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Dyslexia in the Oscars Spotlight

John Travolta's flub highlights a learning disorder.

I could never have imagined that the morning after the Oscars would find me thinking about dyslexia, of all things. I'm an awards show enthusiast: I love the overblown emotions, the glamour, even the snarky commenting and exchanges that now accompany (and improve) the shows in real time, thanks to social media. The Oscars were just what I needed to fill the gaping void left in my life by Olympic figure skating. And this year's awards were a pleasure to watch: The right people and movies mostly won, by my estimation, and host Ellen DeGeneres struck a perfect comedic balance between light irreverence and self-congratulatory narcisissm (this is Hollywood, after all). Intolerance and homophobia were challenged in the admirable way the entertainment industry has definitively staked out as its territory. I even had a personal stake in one of the races, which was won by talented and well-deserving friends. What could be better? But I woke this morning with a feeling that all was not well.

As anyone who watched the show—and many who didn't—now know, one of the biggest flubs of the night came when John Travolta mispronounced the name of Idina Menzel, there to perform the nominated song "Let it Go." After a relatively smooth intro, Travolta arrived at her name and said something along the lines of "The one, the only...um, Adela Nazim." 

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Mockery ensued, and I joined right in, laughing about how even Hollywood veterans can't seem to manage even the simplest speech on live television. The general line of criticism went like this: "Hey! He had one job and he got it wrong! So disrespectful to Menzel, and how stupid is this guy anyway?" We feel hilarious for noticing the error, and then momentarily superior to a huge celebrity—we know we could definitely have done that better.

But when I got up this morning and I saw Travolta's mispronunciation in writing, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder whether he's dyslexic. A quick internet search finds a link, though there are no definitive admissions from him (due in part to his Scientology, it seems). To the mother of a dyslexic child, who's heard all kinds of mispronounced words, both read and recalled from memory, it made sense that the way he said the name—more or less correct syllables in the wrong order—was the possible result of a learning disorder rather than lack of preparation, drunkenness, or just plain stupidity. An online discussion, prompted by an article I found about his dyslexia, generated an immediate, heated response, with some friends saying it doesn't excuse him; surely he still could have memorized one name and got it right.

While there's some truth in that—memorization can be a dyslexic's best weapon, for both learning and recall issues—I'm still troubled by the viciousness of the mockery he's getting. I wonder if the problem wasn't that he misread the teleprompter, but that he wasn't reading it and instead relying upon his memory. He didn't simply mispronounce the name or call her by another real name; he mangled it in a way that sounded very specifically dyslexic even to my untrained ear. It's the kind of recall mistake I have heard my own daughter make many times.

I don't feel bad for John Travolta; he doesn't need my sympathy. But what about all the dyslexics who aren't rich and famous, who have to stand up in front of a classrom, in front of coworkers, in front of professors and bosses, and suffer the fear of knowing they may screw up just the way he did? Generations of dyslexics have grown up in despair, told they were slow or hopeless, flunking out of school, failing to overcome the outward manifestations of an internal neurological anomaly. It's extremely common for a child who can't read, write, or speak correctly in public to be labelled as dumb, while he or she may have normal or even extraordinary intelligence by any other measure.

The mockery of Travolta also demonstrates one of the most insidious problems with learning disorders, their invisibility. Would we have made fun of Michael J. Fox for mangling an introduction? Would someone with a physical disability be laughed at for stumbling on stage? Would we have said, hey, he should have prepared! He knew he'd have to walk across that stage in front of millions of people! But because dyslexics appear perfectly sound in body and mind, their errors are not met with similar empathy.

So think of John Travolta's choices what you will—that plastic surgery, that choice of religion, that ill-advised Christmas album with Olivia Newton John—but maybe, just maybe, we ought to stop making fun of him for his mistake. Not to save his feelings, but to make us more sympathetic to others with the same problem. Being dyslexic is not a choice, but a disorder suffered by millions of people far less fortunate than he, and the better we understand it, the more understanding we can be of our many dyslexic friends, relatives, coworkers and students.

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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