island at midnight on August 7 and begins swimming the 22 miles to Long Beach, Calif. Shortly after the sun rises on the East Coast, Mr. Bragonier and the students will begin a 4.2-mile relay to add to Ms. Yonushonis’s 22 miles, making it a marathon.

The relay will start at 9:15 am on Sunday, August 7 at the lifeguard stand at Bend in the Road Beach, and finish at approximately 10:45 or 11 am at Little Bridge on the Oak Bluffs side of State Beach. If anyone would like to contribute to this fundraising event, they can go to crowdrise.com/noticeability and choose a swimmer they would like to support. All proceeds will go to NoticeAbility.