Demythologise dyslexia

By medicalising reading problems, we suggest to children that they can’t overcome their difficulties.

James Panton

Topics Politics

The British Labour Party’s MP for Blackley, Graham Stringer, caused a furore last week when he described dyslexia as a ‘cruel fiction’ that ‘leads to crime’. High rates of functional illiteracy are actually caused by problematic teaching methods, he argued – yet rather than admit that it is at fault, the educational establishment has ‘invented a brain disorder called dyslexia’ (1).

Supporters call him a ‘brave backbencher’ who has ‘said the unsayable’ (2); some even suggest he should be given a ‘medal for bravery’ (3). Detractors argue that he spoke insensitively and made a ‘cruel jibe’ that not only ‘insults 10 per cent’ of the population’ (4) but will ‘increase the struggle that dyslexic children have in coping with their learning difficulty’ (5).

The truth is a bit more complicated than both sides will let on.

Over the past couple of decades, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of people diagnosed with dyslexia. Some experts claim that we are only beginning to uncover the extent of this previously unrecognised and undiagnosed disorder (6). Figures released 20 years ago suggested that around four per cent of the population suffered from dyslexia; more recent studies put the figure as high as 15 per cent (7). In the US, campaigners claim that between 15 and 20 per cent of the population has a ‘language-based learning disability’, with dyslexia the most common of all (8).

The most frequent statistic cited is that in the UK around 10 per cent of the population is dyslexic (9). As I have previously pointed out on spiked, however, as one of those six million people, I am highly dubious. Unpacking that 10 per cent statistic reveals a great deal.

Dyslexia Action’s claim is that ‘about 10 per cent of the population are affected by dyslexia to some degree’ (emphasis added) (10). And it is in that ‘to some degree’ clause that we can see what has really been happening.

Back in 2007, I wrote on spiked about Durham University educationalist Professor Julian Elliot who hit the headlines for his claims that dyslexia had ‘become a social fig leaf for middle-class parents who do not want their children to be considered lazy, thick or stupid’ (11). Elliot claimed that the category ‘dyslexia’ was so lacking in rigorous scientific definition that it has become essentially meaningless in professional practice. The symptoms generally used in the diagnosis of dyslexia – poor working memory, letter inversion, clumsiness, untidy writing – are frequently found in people with no learning difficulties, as well as in people who experience some difficulties in reading but who would not generally be considered dyslexic. Further, diagnosing someone as dyslexic is of little help in determining how they should be treated because there is no evidence to suggest that any particular teaching method works better for so-called dyslexics than for other people who are poor readers (12).

We should not draw the conclusion that ‘dyslexia is a myth’, as Stringer has claimed. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a group of people do suffer from a severe learning disability, however hazily understood, that has a neurological foundation. This figure may be as high as four per cent of the population, though the confusion and ambiguity of exactly what dyslexia is makes it very difficult to make any definitive statement.

What Elliot’s arguments suggest is exactly this: that the definition of dyslexia has become unworkably vague and expansive. Between the four per cent figure and the 10 (or more) per cent claims, the category of dyslexia has itself been expanded to include a whole host of different symptoms in different combinations and to different degrees of seriousness. There has not been an increase in the number of children or adults with serious learning disabilities. But there has been a huge increase in our willingness to label people with a host of different learning-related pseudo-scientific conditions – such as dyslexia and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

There are many reasons we should be concerned about this trend. As is well known, children and students diagnosed with dyslexia receive special dispensation and extra time in examinations, leading to an educational culture of special pleading. The huge expansion of the dyslexia category siphons money and resources from people who really need extra support and specialist attention.

And, of course, the expanded dyslexia category masks the extent to which both primary and secondary level education are currently failing to engage and educate a significant number of children.

Stringer begins his controversial article on dyslexia by noting the number of functionally illiterate members of the prison population, and deduces from this, in a crude-but-intuitive way, that increasing literacy in schools would decrease the prison population. While this smacks of the peculiarly New Labour logic that sees education as a panacea for all social ills, there is obviously something concrete in the idea that children who are let down by the education system to the degree of functional illiteracy are less likely to be able to go on and take control of their lives and determine their futures.

But amongst all these problems, one has remained little interrogated by Stringer, Elliot and those other brave souls who criticise the dyslexia industry. This is the issue of what our preparedness to expand a category such as dyslexia, and to apply it to an expansive and indeterminate range of problems met in the classroom, tells us about our views of the capacities of individuals to engage with and struggle against challenges and difficulties.

By imposing a loose label like dyslexia upon many people who have difficulties reading and writing, we encourage those individuals to understand their difficulties in terms of conditions outside of their immediate control. Medicalising problems and difficulties faced by individuals in the sphere of education suggests that we have a fundamental insecurity about how to engage, inspire and educate a great many young people who we currently let slip through the system. But our preparedness to label so many individuals throughout society suggests that this tendency in the educational sphere is indicative of a climate which refuses to give cultural support to the kinds of struggle that would really allow individuals to gain command of themselves and their lives.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford, and co-founder of the Manifesto Club. Contact James {encode=”” title=”here”}.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill discussed the furore over a government minister’s decision to send her dyslexic child to private school. James Panton discussed dyslexia in Can’t read, won’t read. Dr Michael Fitzpatrick questioned whether parents can improve a child’s mental health through their diets. Brid Hehir discussed craniosacral therapy in Head cases. Or read more at spiked-issue Education.

(1) Graham Stringer, Dyslexia is a myth, Manchester Confidential

(2) Janet Daley, Labour MP says the unsayable about the dyslexia epidemic, UK Telegraph, 14 January 2009

(3) Daniel Hannan, Dyslexia jibe insults the 10 per cent of Britons who it affects, Scotsman, 17 January 2009

(5) Kate Griggs cited in Katya Burgess, Dyslexia ‘a cruel fiction leading to crime’ says MP, The Times (London), 14 January 2009

(6) See for example Southbank University dyslexia expert Ross Cooper, cited in Chris Bunting, ‘Worrying Case of Can’t Write, Won’t Write’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 July 2004

(7) See, for example, ‘Visual Interference’, Times Higher Education Supplement, 23 May 2003

(8) See the International Dyslexia Association figures cited in The dislexia sceptik is onn to sumthing, by James Panton

(9) Dyslexia Action responds to Graham Stringer MP’s claims that dyslexia is a ‘cruel fiction’, Dyslexia Action

(10) What is Dyslexia, Dyslexia Action

(11) Dyslexia ‘is used by parents as excuse for slow children, The Times (London), 28 May 2007

(12) See The dislexia sceptik is onn to sumthing, by James Panton

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Topics Politics


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