Dyslexia, a name to take away the shame

23rd September 2005 at 01:00
I hesitate to enter the debate on dyslexia, which has raged across The TES in recent weeks. To argue that dyslexia is a myth - as Professor Julian Elliott did in his TES article and Channel 4 programme - raises passions comparable to those created by a Sunday tabloid editor who tried to prove that David Blunkett wasn't really blind. ("Why does she think I have this bloody dog all the time?" he said to me, prodding the unfortunate animal with his foot.) Parents of children who struggle with reading and writing are desperate for three things. First, they want special allowances made for their children, such as extra time to complete exam papers. Second, they want special resources devoted to teaching them. Third, they want the stigma of illiteracy removed.

The dyslexia lobby has been successful in arguing they deserve all three.

First, it found a simple term, with a scientific ring, which conveyed the idea that poor reading could be the result of a handicap, involving some genetically-based malfunction in the brain, rather than of lack of effort or intelligence. As one TES correspondent wrote last week, "it comes as a great relief to a child to know that it is not his fault that he has difficulty in reading". This seems to imply that non-dyslexic non-readers are entirely at fault. But we are talking allocation of resources here.

Just as people like to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, so they wish to separate deserving from undeserving non-readers.

Second, the dyslexia lobby promoted the idea that some famous and clever people were sufferers. Many were dead and therefore beyond reliable diagnosis: Einstein, Churchill, da Vinci, Picasso and Fred Astaire, for example. In his official report on reading in 1975, the late Lord Bullock suggested that "specific reading retardation" would be a better term than dyslexia. The old boy missed the point. Nobody would believe Einstein was retarded, specifically or otherwise, and no parent would accept the description for their child. Dyslexia is a helpful term precisely because it is unspecific and can mean what you want it to mean.

Bullock was talking about reading difficulties "that cannot be accounted for by limited ability or by emotional or extraneous factors". This is still as good a definition of what people usually mean by dyslexia as I have seen. Maybe it exists, maybe not. Either way, the fuss is the result of the enormous advantages and prestige that literacy confers in our society. Some clever people have great difficulties with maths. "Oh, I've never understood percentages," they will say. But they feel no shame - on the contrary, they are often quite proud of their disability - and nobody therefore thinks of inventing a name for the condition.

Others cannot wire an electric plug, hammer a nail straight, or assemble Ikea furniture. I am one. A psychologist once gave me a battery of tests and said he had never seen such a disparity between verbal and visual-spatial skills. Parts of my brain were in poor working order, he explained. I should therefore become a journalist. Since I already was one - I had been commissioned to road-test a careers advice service - I was impressed by this diagnosis but disappointed it didn't have a name. I had high hopes, at one time, of dyspraxia, which seemed to have childhood symptoms which matched mine: poor pencil grip, lack of hopping and skipping skills, inability to tie shoelaces, and failure to complete jigsaws. But the relevant websites go on about how dyspraxia affects reading and writing, not about how it makes you incapable of sawing a piece of wood.

My incompetence is nothing more than a faint embarrassment and a source of mirth to friends and family. Inadequate literacy is a crippling handicap.

Dyslexia, or some such name, will be with us until that changes. Perhaps it will change soon, as computers take over from books. Just in case, can anyone explain how to burn a CD?

Letters 26

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