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Helen Arkell MBE. 17 August 1920 – 28 August 2019

Monday 2 September 2019

It is with great sadness that the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity announces the passing of their founder and namesake, Helen Arkell, aged 99, on 28 August 2019.

Born in Holland on 17 August 1920, Helen’s father Emil Huitfeldt was in the Norwegian diplomatic service and her English mother, Dorothy Latham, was born and bred in Frensham, Surrey. Helen’s childhood involved frequent moves, from which resulted her particular love of Norway and Denmark. She could speak five different languages.

Helen lived a full and inspirational life, as a pioneer in the world of dyslexia, pushing back boundaries of knowledge. Passionate about championing the special abilities of people with dyslexia, Helen earned a worldwide reputation and was awarded an MBE in 1999 for her services to people with dyslexia. In 2003 Helen was honoured as a ‘Pioneer to the Life of the Nation’ at a Buckingham Palace reception, where other guests included Nelson Mandela.

Dyslexic herself, at a time when the condition was poorly understood, Helen knew of the negative effects that dyslexia can bring, if not properly supported. Helen is quoted in The Spellbinder*, the story of her life, as saying about her childhood education experiences:

“All the time I was terribly aware of my own inadequacy. When you’re with a group of people who can do things without too much difficulty and you just can’t, the inevitable conclusion is that you’re ‘thick’. And when you think you’re stupid it not only affects your school life, your confidence gets a big knock. Since I’ve come to understand dyslexia I’ve felt much the most important thing is not the reading or spelling but the knock to the confidence.”

On the other side of the coin, Helen also exhibited many of the amazing strengths that frequently accompany the dyslexic way of approaching life, including heightened creativity, the ability to think ‘outside of the box’, and a strong sense of grit and determination.

Helen became an inspirational figure for many who felt the benefit of her support, advice and expertise. Children who were chronically dyslexic but successful in adulthood give her the credit for changing their lives.

Helen spent many years battling to ensure that dyslexia was taken seriously, by the education authorities in particular and by the public in general. She rubbed shoulders with the leading influencers in the field of education at that time, as well as forging links with organisations such as Great Ormond Street. Helen also worked closely with offenders at a detention centre in Woking, where she quickly understood that people with low literacy skills are particularly at risk of ending up in prison due to negative life choices. She really was ahead of her time. Her influence was all the stronger because of her infectious laugh, twinkling eyes and wicked sense of humour. As well as a healthy dose of understated fearlessness, humility and a keen and perceptive mind.

In 1971 Helen joined forces with Joy Pollock and Elisabeth Waller to set up the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Centre, initially in Parsons Green, London, then subsequently in 1987 in Frensham. The charity’s mission is the same today as it was in 1971 under Helen’s leadership: to remove barriers to learning and life for people with dyslexia by providing expert, personal and life-changing support. Plus an ambition to provide free support to people from lower income backgrounds.

“All of us at the charity feel Helen’s loss badly”, says Andy Cook, chief executive at the charity, “she was our inspiration and our guide. We are determined to honour Helen’s life by progressing the charity in her name, in the way she would have wanted, as a lasting tribute and legacy. We will help as many people as possible to find new ways forward in their lives that play to their strengths rather than allowing their dyslexia to hold them back.”

The final months of Helen’s life were spent peacefully at home. This peace was interrupted briefly in April this year, when she received a special visit to her home by Princess Beatrice, Patron of the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity, who is passionate about the cause of dyslexia, as she has personal experience of the condition herself. Princess Beatrice joined Helen in her home for a tea party and was able to thank Helen for having done so much for the cause of dyslexia.

Helen passed away peacefully in her own bed, on 28 August 2019, eleven days after celebrating her 99th birthday. The thoughts and prayers of everyone in the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity community are with her children, Peter, Jill and David, and her extended family of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Looking back on her life, on the charity’s 40th anniversary in 2011, and reflecting on progress, Helen said:

“It’s absolutely incredible that 40 years on the Centre is still there and growing. I really do feel surprised and fortunate and happy that it’s made a difference. Forty years is quite something, isn’t it?”

The charity will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2021, in memory of Helen.

* ‘The Spellbinder, Helen Arkell’s Story’, Adrian Williams (2011), available from Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity

Based in Frensham, on the outskirts of Farnham, Surrey, the Helen Arkell Dyslexia Charity has been supporting people with dyslexia since 1971. The charity’s mission is to remove barriers to learning and life for people with dyslexia by providing expert, personal and life-changing support. The charity helps over a thousand children, young people and adults each year, as well as giving advice and support to parents of dyslexic children, employers, workplaces, schools and communities. The charity also trains teachers and teaching assistants in the support of dyslexic pupils, leading to Level 5 and 7 qualifications. The charity’s latest drive is to reach out to more people with dyslexia by opening regional hubs in London and Wiltshire, as well as providing increasing levels of free support to people from lower income backgrounds. To donate to the Charity’s work or receive further information, visit call 01252 792400 or email