An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


Dyslexia and diagnosis

Dyslexia and diagnosis

Richard Crossman told Alf Morris that he couldn’t put dyslexia provision in his Private Member’s Bill because it didn’t exist. “Well then”, said Morris, “it won’t cost you anything, will it.”1

Yesterday, the authors of The Dyslexia Debate appeared to back up Crossman, albeit 45 years later.2 But that would be to misunderstand the historical context of the debate, and the cultural meaning ascribed to people with reading difficulties.

It was not uncommon even when I was a child to hear that dyslexia wasn’t real – it was just a fancy medical term for kids who were thick. The attitude still resonates today, and overlooks the fact that, while most people on the planet find it relatively easy to learn how to read, many do not. As societies became more literate, their economies relied on people who could read and write to operate machinery and keep bureaucracies running. Almost every form of art, employment and pastime in the Western World involves some form of reading comprehension. For those who cannot, the rise of the internet is actually a disabling thing, not a liberator.

So, if society doesn’t find ways of reaching those who might take longer or more help to read, those children will be at a monumental disadvantage in life. They will be far more likely to be unemployed, impoverished, and with that subject to ill health and more likely to commit criminal offences.

What appears to be going on here, however, is the idea that dyslexia need to be “de-medicalised”. Rather than requiring a diagnosis before anyone will act, all people, regardless of their ability to find a medical certificate, ought to be helped if they struggle with literacy.

The reason dyslexia is so pervasive – and why parents go to such great lengths to get their children diagnosed – is because of the way bureaucracies deal with numbers. Until dyslexia could be diagnosed, there was little quantifiable, objective evidence to suggest more resources needed to be pushed towards special needs education. It is still the case that often a parent will need to prove their child needs help until they can secure it.

We now live in a world where the vast majority of those in an educational setting understand that some children require extra help. A number of symptoms are broadly lumped together as “dyslexia”, and so this is how we have come to understand the problem. Like many disability policies, however, a general policy of inclusion and access can help people without the need to constantly medicalise and label. Ramps into Post Offices help anyone who has difficulty walking, from the wheelchair user to the woman with a slight limp to the father with a pushchair. Similarly, automatically providing help to any child who struggles with reading would help raise literacy standards without the need to get a doctor’s certificate. By disaggregating “dyslexia”, educators can focus on the specific needs of the child based on their knowledge of the child’s abilities. Reading difficulties remain very real, even if “dyslexia” isn’t.

Unfortunately, these sorts of nuanced arguments very often get twisted. No doubt someone will use this to “prove” that there’s no such thing as dyslexia and will cut funding to dyslexia initiatives. Without diagnoses, people will argue that the real need is either unquantifiable or non-existent, and so reading schemes will not receive the funding they require. In a neo-liberal world based on targets and quotas, it may well be that we need “dyslexia” as a tool to ensure at least some children get the help they need. Whether it’s “made up” or not.

See also the BBC news item on this.

Image courtesy of Wikicommons.
  1. Paraphrase. See Derek Kinrade, Alf Morris, People’s Parliamentarian (London : National Information Forum, 2007).
  2. The term ‘dyslexia’ is unscientific and misleading and should be abandoned, according to new book‘, Durham University, 26 February 2014 (accessed 27 February 2014).
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