Dyslexia and society (A personal perspective)
Dyslexia is most often addressed as an educational issue this is not something I would refute but would concur with, however I contend that more broadly it is a societal issue. Society deems illiteracy as socially undesirable and also equates it with low intellectual ability but dyslexia doesn’t fit into this narrative, in fact it goes against the grain along with other neurodiverse individuals society casts us in a role which is not who we are. Shakspear said " to your own self be true" here then is my experience as a child and now adult dylexic living today.
Education for dyslexic individuals will always present challenges not experienced by most members of the population. There are a number of reasons for this which I will elaborate on, I am dyslexic myself and have an understanding of the condition that could never have be developed purely academically having lived which its frustrations , while educational professionals may now have a better understanding of dyslexia academically, they cannot understand the experience as lived by the individual such as myself. I left school with no GCSE's and thought I was stupid with no indications to the contrary except the opinion of some of my friends and family. Being written off as stupid or lazy was a common stigma that many dyslexic individuals had to face at a time they should be allowed to focus on development.
At home I was told I was not working hard enough and I annoyed my teachers with my poor memory, I also was dropped down the sets from the average level to the bottom set at 14. I can see why this happened, after all if you have given schooling your best shot and still come up short you must be stupid, right, wrong but I was given no indication to the latter .So this was the dilemma I was faced with if you are functionally illiterate how could you prove that you are intelligent in a society that places so much importance on literacy and at 16 when you should be really for the next step in life. Catch 22 for a sixteen year old and I stuck and didnt become unstuck till at 27 years old when I found out I was dyslexic with a statement I tracked down through yellow pages. I re-entered full-time adult education in my early 30,s (a struggle as I was not sure I wanted to re-enter education having stuggled he first time round).
At college in the first couple of months everyone was discussing who had dropped off the course a topic I didn’t dare join in on in thinking one day it would be me. I asked a lot of questions in class, but then felt people where laughing at me behind my back
because they thought I was so stupid, a friend took me a side in the college
bar and told me they weren’t laughing at me because they thought I was thick
but because they thought I was clever (you could of knocked me over with a
feather) it was the first time in my life I’d ever heard that said to me.
At university I learned of useful study aids one of which the mind map were
developed by educational specialist Tony Buzan, you can create mind maps with
nothing more than a pen and a piece of paper, linking thought bubbles from a
main subject to any number of linked ideas. Many dyslexics think non-sequentially
this is a very useful tool for the creation of essays. There is also software
available to do this on the PC one version is called Inspiration. I used
Inspiration at university and would highly recommend it (it also helps put your
ideas in order). Another very useful piece of kit is a software package called
read and writes which highlights the text and reads it back to you. As
dyslexics often miss words out entirely especially small words so this can be
I am writing this with my chief study aid called Dragon naturally speaking (version
number 11). Which I'm currently training it and with a strong north-west
English accent this is not always an easy task! However it is considerably
easier than touch typing which I manage to do with one finger. I never learned
to type at school, most boys didn't, we did wood and metal work instead in the
80s this seems an incredible oversight in this multimedia day and age. Although
I'd like to be able to type, realistically I never had the time to do this at
University whilst still covering my study load. Dragon NaturallySpeaking saved
me a great deal of time and effort and I never would have completed my
dissertation without it. Dragon Naturally Speaking was not supplied to me by
the University but was rather my own purchase (a purchase well worth making).
Dragon NaturallySpeaking is advertised on television as a dictation device, you
wear headphones and talk into a microphone you try to talk as naturally as
possible and most of the time it gets the words right( I'd say about 75% of the
time in my case but with training and continued usage this does improve).
However it does get a little frustrating when it continually gets a word wrong
at which point I switch off the microphone and type the word in (this only
happens with certain words). This version most recent version of Dragon
NaturallySpeaking cost me £50 from Amazon which I consider to be money very
When spending a long time dictating I would recommend the occasional short break as it can be quite mentally tiring if you are unused to it. Dragon has both
improved in accuracy and dropped in price since the first version I used six
years ago. If you are dyslexic or have dyslexic child who is struggling school
this is one of the main products I would recommend. Having said that dyslexia
is a syndrome and not a medical condition and it may not prove useful for all
dyslexic individuals. Dyslexia as I understand it is a syndrome rather than a condition.
Let me explain what syndrome means,each dyslexic individual has a unique form
of the syndrome for instance I have no problems reading and have in fact always
loved to read in fact I speed read( I once read Nick Hornby's High Fidelity in
an afternoon). Some dyslexics (but by no means all) struggle with reading and the
words can jump around the page this is something I've never experienced (colour
tinted glasses can help these individuals in some cases). Despite this there
have been several famous dyslexic authors including JK Rowling Benjamin
Zephaniah and William Butler Yeats (for some dyslexics it does not affect their
written ability that greatly, for me and many others it does affect them). It
is a marvel to me how they manage to write such long novels given the fact they
are dyslexic, is however an example that dyslexia does not limit talent. In
fact Dr Thomas West the author of several books on dyslexia suggests that some
dyslexic individual’s talents stem from the functioning of the dyslexic brain
which is wired differently.
Dyslexia also affects your memory and your sense of organisation which can be a bit like the classic nutty professor someone who is very absent-minded
everyone’s favourite scientist Albert Einstein who was himself dyslexic fit that billing. Famously Einstein once rang the telephone exchange in Princeton to find out where he lived, he was famously absent-minded as is by his own admission Richard Branson. There are also a number of famous actors who are dyslexic including Tom Cruise, Steve McQueen,Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom, Will Smith, Oliver Reed and Whoopi Goldberg to name but a few. Given the amount of lines they have to learn for roles I also find this quite staggering and is a testament to their ability and commitment to their craft. So the memory can be trained but the difficultly will away be
there I know my short term memory is bad but long term memory associative memory is strong as I am a pictorial thinker yet another result why mind maps and memory aids are so useful.
However the world has changed in recent years and at least dyslexia and more readily recognised and taken more seriously, although not as
seriously as many dyslexic students would like both in terms of funding and in
the understanding of the general population. At University people often
commented on the fact that dyslexic students were given study aids to help us,
with the lack of understanding that we actually needed the study aids to
compete on anything near a level playing field(it took the first year of
university for them to recognise my dyslexia which made that year very hard
going, I had a dyslexic statement but it was one they would not except as
official and so they had to do their one which took a year to get round too).I
remember going to visit the dyslexia specialist to get that first statement at
first I was relieved to find out I wasn’t just stupid ,but I was also left with
a nagging doubt of why was this never picked up at school. My parents quoted to
me that teachers would often say “Rob understands but just can, nt get it down
on paper”. Illiteracy (and so implicitly dyslexia as well) is seen as something
of a failure of the individual the Darwinian social order of 80,s education .A social
order and education system which is a hangover from the past, James Joyce is
quoted as saying that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken”. My personal history in education and the work place often feels this way.
I, ll speak for my genaration a genaration of people who have been silenced by this condition we were born with. Our history is one where dyslexia compounded by lack of understanding in school and the workplace limits social improvement opportunities and creating a glass ceiling. The success stories presented in the press which are few and far between are about overcoming the effects of dyslexia through huge effort of
will, often while been born into a family of wealthy so that you will you are
immune to its most devastating effects while have a positive social network. This is not the case for most and not my experience, Dealing with this condition is hard and not easy too over come the way is littered with obsticals others can not see.
The definition of dyslexia needs to change in the dictionary , the dy prefix denoting a lack mocking us for who we are. dyslexia is classed as a disability or goes unrecognised this is the response of an out moded education system not reality, rather it is a brain functioning difference ( a neurodiverse function present
in 10% 0f the population that’s over 10 million people, people in north America
and Europe are adopting this progressive term that says we are different not lacking ) Consider this the scientist James Lovelock (a dyslexic man) created a system theory known as the Gaia principle, describing the Earth is a self-regulatory living interactive system. This theory which was assesses by the scientific establishment and found to stand upto the most rigorous testing was developed by a dyslexic individual. Any
self-regulatory system a good scientist will tell you, has resonant feedback
loops which are to be ignored at your peril (so a really bad idea to do on the
planet we live on scientist recognize this as fact the right wing press doubt it, yet another example of us been smarter than the credit we get). Albert Einstein was also a dyslexic, as is Carol Greider a 2009 Nobel winning scientist awarded for her work with telomerase which determines nucleotide sequencing and ageing in cells. Her work on aging is at the cutting edge Carol herself states that had the University applied the normal grading system for entry she would never have started her academic career and eventually won the Nobel Prize.
How many more individuals like her or James Lovelock or Albert Einstein are being let down by an outdated educational system which does not take into account learning differences and unique abilities some of which far supersede the neuro-typical(normal) intellectual abilities of the population. This is still the case in Britain today and was commented upon in one of Bill Bryson books where he noted that many quite capable people in England were held down by an out of date system ( both class and educational). Britain needs to move towards a future as a meritocracy
rewarding ability innovation, social altruism and true entrepreneurial spirit
if it is to prosper in future. This highly educated generation of working-class
intellectuals (we have the most working-class graduates in history many of whom
are dyslexic I know this myself from experience) does not want to be ragged trousered philanthropists living in a precariat state with no job security.
Just because an individual can spell well does not make you intellectually superior, it is true that the well-developed vocabulary is a sign of intellectual development it is however only one sign. Too much emphasis is put on the lingual and logical regurgitated forms of education and too little emphasis is given to creative thinking,
lateral thinking spatial abilities and kinaesthetic awareness all of which helped human beings progress throughout evolution which is the drive which makes us who we are.
Education expert Sir Ken Robinson also states this to be the case, too much emphasis put on academia and too little into the development of an all-round individual in the modern schooling system. Where one is judged on targets rather than in developing individuals who are capable of independent thought, creating instead regurgitating parrots you can jump through the appropriate hoops but never have an original thought their entire lives. Much like the character of Babbitt in
the American novel they become automatons whose sole ambition in life is to
consume and conform which is no way to truly live. This is not the model of a citizen
but a denizen one exists rather than lives.
The way forward to take a leaf out of the civil rights movement I am influenced by
Martin Luther King and American civil rights movement of the 1960s. The rights
not to be discriminated against on the grounds of race, class, sexual
orientation or disability is one which had to be hard won and we need to make a
change in attitudes a reality. A Friend told me recently how he attended a
meeting on dyslexia in the workplace only to find two women from HR in his
company had attended merely to dispute the fact that he was dyslexic. I was
disgusted quite frankly by these women's actions and as a dyslexic I wondered
if they would treat someone with another disability in a similar manner. Ours
is a hidden disability which is in fact not a disability at all in the modern
world, have you guessed yet that this was dictated with the aid of headphones
rather than typed does that matter at as long as you understand the meaning of
my words? Yet how many offices would allow someone like me to use it?
So what can be learned for the civil rights movements of the past which sought rights
which were not yet attained? Firstly one is more powerful and easily heard
within a group rather than as an individual where it is easy for those in
charge of work or in other positions of authority to dispute your rights. We
need to organise on a mass scale cross culturally across the globe in order to
instigate change, the Internet is the perfect tool for doing this. Groups that
meet in one location can share information through its global network with
other groups, we must also become advocates for ourselves rather than only
having non-dyslexic academics describe our condition this way we can show
people who we really are and defy assumptions. This model has already been
proven to work by universities and scientific institutions that communicate
with one another globally. CERN and MIT are great examples of accelerating
change though mass communications.
Secondly we must organise events and raise awareness of dyslexic ability of the fact that as Dr Thomas West says we have not just equal but highly able brains capable of great feats which will benefit humanity for centuries to come if we are acknowledged as having a learning difference and unique solutions to underlying problems that face
society (we picture think and so can solve problems neuro typical folks cannot
,which makes us very useful in fast moving evolving fields of science and
computation). I know these events are happening but they need to be more large
scale like the pride festivals around the globe.
Thirdly we must join with like-minded individuals seeking a change to the schooling and educational systems so that all the neurodiverse people individuals are given their chance to shine and thus also add value to society. Richard Feynman the Nobel award-winning physicist was said to be high functioning autistic here in turn is a lecturer inspired generations of physicists to enter the field and push back the
boundaries of human knowledge.
Education must meet the needs of all individuals in order to truely benifit society at present it is failing too do so and reform is sorely needed.
Education must meet the needs of all individuals in order to truely benifit society at present it is failing too do so and reform is sorely needed.