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Jay Blades: Words are like moving ants due to my dyslexia

The star has made a habit of proving naysayers wrong and now faces one of his toughest challenges yet - learning to read. Gemma Dunn finds out more.

Jay Blades literacy journey is featured in a new documentary
Jay Blades literacy journey is featured in a new documentary

Repair Shop host Jay Blades today revealed he had a reading age of 11 before seeking help.

The restoration expert, who in Shropshire and works in Wolverhampton, is opening up about his literacy difficulties in a new documentary, which will be screened next week.

He says he feels no sense of embarrassment and hopes his story will help others with similar difficulties.

Blades was diagnosed with dyslexia after “blagging” his way on to a degree course and then realising he couldn’t read any of the course material.

Reading text on a page, he explains, is comparable to “having a book of ants – the letters are all ants, and they just keep on moving around, so you try and hold them down".

“It’s insane, I’m telling you,” reiterates the father of three, who now lives in Ironbridge and has a workshop in the centre of Wolverhampton. “It gives you a headache because imagine trying to see something that’s constantly moving.”

He gets by using coloured overlay – a plastic reading sheet tinted with colour and placed over text, that he describes as a “personal trainer for words” – which, while often used to aid individuals with dyslexia, is not recognised as an effective long-term treatment.

Jay Blades has filmed a documentry about dyslexia

Of his diagnosis, he says: “It was a relief, I must admit. But it was also really nice to see that there was help out there.”

He said Buckinghamshire New University, where he studied a BA in Criminology and Philosophy in his early 30s, helped him enormously, adding: “At my school, they said to me, ‘Oh, you’re dumb’. And that’s it. They left you with that. Whereas at university, they said, ‘All right, you don’t have the reading ability, but we’ve got all these things that can help you. In school, it should be like that. But it wasn’t for me.”

In the last year, the 51-year-old has not only remained a constant on the small screen, but he’s found time to publish his own inspirational memoir, received an MBE for his services to craft, grown his collaborative production company Hungry Jay Media, pushed on with social enterprise, got engaged to his long-term partner Lisa, and last, but by no means least, learned to read.

The latter is to be documented in a one-off BBC One film, Jay Blades: Learning To Read At 51, which airs on BBC One on Wednesday January 26.

Brought up by his single mother on a Hackney council estate, Blades left school at 15 without any qualifications and nothing to his name – except a reputation as a great fighter.

Until now he has dealt with his limited literacy by simply requesting help from others – even down to accosting a stranger in the street to read him an important hospital letter.

“I’ve had to share everything with everybody!” he jokes. “I just tell people, ‘Yeah, I can’t read, read this for me’. And they’re just like, ‘What?’ People find it amazing that somebody can’t read.

Jay Blades on The Repair Shop

“It’s like not everybody is a David Beckham, not everybody can kick the ball and get it in the back of the net, it just doesn’t work like that. Some of us can’t do these things.”

He said he was determined to deal with the challenge, adding: “I wanted to learn to read, for one. And two, to inspire people, to get people like myself to then say, ‘You know what, I’m going to take the plunge’. But I jumped in at the deep end, like I do with most things, naively, not realising how hard it is.”

In the film, he learns to read with the support of the charity Read Easy UK, which organises volunteer coaches to work one-to-one with readers, using a system that was started and developed for prison inmates.

The lessons, shot over a period of six months, take him back to basics, from mastering the relationship between sounds and letters to eventually reciting words and sentences. His end goal: to read a book to his youngest daughter, Zola, 15, for the first time.

Has he ever felt embarrassed by his struggles?

“Nah, I have too much confidence and a lot of naivety,” he answers.

Recent findings suggest a quarter of all children in England leave primary school, like Blades, unable to read to the expected level, more than eight million adults in the UK have poor literacy skills, and nearly half of all prisoners either can’t read or struggle to do so.

It’s a vicious circle fuelled in part by a lack of investment and lack of resources – now made worse still by Covid-19.

Jay Blades has told how he turned his life around

When Blades visits a school during filming, he’s shocked to discover that the average pupil has fallen behind by two months due to the pandemic, whereas for those pupils on free school meals it’s more like seven months.

“No-one expected this pandemic to have the effect that it’s had, but the reality is there’s no point having a statistic that you’re not going to do anything about. That’s criminal,” he argues. “You’ve got people seven months behind in school. Like really? What are we doing about it?”

It’s a subject Blades would like to follow up on, given the chance.

“I’d like to see what is being done in the mainstream for people, because, even though I’ve exposed my vulnerability, and shown some brilliant examples, there must be other good examples of what’s going on out there,” he states.

“No matter where you are in your life, no matter what you think you can’t achieve, there are some people that are out there ready to support you – and it can take you places that you could never imagine.”

Blades is a shining example that anything is possible.

Just six years ago, he had all but given up on life. His marriage had broken down, his charity Out Of The Dark - where he taught disadvantaged youths to restore old furniture - had failed, and he was effectively homeless. Car keys in hand, he had plans to end it all.

It was only due to his ex-wife alerting the police to his disappearance and a good friend taking him in that he didn't, he admits.

Yet today, less than a decade on, the upcycler's odds - and outlook - couldn't be more different, thanks in part to his TV presenting gig on The Repair Shop. the BBC hit which, now in its eighth series, invites a team of skilled restoration experts to breathe new life into much-cherished family heirlooms.

"I pinch myself sometimes," muses Blades, having fronted the show since its 2017 inception. "I've been working non-stop, so I haven't really had the chance to take on board what I've done. But (when I do) it's just like, 'Jesus Christ. You've done a lot. You've achieved a lot'.

"There's so much more I want to achieve; there's loads of things I want to do."

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