…and Why is Our Answer Important?

Submitted by Brock and Fernette Eide, Authors of The Dyslexic Advantage

What does it really mean to be dyslexic? The most common definition states that dyslexia is a brain-based disorder that makes reading and spelling harder than expected given an individual’s intelligence and education.

We believe this definition is too narrow, and that it’s misleading in important ways. In our view, dyslexia—or a dyslexic processing style—is better viewed as a different pattern of brain organization that creates both challenges and important strengths.

Why does it matter how we define dyslexia? It matters because it affects how we think of dyslexic individuals, and how dyslexic individuals think of themselves. Let us show you what we mean.

When you hear the word dyslexia, what image pops into your mind? If you’re like most people you see a child sitting at a desk, head buried in hands, face clouded in frustration as he or she stares in hopeless bewilderment at a book. This image reflects the view that dyslexia is, at its core, a disability.

We believe this image is profoundly misleading. As we argue in our book The Dyslexic Advantage, there are many reasons to believe that ‘disability’ isn’t the core of what it means to be dyslexic. Instead, the learning challenges dyslexic individuals experience are really just secondary consequences of having a brain that’s been organized to reason and solve problems in a different way.

Our experience as clinicians has caused us to form a very different image of dyslexia. When we hear the word dyslexia we don’t think of disability. We think of all the amazing dyslexic individuals we’ve examined in our clinic and met through our work. What stands out in our minds isn’t just what they can’t do but also what they can—their creativity, innovation, perceptiveness, mindfulness, resourcefulness.

It’s essential that this broader view replace the older narrow one. To solve the many challenges facing dyslexic individuals we must first form a strong and cohesive dyslexic community that can work together for their collective good. However, at present the greatest barrier to forming such a community is the disability-centered view that dominates thinking about dyslexia. This incomplete and imbalanced view creates an image of dyslexia that no one would willingly own. As a result, when individuals are identified as dyslexic they too often experience shame or denial rather than self-understanding and acceptance. This leads them to hide their dyslexic identity and prevents them from forming communities.

To form the dyslexic community we need, we must first adopt a more balanced and accurate image of what it means to be dyslexic: an image that dyslexic individuals can proudly and willingly own and embrace, which accepts the challenges, understands and encourages the strengths, and recognizes the common routes to success that go along with being dyslexic. This dyslexic community will have all of the strength and ability it needs to achieve its goals once it comes to truly know, and understand, itself.

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  • Does anyone else think that the sentiments expressed in this article are in conflict with the way that the Landmark School describes it’s mission. I lifted this directly from the school’s web site: “Landmark School’s mission is to enable and empower students with language-based learning disabilities (LBLD) to realize their educational and social potential through an exemplary school program complemented by outreach and training, assessment, and research.”

  • I believe that Landmark needs to use this language due to the legal status of children with Dyslexia; my understanding is that the educational system views the condition as a learning disability. Some community school systems underwrite tuition for certain students attending Landmark because the district was unable to meet the needs of the disability. The misaligned definitions imposed on people with Dyslexia are acknowledged by Landmark to make the program accessible to more students who need help.

    As a parent of a dyslexic child, I acknowledge what the authors have suggested – I see my child as profoundly gifted. In my experience with the Landmark community, the teachers and administrators do not treat our kids as disabled at all; they are a caring and empowering group that is dedicated to helping our kids realize their academic and social potential.

  • I would like to second the sentiments of the authors about building a community. One summer a couple of years ago my son had to get certified in the various parts of Microsoft Office and we had to go to his college to get them to write to Microsoft to get him an accommodation for extra time. At that point I asked the Special Services office at his college why there wasn’t a national registry of sorts for dyslexic individuals so that we could more easily get such accommodations. They told me there was no such thing because “dyslexic people did not want others to know about their issue” yet they are also always telling me that my son needs to self advocate with his professors on issues related to his dyslexia and accommodations. My son is very open about his dyslexia but he really gets tired of all the paperwork and hoops he needs to jump through every time he takes a new class or needs some extra time on a test. No wonder dyslexic kids have so much trouble getting through school on any level. Maybe it is time for dyslexic people to “come out.” We actually have a young man living with us this summer who is deaf and he tells me that deaf people do not think of themselves as disabled, instead they are just members of a subculture. Maybe dyslexics could learn a lesson from this attitude.

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