1. Dyslexia – Always a Dys-Advantage

(I wrote this as one of four essays back in 2015. Some of the data will have changed but my sentiments remain just as crochety.  And, of course, I’ve largely stopped working as a freelance journalist and gone back to making pots, which may or may not be meaningful – who knows?)

To the question `What are you?’ I can answer any number of things: father, husband, writer, teacher, potter, or even sixty-five year old (age recently updated), straight, middleclass white guy. Somehow, none of them nail it. I know in my head that it’s unreasonable to expect a single word to sum up a whole existence as if we should all be able to belt out `I am …….’ (blank to be filled in as required) with all the passion of a sixties pop diva but, in my heart, I want a tag. I want that magic word that will explain and excuse me to friends and casual acquaintances and there is only one word that will do and it’s not a word I like. It’s dyslexic. (If you already know about dyslexia you can safely skip the next paragraph)

Dyslexia: it comes from Latin. The `dys’ means diseased or faulty while the `lexia’ bit refers to words. From which you can infer that dyslexics have a diseased relationship with words, in particular written words. That’s not far wrong but as with all such things it is not quite that simple. Certainly, issues with reading and spelling are the most obvious signs of difference and as these are the main concern of early years education problems in these areas will inevitably lead to setbacks and – almost as certain as night follows day – a sense of failure, difference and self esteem issues. But dyslexia is not a fancy synonym for bad spelling. Google the word or pick up a book in your library and you will learn that dyslexics think differently that their neural networks are not wired the same way as the rest of the population. What this means in practice is that while most people’s brains appear to interpret the world in a linear way, dyslexics do it holistically, making them good at reading pictures but not words organised in straight lines on a page. This apparent lack of order creates certain kinds of memory issues, mostly connected with short term memory and the storage and retrieval of information but the upside is that they can, on occasions, think very quickly and creatively, bring together unlikely things to create new solutions. As a result of which dyslexics have a reputation for creativity in disciplines ranging from art to science and writing.            

Between 5% and 10% of the general population are defined as dyslexic but, according to their own figures, that number rises to 29% of the students at the Royal College of Art. Go to prison and that number rises again to over 40%. Being dyslexic is what has brought me to the place I am now. It is what determined my educational path and the jobs I did and with it has come a whole van load of baggage – little parcels of chips and resentments – just waiting to be unpacked. It’s what has determined how I and many like me deal with a life that seems to have dealt us a dud hand at the outset.

Oops! There it is. That ever-present sense of whinge, of being hard done by when in reality lots of people have had a far worse time of it. No one has poisoned my water supplies, threatened to behead me for my beliefs or forced me to flee across a hostile sea to dubious sanctuary in an alien land. I can move my limbs without mechanical aid. I am not tormented by voices and I am not dependent on drugs – prescription or otherwise. My complaint is simply that it could have been different. It should, can and must be different for others. If you doubt it look to those numbers of dyslexics in prisons and ask yourself what it says about the failure of education to give learners of all ages the tools that enabled them to engage with society in meaningful and legal ways. 

When I was at school most of my teachers had never heard of dyslexia. Those that had mostly thought it was a poncey word for being rubbish at reading and spelling. Now it seems that most know about it even though there are still those who doubt that it is real. Just as there are those who doubt that planet Earth is warming. Some teachers even know that there is stuff about neural networks and a few about short-term memory issues and poor organisation. Along with this half knowledge has come an acceptance of dyslexia as a mental disability which entitles those diagnosed with it to extra support. Whether sufferers choose to tick the appropriate box on forms is, of course, a matter of choice (mostly, I don’t) but at the very least it is public acknowledgement that there is an issue out there to be dealt with. But – and there is always a but – with the growth of this understanding has come a piece of insidious nonsense that is summed up by pointing out that Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein were dyslexic. This is then followed by a list of successful and famous people who either are or are not deemed to have been dyslexic.

The purpose of such lists is to demonstrate that dyslexia need not be a disadvantage. Indeed, back in 1994 the author Ronald D Davis titled his seminal book The Gift of Dyslexia because of what he sees as the creative advantages. To me this is as senseless as suggesting that blindness is an advantage because it encourages the development of aural perception. Oh, please! It is always an advantage to have a full set of senses and other things being equal it will always be an advantage NOT to be dyslexic. If you doubt it watch the short animation Gifted by Emily Mantel and enjoy. I did. I loved it. www.youtube.com/watch?v=biq5hEgeCLs

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