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Patrick Dempsey Speaks Candidly About His Dyslexia

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“Out of the struggle, you find that unique gift that comes from your disability.”

That’s what Patrick Dempsey, the actor best known and adored for his role as Dr. Derek Shepherd on “Grey’s Anatomy,” led with when he spoke at Gatepath’s annual “Power of Possibilities” event. He spoke candidly about growing up with dyslexia.

Patrick spent his formative grammar school years in special education classes. For him, it felt like he and his classmates were abandoned misfits and forgotten because they didn’t fit into the way the educational system was designed. To make things even more challenging, there wasn’t much known about dyslexia, so there were no supports in place to help him with his learning disabilities.

“We all wanted to belong, to believe in ourselves and have confidence. When you’re not meeting the expectations of what society considers perfect or normal, it wears on you. You feel left out and discarded.”

In order to deal with feeling ignored (and bored of the curriculum), he would entertain his other classmates. He said it was here, in special education classrooms, where he discovered what he was good at.

Like others who didn’t fit the norm, Patrick was bullied. Finding it hard to communicate verbally, he defended himself physically and was often sent to the office.

“The trouble with that is my mother was the secretary for the principal.”

Patrick, like so many children with learning or developmental disabilities, fell through the cracks in an educational system that didn’t understand his unique challenges. It was only later that his diagnosis freed him from feeling he wasn’t smart or capable of learning.

“Everybody’s an individual and we have to approach education in that way.”

He wants the education system to inspire a love for learning in all children, so no child ever hates getting up in the morning because they have to go and “fail” at school. What got him through his struggles with the written word was television, specifically documentaries, as well as audio books he could listen
to at the library.

For someone with reading challenges, why did he go into acting as a career?

“Acting is the worst profession I could have chosen, really. I mean it’s all about the ‘word’ right? You have to read… I had 10 years of auditioning and I couldn’t just go in and pick up the script and read it cold. Usually they’d give you 10 scenes to come in and audition with but use only two. I never knew which ones, so I’d have to memorize all those pages of dialogue. Thank god I wasn’t qualified to do anything else, otherwise I would have given up.”

It was a really tough period, but he just kept at it. He sees all of his struggles in early childhood and having success much later in life as a gift. It keeps him grounded, focused on making the most of his opportunities and not caught up in the fame.

“It’s nice and it’s wonderful, but it’s not who you are.”

What advice does he have for others who feel shame because of their disability?

“Everybody’s journey is different, but the most important thing is knowing this has nothing to do with your intelligence, at all. I hate labels because it puts you in a box and that’s what [society] thinks you’re supposed to be. Find your own self-worth and a loving environment that will nurture you so you can find and develop your own gift.”

And Patrick Dempsey’s message for society?

“When people stand up and they work together as a community for what is right, change will happen. That’s the power of possibilities.”

Read more about Patrick Dempsey at the “Power of Possibilities.”

Originally published: April 29, 2018
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