Recently, I overheard a conversation that encapsulates many of the problems faced by the “learning disabled” student. The conversation started with a young woman stating nonchalantly that, “I think I might be dyslexic” to which a young man replied “Why would you think that?” In response she explained, “well I reverse a lot of” she paused and punctuated the pause with “like” before continuing “words and stuff”. The young man was unimpressed and said, “You’re in honors bio. How could you be in honors bio and be dyslexic? You can read. You can’t be dyslexic.”
It takes incidents like this one to remind me how ignorant so many people are to the nature of dyslexia. Few people truly understand what it is and what it means to be dyslexic. When people find out I’m dyslexic, they are often extremely confused; because, I’ve always done well in school, and dyslexia, as a “learning disability” in many people’s minds, precludes any expectation of dyslexics achieving notable academic success. Although it is the official way to describe dyslexia, learning disability is a misnomer and is a severe impediment to the general public’s understanding the true nature of dyslexia. In fact, the term learning disabled and the associated jargon, specifically special education, are insulting to otherwise good students.
Dyslexia along with numerous other conditions labeled, “learning-disabilities” a linkage of terms which serves to undermine the confidence of the dyslexic student and the confidence of the general public in that student’s intelligence. It goes without saying that our culture equates learning and the speed at which one learns with intellect. One’s ability to learn determines his ability to perform other skills well, and if one is learning disabled then it follows that they will be hindered in performing countless other tasks. However, there is no aspect of dyslexia that in and of itself hinders one’s ability to learn. Dyslexia, in most cases, manifests as a difficulty mastering spelling and phonetics, and consequently being unable to read.
Clearly, dyslexia hinder one’s ability to read effectively; however, there are countless other ways to learn besides the printed word, so to refer to dyslexia as a learning disability is misleading. My own life is a prime example. As a first, second, third, and fourth grader I often had trouble reading the books I was interested in; because, I couldn’t read phonetically. This prevented me from understanding words I’d never seen before despite knowing many of them from speaking. My spoken vocabulary was far more advanced then my reading would indicate, and this inhibited my reading many of the books I would have liked.
Fortunately for me, my parents were very proactive in providing me with books on tape which allowed me to have all the benefits of reading without turning a page or trying to sound out a single word. Using this medium I was able to learn as well as any other student despite being labeled “learning disabled”. Clearly, Dyslexics like any other person is fully capable of learning any other skill as long as the information they are to acquire is presented in the proper way. Unfortunately for the dyslexic student, the educational establishment evolved in a way that reading was the fundamental medium which teachers would use to impart knowledge. As a result of their failings in this area, society labels the dyslexic student “learning-disabled” since they don’t respond as well to this medium as most other students.
In order to overcome their problems learning to read and spell, the dyslexic student is generally placed in programs outside the realm of traditional, main stream, education. These programs and amendments to classroom procedure fall under the larger mantle of special education. Despite the best intentions of the term’s progenitors it cannot be denied that in the United States special has become a synonym for stupid, specifically as a result of people mocking the special education system. In large part this mockery of special education is due to special education’s most noteworthy beneficiaries: students with autism and mental retardation. Grouping dyslexic students in a category that also contains students with such limited capacity for academic achievement is nothing short of insulting to dyslexics, who span the full range of IQ from severely handicapped to genius range.
For my own part, I often struggle to understand how a term that encompasses students of such limited intellectual capacity can also describe my educational needs. By any assessment, I perform well academically at a very challenging school. How then is it fair to describe my need for a laptop when writing an in-class essay with the same term that refers to the classes that teach basic life skills to students with severe developmental disabilities?
Even if educators themselves did not intend the egregious insult to the “learning-disabled” student, it is nonetheless a relevant fact that the peers of dyslexic students will, and in practice often do, lump all special education students together as being of low intellectual capacity. Surely, this stigma has plagued countless dyslexics as their peers exploit this weakness in their emotional armor. Granted many students escape this torment; nonetheless, many others are not so lucky and will be verbally harassed because the educational establishment has not seen fit to distinguish the dyslexic population from retarded and autistic students.
Furthermore, one cannot deny the effect of these misnomers and the subsequent cruel behavior of their peers on the emotional wellbeing of the dyslexic student. It is a proven fact that diagnosed “learning-disabled” students are at significantly higher risk for depression than the general population, and at much greater risk of developing depression at very young age.
However, there exists no proven link between dyslexia or other conditions that fall into the learning-disabled category and inherently lower levels of the chemicals in the brain that determine mood. Dyslexia does not physically precondition one to become depressed, so the most likely explanation for the sadness that plagues so many “learning-disabled” students is that it must come from an experience common to all of them. In my own experience, I can testify that few things hurt as much as getting back the latest failed spelling quiz in a long line of spelling quizzes were I performed just as poorly. I came out of the misery of elementary school relatively unscathed; because, I had the luxury of parents who understood my dyslexia, and I benefited from being gifted in other subjects. However, many children with learning disabilities are not so lucky.
It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how the frustration of academic roadblocks could severely damage the self-esteem of a young mind. Compound academic failure with classmates who torment the dyslexic student for their inability to spell, read out loud, or whatever their particular problem, and it is easy to imagine one’s world seeming quite dark.
Possibly as a result of their higher rate of depression, “learning-disabled” students are at significantly higher risk of becoming regular drug users. Although the educational system’s treatment of “learning-disabled” students cannot be blamed directly for these unfortunate statistics, it cannot be denied that the toll the present system takes on the emotional wellbeing of dyslexics is far too high.
Although it was born out of an effort to reform education for students who have for centuries been left out of the benefits of education, the jargon of the special education industry with regards to dyslexics is nothing short of anachronistic. The idea that these conditions are learning-disabilities was born in the minds of psychologists working decades ago when dyslexia and similar conditions were poorly understood. Today the education industry understands dyslexia far better then it did even a decade ago, but society’s understanding of the term is still outdated.
If society is to update its thinking with regards to dyslexia, the educational establishment must consciously recognize that a dyslexic’s disability is not with learning, and that this term, and the special education population that dyslexics have been grouped with, prejudice society, teachers, and their peers to think of dyslexics as less likely to achieve than other students. The first step in undoing this prejudice and the horrible emotional cost it takes on dyslexic students is to change the way we as society discuss these problems.