1.4 Experiencing dyslexia
To illustrate just how problematic the idea of ‘abnormality’ is in practice, we will consider the condition of developmental dyslexia, dyslexia for short. Dyslexia is relatively common and you may have knowledge of it from friends or personal experience. The following section illustrates many of the difficulties experienced by people with dyslexia, and it also highlights more generally some of the problems that can occur if you are not, in some sense, ‘normal’.
A case study in ‘abnormality’
Alexander Faludy is severely dyslexic. Dyslexia is a condition that is primarily manifested by a difficulty in learning to read and write, although its behavioural symptoms are far more wide ranging than this. At the age of 11 Alexander was still only able to write two legible words per minute, and coped with reading by using book tapes intended for blind people, which he would listen to while following the text of the book. He was also extremely clumsy and uncoordinated. Unable to read at all for a long time, he suffered bullying at school. In these respects his story is not untypical of many people with dyslexia. However, Alexander is also ‘not normal’ in another respect – he has an extremely high IQ. By the time he was 11 he had passed GCSE and A-Level English Literature and had begun a foundation course with The Open University. To achieve all this, Alexander and his parents had to persuade schools and examination boards to change their thinking about the ways they assessed and examined dyslexic students' work. Alexander dictated his work to his parents who would copy down what he said verbatim. At 15 he won a place at Peterhouse College, Cambridge as the youngest student since Pitt the Younger, studying Theology and History of Art.
Alexander's story in his own words, aged 12
At playschool, other children were taught to read. They tried to teach me, but I was never any good at it, and even when I did learn to read I was very slow … When I was five, an important marker in my dyslexic case history emerged. The use of my left and right hands became more or less even, and in places, alternated, a fact that puzzled my class teacher… I was physically weak and uncoordinated. My contemporaries at school concluded that I wasn't one of them. I wasn't any good at throwing a ball, reading, or beating someone up for no apparent reason …
Despite my wide literary knowledge, I was no good at my English class, something that rather upset me. My spelling was bad, and handwriting slow and abominable. It hurt to write, because I had to write so quickly to keep up …I did badly in English and Maths and it was suggested my qualities were incompatible with the next part of the school. I was humiliatingly sent down in the period before lunch to the bottom class to be taught how to write letters properly …
Official confirmation that I had dyslexia came in 1990, when I was seven … When I was still in the pre-prep, I got my parents’ Othello cassettes and fully-illustrated text, and set about reading and listening to it simultaneously (a method which was later to serve me in good stead). My parents asked me to talk about the play on tape. They then showed me more new texts and plays which expanded my mind and helped me to see that life cannot just be tackled by attacking a surface but by digging out the root …At the beginning of the spring term in 1992, when I was nine, my parents finally let out the secret to me – all the reading of Shakespeare and Donne had had a purpose: I had been doing a GCSE. I felt a sense of achievement unlike anything before.
By this time I had entered the lower school… My form teacher, who took me for Maths, gave me a ‘D’ at the end of term, and told me to try harder, for I was using my dyslexia as an excuse for laziness and that it wasn't the problem my parents and I were making it out to be … My handwriting got worse as I was expected to write at speed. A normally well-meaning and kind science teacher ripped out several pages of my work in front of the entire class because he thought them insufficiently neat. I felt humiliated and dejected …
I received my GCSE results during the summer. It was a very special day. Taking a GCSE had raised my standard of thinking and helped me put the concerns of my contemporaries in perspective. They would feel great sorrow if they kicked a football the wrong way, but I had learned about the real sorrows of death, love, hate, kindness, greed, treachery, avarice, power and corruption. I could learn more about life from poetry than I could by trying to kick a large spherical object between two posts.
(Faludy, 1998, p. 3)
Make notes on which difficulties experienced by Alexander were the result of his condition, and which were ‘constructed’ by having to fit in to ‘normal’ ways of doing things?
In some senses dyslexia itself is a ‘construction’ because it was not identified as a difficulty until there was a societal expectation that everyone should be literate. The difficulties in learning to read and in physical coordination (including writing) experienced by Alexander are genuine problems, but the negative social and emotional consequences of them are not: they result from expectations of the level of performance he should attain and limited tolerance by others to his ‘being different’. This is evidenced not just in the bullying, but also in the way that his teachers responded to his work, as they wanted him to conform to the ‘normal’ set of skills and abilities defined as appropriate to his age and culture. Alexander's success in English using his technique of listening to book tapes and dictating his work suggests that there was limited need for such an emphasis on traditional forms of literacy to demonstrate his competence in the subject.
The comments of Alexander's mathematics teacher illustrate another aspect of having dyslexia: having a label that effectively says ‘this person is not normal’. People react to labels in different ways, sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Labels relate to stereotypes and can result in prejudicial attitudes towards the individual concerned. The teacher here suggests such an attitude: the idea that dyslexia is used by parents as an excuse for little more than laziness on the part of their child. It also suggests that the teacher may be sceptical about dyslexia itself. This scepticism persists in some quarters because there has been debate about the nature and causes of dyslexia, whether it differs from general reading difficulties, and how. In this course we consider the evidence that dyslexia exists as a distinct syndrome with a biological basis.