PERSPECTIVE: Dyslexia and Persistence Can Be Route to Achievement

Dan Malloy overcame tremendous challenges to build a successful career in public service and law. Born with severe dyslexia and motor-control problems, he was unable to walk steadily or to execute simple tasks like tying his shoes and buttoning his clothes. As a young student, Malloy couldn’t read, spell, or do mathematical problems. But his mother, a public-health nurse, didn’t buy into the idea that her son was slow, says Malloy. “She made a definitive decision to stress the things that I was good at and not bother with the things I wasn’t good at. My mother pushed me to develop my strengths, to focus on my leadership and oral-communications skills. Concentrating on those skills, which were my strengths, helped me meet the challenges of college, law school, and my career.”

Malloy’s mother also encouraged his listening skills by giving him a radio, so he went to bed each night tuned in to the news and other programs. At school, he found little encouragement. One of his teachers labeled him “mentally retarded” as a fourth grader; another hung his failed spelling tests on the wall beside those of “A” students. “It’s a tribute to my mother that I never envisioned that I wouldn’t be successful; I just didn’t know how I’d do it,” he says.

By the end of fifth grade, Malloy could button his clothes and tie his shoes, and by eighth grade, he was a much-improved reader. “I developed some compensatory skills and had halfway decent grades,”€ he says. “I also had a good level of academic success in high school and remembered everything I read, although reading was still arduous.” Luckily, Malloy attended a supportive high school, which waived the foreign language requirement and any math class beyond Algebra I, in which he scored a D. “That allowed me to take courses I was good at, like social studies and history,” says Malloy, who also had access to books on tape.

“The real point where my future was decided was when I had a serious injury in high school,”€ says Malloy. Sidelined by a compressed vertebra during football practice, he ended up in pancreatic failure as a result of undiagnosed ulcers. He lost sixty pounds and was not expected to live, until an advanced X-ray machine detected the ulcers and put him on the road to recovery” and to thoughts of college. Early in 1974, he wrote a candid letter to several colleges. “I told them that I almost died and that I had learning disabilities, and I asked them to take a look at me. I was lucky some schools were willing to take a chance on me,” says Malloy, who describes his SAT scores as “abysmal.”

Another byproduct of his dyslexia is Malloy's ability to listen and absorb information, an asset to anyone, but especially to a candidate for public office. At Boston College, his reading skills improved steadily, and his reading retention and comprehension were “off the charts,” says Malloy. “I got very good grades and the school was behind me.” His professors granted him extra time on multiple-choice tests and allowed him to answer essay questions orally or to dictate them to a third person.

He also wrote papers orally, dictating them to his future wife, Cathy, whom he met as a freshman. While Malloy is a fluent reader, reading aloud is difficult, so he plans speeches in his head and delivers them without consulting a written text. Another byproduct of his dyslexia is Malloy’s ability to listen well and absorb large amounts of information, an asset to anyone, but especially to a candidate for public office.

These assets certainly paid off in the November 2010 Connecticut gubernatorial election. In a tight race, Dan Malloy edged out his opponent to take the seat as Connecticut’s 88th governor. He was sworn into office on January 5, 2011. [He will have served two terms when he leaves office in January 2019.]


This perspective appears on the website of The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity (YCDC).  YCDC is a source of research, advocacy and resources to help those with dyslexia reach their full potential. Dyslexia is defined as an unexpected difficulty in learning to read. Dyslexia takes away an individual’s ability to read quickly and automatically, and to retrieve spoken words easily, but it does not dampen their creativity and ingenuity.

The Center’s tools and resources are used widely by parents, educators and those with dyslexia to advocate for greater recognition and support for dyslexic children and adults. YCDC builds awareness in all communities and mobilizes grassroots efforts to close the reading-achievement gap for all students.

The Center also showcases the success stories of adults with dyslexia, including writers, scientists, celebrities, and government and business leaders.  Malloy is one of two current Governors featured on the YCDC website.  The other is John Hickenlooper of Colorado, a graduate of Wesleyan University in Middletown.  California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, now a candidate for Governor, and former Connecticut Congressman Sam Gejdenson are also among the political leaders profiled.

It was recently announced that Gov. Malloy will be a visiting professor at the Boston College Law School in 2019.