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Passionate Economist Finds Strength and Humanity in Her Dyslexia

Top economist Diane Swonk reflects on how having dyslexia has made her stronger - and more human.

By Diane Swonk, M.A.E. , Linda Broatch, M.A.

Diane Swonk, Chief Economist and a Senior Vice-President at Bank One Corporation, has spent most of her life setting ambitious goals and achieving them. But even as a highly successful and visible economist - she makes 100 speeches a year and frequent television appearances - she has only recently gone public with the story of her struggle to overcome dyslexia. "I spent a lot of my time trying to be something I wasn't, in my earlier career and education," Diane says, "I was always trying to cover up who I was. Now, dyslexia is just a part of me."

Like many people with a learning disability, she often felt like an outsider among her peers because she had to work so hard at tasks that seemed easy for classmates and colleagues. But self-assurance comes with age, experience, and achievement, and Diane has come to terms with her learning disability. In fact, she credits her uniquely wired brain for her passion for economics.

A Few of Many Achievements and Honors

  • Past President of the National Association for Business Economics (an honor she shares with several Federal Reserve presidents)
  • Sits on several advisory committees to the Federal Reserve Board, its regional banks, and the Council of Economic Advisors for the White House
  • Author of The Passionate Economist: Finding the Power and Humanity Behind the Numbers, published in 2003

In this interview Diane Swonk talks about growing up - and growing wiser - with dyslexia.

Q: When did you and your family first discover that you had a learning problem, and how did it come to light?

A: I think it first came about when I was in second or third grade, when I was learning to read. This was in the early '70s when they did all kinds of experimental programs. This is early on in dyslexia, in terms of diagnosis. My family sort of diagnosed it and started learning a lot about dyslexia. Then my dad realized that he was very, very dyslexic, and that he had a speech impediment. He had all the signs. My mother was somewhat dyslexic, as well, and she is an artist. I was diagnosed fairly young, and, certainly, family recognition [of dyslexia] was very high. It was really the infancy of a lot of research in the area.

I had to think "outside the box" to figure out how to get things done that were easy for other people to do. For example, I had a biology teacher who graded our notes which taught me how to take good notes. My best resource for learning was taking meticulous notes because I couldn't do all the reading. Also, she would also grade us on our ability to summarize a chapter. I would say it. I would write it. I would do it in different colors. And I would repeat it. It was a lot more work than other people probably did, but it was what taught me a skill that I used throughout the rest of my schooling.

I had some very good teachers who identified not necessarily that I was a different kind of learner, but who taught people how to use all their resources in learning. I learned early on if one resource didn't work well for me, to use another.

Q: Do you have any recollection of how you initially responded - at age 7 or 8 - to discovering that you had a learning disability?

A: I never thought of it as a disability. I didn't understand why it wasn't as easy for me to do some of the things because I knew I was smart. I think early on what was frustrating to me was that you had to fit in the mold [in the way that you learned]. I think that's still the case in many schools today, unfortunately. You find ways to do things differently than other people, but you don't tell anyone you're doing it that way…You're not supposed to use your fingers, but you're using your fingers to count. And it's almost like you feel you're cheating the system. But in reality what you're doing is surviving, trying to figure out another way to learn.

As I look back now, on the frustrations that I had… For example, I loved to dance. I still love to dance. But I could not do dance class because I did not know my left from my right. And I was constantly singled out for doing it wrong. In my world there wasn't a lot of room for doing things wrong…So I ended up not doing things that I knew I did "wrong."

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.

Comments from readers

"THANKS! Great story, loved the true! "
"This lady claimed the U.S. economy was in great shape in 2008. She is an incompetent economist, complete joke. Yet, it is a nice story that she overcame a disability."