Out of an alien world

3rd November 1995 at 00:00
THE GIFT OF DYSLEXIA By Ronald Davis Souvenir Press Pounds 9.99. - 0 285 63281 7

There was a period when people were disposed to regard dyslexia simply as a different way of learning. Just as good, but different and valuable. In the face of the intense suffering experienced by dyslexic individuals, this proved hard to sustain. Then came the suggestion that dyslexic people, although constricted in their ability to acquire the skills of a "medieval clerk, " had more than ample compensation in the possession of artistic, especially spatial, abilities.

The message of Thomas West's popularising book, In The Mind's Eye, proved flattering. Unfortunately research suggests that dyslexics' spatial abilities are normally distributed, merely unimpaired rather than especially competent. The theory that dyslexia is somehow the obverse of an artistic gift remains in need of support.

Now Ron Davis, who describes himself as dyslexic (and occasionally autistic), claims that "dyslexia is a self-created condition". What worked for him, he believes, will work for thousands. Indeed at his Reading Research Council, "thousands" of dyslexics have already been aided by Davis Orientation Counselling, Davis Orientation Mastery and Davis Symbol Mastery. A foreword by an educational psychologist sets the tone: "I was both confused and sceptical, " writes Joan Smith, but became "eager to experience the program"; now "we use these techniques regularly."

The Davis belief is that dyslexia is a gift of the perceptual kind, but because "the mind's eye shifts," there arise confusion and disorientation. This is graphically described in the reading of words that can't be pictured. It is clear that the "disorientation" that lies at the base of the theory is to an important extent an emotional reaction. The result is "too much concentration". A Davis Perceptual Ability Assessment is called for (greet the person, establish a rapport, and ask: "Are you right-handed or left-handed?").

This wholly informal procedure is followed by Davis Orientation Counselling. The assessment requires a piece of cake, but the counselling needs only a piece of paper. If successful - and it is hard to imagine the critical faculties of paying customers not being overwhelmed, at last, by a desire to show sympathy - Fine Tuning follows, accompanied by an Orientation Review. Eventually, since the gift of dyslexia is still something with "symptoms" to be "corrected, " literacy raises its ugly head in time for some Basic Symbol Mastery. After all, there are "200 English words that cause problems for most dyslexics" (would it were that few). The training addresses these mainly high frequency function words which "trigger disorientation".

Ronald Davis has clearly suffered extraordinary miseries on his way to sharing his "discoveries" with the world. His book offers small words in large print, with no chapter more than a few pages long, as if reaching out to dyslexics themselves. There is not a single published reference to any other writer on dyslexia. Consequently egregious statements abound: "Dyslexics have little or no perception"; dyslexics cannot "see diagonal lines"; dyslexics don't begin to develop concentration until "about the age of nine"; and "if a student sits still long enough, motion sickness will set in" (to explain why dyslexics move out of their seats in class).

But like other staring-eyed messengers from the alien world of dyslexia, Davis is given to authoritarian pronouncements, made ex cathedra. The message is presented with gut-wringing emotion - but when was dyslexia not a very emotional business?

Martin Turner is head of psychology at the Dyslexia Institute

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