Dr. Harold Koplewicz Speaks With Whoopi Goldberg About Dyslexia
By Sybil Maimin
Whoopi Goldberg & Dr. Harold Koplewicz (Child Mind Institute)
Whoopi Goldberg, one of the most accomplished and successful public figures of our time, has dyslexia. One of only 12 people (including 4 women) to win all EGOT awards (Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe, Oscar and Tony), she has also battled drug addiction. To understand this remarkable woman, Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, spoke with her at the 13th Annual Adam Katz Memorial Conversation held at Hunter College. Goldberg, currently moderator of the popular daytime talk show, “The View,” was candid, upbeat, confident, funny, and wise. She described growing up poor in a housing project protected by a tough, supportive, no-nonsense, loving single mom. Her mother understood she learned differently but, Goldberg explains, “It takes people awhile to realize that something is going on, and you’re not faking it.” Because most school learning was by rote, she knew what she was supposed to say. Not afraid of her difference, Goldberg reasoned, “There are 2,000 ways to think. Her mother recognized she was smart and never said, “What is wrong with you,” or “You’re dumb.” In advice to parents of children with learning disorders, she cautioned, “Be cognizant of what you say around your kids. Don’t use the word ‘stupid,’ a terrible, horrible word. It’s not the ‘N’ word you have to worry about. It’s these kinds of words.” Growing up, she “could not do numbers” (a problem to this day), but loved having stories read to her. She discovered a love of acting at an early age and understood, “You can play anything.” Her mother, of whom she is very proud, was always busy working, and Goldberg knew, early on, adults are not there to be your friends, but are there to guide you. Her mother began work as a practical nurse (blacks could not be registered nurses), then built a nursery school in her neighborhood, and was subsequently asked to direct a new Head Start program which paid for her to return to school to earn B.A. and M.A. degrees. Goldberg had difficulties in junior high and decided not to go to high school, saying, “It wasn’t for me.” Her mother agreed to an alternate education plan involving learning through visiting museums and other institutions. At this point, Goldberg had a drug problem. She admits to liking “altered states,” but after four years of addiction and thinking “she knew it all,” she met people who convinced her to seek a cure through residential treatment and pursue a better life. Her advice today: “Hard drugs will kill you. Alcohol will kill you. Anything overdone will kill you.”
Now age 60, Goldberg says acting “grabbed her at birth.” She had her first paid gig, at the Hudson Guild Theater, when she was 14. At age 20, she took the name “Whoopi.” Because of her dyslexia, in order to memorize lines, she employs someone to read the script to her, or record it. When writing a book, she dictates the words and then edits them to reflect her own style as the text is read back to her. She agrees with Child Mind Institute’s Koplewicz that, things have changed for kids today. . . No kid has to put his head down. There are a ton of us out there citing such entertainment figures as Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Cher, and Henry Winkler. She asks teachers to “learn who your students are, find their strengths and work with them.” She asks for colleges to give help. Noting that learning disabilities are real and testable, Koplewicz wants a law requiring accommodations. Goldberg believes there are schools that want to provide accommodations but need training on how to structure and implement such programs. Goldberg advised parents, “Adolescence is really hard. You know what it’s like to go through. Imagine this journey with an extra load. . . You are the only thing they have. You may not understand it all, but you have to be their third leg.” To youngsters with dyslexia, she says, “You need a conversation with your parents. Explain you don’t understand certain things. Explain how things look to you. Keep them informed.” Sharon Latimer Mosley, an audience member and parent of an 18 year old daughter with dyslexia, said seeing famous and successful people with the disorder gives her hope. She emphasized the importance of parental advocacy and noted that often teachers want to help but do not know what to do.
The Child Mind Institute, founded in 2009, is an independent nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders. Its president, Dr. Koplewicz, believes hearing of the struggles and triumphs of a person with the stature of Whoopi Goldberg will inspire those with similar challenges to seek help. The annual Adam Katz Memorial Conversation is a public education program named for a young man who struggled with dyslexia and ADHD and ultimately died of a drug overdose. In establishing this living memorial, his parents, Ellen and Howard Katz, hope to increase awareness about mental health and learning disorders. Understood, a free comprehensive resource that empowers parents of children with learning and attention issues, partnered in producing the event. Whoopi Goldberg serves on the Understood Board of Advisors. #