For This Hollywood Actor, Early Childhood Screening for Dyslexia is Personal

Ameer Baraka understands firsthand how undiagnosed dyslexia can dangerously alter the course of a person’s life.

Ameer Baraka in first grade.

“I knew something was wrong in the third grade,” he recalls.

“I couldn’t spell simple words, like ‘bat’ or ‘sit.’ Every Friday we had a spelling test and I could never pass that test.”

It wasn’t until he was 23 years old and in prison that Ameer finally learned he had dyslexia.

“Once I knew what I had and I accepted it, I woke up,” Ameer says, “It changed my life.”

Now a successful actor, producer, and writer, Ameer shares his personal story to spread awareness of dyslexia and highlight the importance of early childhood screening.

From the Classroom to the Streets

Ameer can vividly recall the moment that prompted him to abandon the classroom after years of struggling in school.

“I was in the seventh grade. I was dating a beautiful girl and we happened to be in the same English class,” Ameer says.

“I was called on to read and I was stumbling over every word, sweating profusely. The teacher should have known something was wrong. She should have stopped me. Instead, I was left standing up there shaking and embarrassed.”

At just 12 years old, Ameer was introduced to the drug game by a local dealer and started ditching school and selling drugs. At 19, Ameer was introduced to actual drug use and cocaine trafficking by his own father, himself a lifelong criminal, who berated Ameer for being unable to read.

The streets became his classroom—a place where he didn’t have to feel ashamed of his inability to read—but the lessons he learned were violent.

“In the eighth grade, I shot another drug dealer,” Ameer says. “I was tried as a juvenile and did a year in ‘juvey jail’ at a boys’ home.”

A Moment of Clarity

Ameer Baraka and prison weighlifting partner, “Big” Mike, at Avoyelles Correctional Center in Cottonport, LA.

Several years later, Ameer was busted again, this time for selling drugs.

Now an adult, and a potential career criminal, he faced a sentence of up to 60 years in prison under the “three strikes” rule.

“I was awaiting trial and sharing my cell with an extremely well-spoken art thief,” Ameer recalls.

“I noticed he got everything he wanted from prison officials, guards, fellow inmates and others. So, I started learning from him, mimicking him.”

Six months later, Ameer’s newfound ability to express himself helped convince a jury that he did not need to be locked up for the rest of his life. He was sentenced to four years of hard time; part of Ameer’s prison sentence included picking cotton as a member of the Louisiana prison system’s notorious chain gangs.

That was when Ameer had a life-changing epiphany.

“I realized I had put myself in slavery. I relinquished my freedom because I broke the law,” Ameer says.

“That was when I knew I had to learn to read—I was determined never to return to what was for me, slavery, both literally and figuratively.”

A Surge of Confidence

Through good behavior and hard work, Ameer earned his way into the prison’s GED program.

There, for the first time in his life, a teacher noticed Ameer’s reading difficulties and asked to screen him for dyslexia.

“Once I learned I had dyslexia, my instinct was to hide it because I felt ashamed,” Ameer says. “But, eventually, I realized there was nothing to be embarrassed about.”

“Once I learned I had dyslexia, my instinct was to hide it because I felt ashamed. But, eventually, I realized there is nothing to be embarrassed about.”

Ameer Baraka and Academy Award winner, Kathy Bates, on the set of “American Horror Story.”

Four years later, Ameer received his GED.

Imbued with a sense of confidence he had never felt before, Ameer began to turn his life around.

“I started to believe in myself. I got out of prison and started modeling, then I started acting,” Ameer says.

“I also wrote a book, ‘The Life I Chose – The Streets Lied To Me,’ about my life experience. I’m even in talks with major Hollywood producers about doing a movie about my story where dyslexia, family culture and drug culture will all be intertwined.”

A Cautionary Tale

Ameer frequently tells junior high and high school students his story as a cautionary tale to help them avoid the dangerous path that almost destroyed his life.

“It’s an important responsibility to mentor these kids,” Ameer says. “What we have right now in especially in poor urban areas, is a streets-to-prison pipeline.”

People know the term, “schools to prison pipeline,” which describes increased juvenile arrest rates due to the increased presence of law enforcement in America’s schools and classrooms.

“However, at my foundation, the Dyslexia Awareness Foundation we have coined an entirely new term, the ‘streets-to-prison pipeline,’” says Ameer.

“The streets-to-prison pipeline addresses the fact that children who go undiagnosed with dyslexia, all too often end up exactly like I ended up: as dropouts, filling up our nation’s jails and prisons instead of our colleges and universities.”

But Ameer remains undeterred.

“We have to stop that vicious cycle. And we can. We have to get kids screened for dyslexia as early in their young lives as humanly possible,” he says.

“We use the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen, but as long as the kids get screened, get ‘em screened by whatever means necessary,” Ameer says, quoting another famous former inmate who impacted society, Malcolm X.

As part of his effort to prevent these kids from dropping out of school like he did, Ameer started The Dyslexia Awareness Foundation to help pay for early intervention programs for kids and to otherwise bring attention to this issue.

“Resources change everything,” Ameer says.

“Every child deserves the opportunity to read.”

Supporting Kids

Ameer Baraka and Shaq.

Now known affectionately as “The Sexy Dyslexic,” Ameer has become a prominent figure in the effort to make dyslexia screening mandatory in schools across the country and around the world.

“I’ve got sports, entertainment, and business stars around the world joining forces with me to help save these kids,” Ameer says proudly. “I’ve got the biggest athlete in China’s history, former NBA All-Star and Chinese living legend, Stephon Marbury, on my team to help us with getting the entire NBA on board and to help us take our screening mission to China.”

“The NBA serves almost 100,000 kids through their partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. I want to screen every one of those kids who feels they’re struggling like I was,” he says.

Ameer Baraka and Charles Barkley.

“I’ve got Muhammad Ali’s daughter, Miya Ali, who, like me, went undiagnosed with dyslexia until she was an adult, working hard as an advocate for early screening.”

“If somebody had tested me for dyslexia as a kid, I never would have gone to prison,” Ameer believes.

Ameer testified about his own struggles with dyslexia during a Senate committee hearing on the issue.

There, he met Dr. Sally Shaywitz, a global leader in dyslexia research who partnered with Pearson to publish the Shaywitz DyslexiaScreen. This low-cost assessment helps teachers identify students in kindergarten through second grade who may have dyslexia.

Dr. Sally Shaywitz and Ameer Baraka testify before Congress in 2015.

“Dr. Shaywitz was so encouraging. She is part of the reason I’m doing what I’m doing,” Ameer says.

“Identifying dyslexia early on and being able to use evidence-based intervention can change a kid’s life. This should be mandatory in every school in the country and around the world.”

Until then, Ameer is vested in helping kids with dyslexia feel empowered.

“I want kids with dyslexia to know that they don’t have to feel ashamed. Whether you’ve been screened or not, you’re still great,” Ameer says.

“You can’t fight who are—it just is. And we are all gifted.”