Actor Henry Winkler is known for his roles as Fonzie on “Happy Days” and Gene, the acting coach and mentor, on “Barry.” But some of his most gratifying work has been supporting kids with learning challenges.
“I found out I had a learning challenge when I was 31,” said the 74-year-old Emmy winner who also won two Golden Globe awards. “All school – from kindergarten through the end of graduate school – was difficult for me.”
Winkler has dyslexia, a learning disorder that affects a person’s ability to read, spell, write, and speak. Approximately 5 to 10 percent of Americans have some symptoms of dyslexia, like slow reading, mixing up words, or having trouble spelling.
For years, Winkler struggled to read, but his family and teachers didn’t realize he had a condition.
“They didn’t know about dyslexia, so they just referred to me as lazy and stupid,” he said.
Yet Winkler didn’t let it hold him back. He graduated with a masters from the Yale School of Drama.
“I failed at everything but my dream was to be an actor, which of course involved reading,” he said. “Reading was so difficult for me.”
Winkler only found out his challenge had a name when his stepson, who struggled the same way academically, was diagnosed with dyslexia.
Reading and writing
“I didn’t read until I was 31 but I was smart enough to eventually say ‘I will try,’” he said. “Where there is a will, there is a way.”
Now Winkler and his writing partner Lin Oliver have written a kids’ book series, “Hank Zipzer,” which is about a bright boy with learning challenges.
At first, he thought writing a book was “impossible” and “improbable” because he spent so much time in his early life thinking he wasn’t capable. But then he realized kids identify with Hank.
“I never thought of Hank as the role model,” he said. “It was only after he became a book and kids started enjoying Hank and writing back to us. Not only did they laugh a lot but how did we know them so well?”
Winkler and Oliver recently released a new book, “Alien Superstar,” which deals with themes like bullying and body shaming. This new book also reflects Winkler’s life with dyslexia, since it’s about an outsider looking in on something unfamiliar, such as parents and teachers viewing a challenge the same way an alien views Earth.
“There is still a stigma when you are just outside the pack,” he siaid. “That is me. Shocking and sad because there is so much to gain what is inside the human being, it doesn’t matter what the exterior looks like.”
Winkler wants kids to feel proud of themselves, and for parents and educators to celebrate kids’ talents and build their self-image.
“Every child must feel their worth,” he said.