Blanks' life not letter perfect
By Kat Carney
(CNN) -- Billy Blanks is best known for getting Americans to kick and punch their way to health with TaeBo, his own creation combining tae kwon do and boxing. When I caught up with him recently, he told me how his path to becoming a fitness phenom was nearly stalled by a learning disability that went undiagnosed for more than 30 years.
"I grew up in special education," he recalls. "At the time, people told me I was retarded."
But he wasn't. Blanks had dyslexia, a learning disorder that impairs a person's ability to read. It's estimated that 5 percent to 10 percent of school age children have dyslexia.
"I didn't like to read," says Blanks. "I was embarrassed because I didn't want kids to laugh at me, and kids sometimes have the tendency to make you feel bad when you can't do what the teacher wants you to do."
Blanks decided that if he couldn't excel in school, he would try martial arts. But that was another challenge.
"My instructor was trying to teach me how to do karate. He started to get frustrated because I couldn't pick it up. I would see things backwards."
But Blanks didn't give up.
"Sooner or later, I started to see myself progress. The next thing you know, I got my black belt before everybody in the class."
Eventually, Blanks earned black belts in six types of martial arts and became a seven-time world karate champion. Lead rolls in martial arts movies followed, but his undiagnosed dyslexia was still a roadblock.
"I was very lucky and very blessed to have a wife who could read really well," he says. "She took the script and she would read it to me and I would memorize it."
Blanks' wife of more than 20 years had no idea he had trouble reading; much less that he had a learning disorder. But ultimately, she was the first to suspect that her superstar husband had dyslexia.
"We went to a mall and I looked up and saw this sign and I read the sign backwards," he recalls. "She said, 'Billy, read that sign again.' So I looked up and read it again, and I saw that I read it backwards and left out words."
When some dyslexics attempt to read, they see letters that appear upside down or backward or with improper spacing.
These examples are from the Web site KidsHealth.org:
"Thes ew ord sare notsp aced cor rect ly
At the age of 37, after several tests at a dyslexia center, Blanks was diagnosed.
"It didn't bother me," he recalls. "I just said, that's one of the reasons I couldn't read. That's one of the reasons I ran away from spelling, ran away from math books or history books. I got an opportunity to find out why I was running."
Blanks isn't running anymore. Treatment at a reading center for dyslexics helped him overcome the impairment, and he's more than happy to show off his new skills.
"Now I can read books, I can get in front of thousands of people and talk and not be scared. I can do just about anything."