Several years ago, an IEP meeting revealed how the perception of dyslexia has changed. After the special educator explained to a student what his learning disability was, a counselor at the meeting piped in with her own take on the condition.
“People like Einstein had it,” she said. “So did Newton.”
The counselor was referring to Albert Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton, two of history’s greatest geniuses. Her intention was to embolden the student’s crumbling self-esteem (the student was visibly upset upon hearing about his condition) with a widely held belief that dyslexia is an “affliction of the geniuses (Dyslexia: Learning Info.com, 2010).”
For years, dyslexia has been considered by most experts in science and education as a learning disorder. Even its legal definition – as stated by special education laws such IDEA (Individual with Disability Education Act), ADA (American with Disability Act), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 – proclaimed it as a learning disorder. However, a small but vocal and influential group of people are challenging its supposedly negative definition. This group of “experts” is contending that this condition that affects the way somebody reads or sees the written language, is actually a “gift.”
DYSLEXIA’S OFFICAL DEFINITION
So, is it a learning disorder or a gift? To decide this question, one must first look at its official definition, and how its meaning evolved over the years.
The International Dyslexia Association states that the condition is a specific learning disability that is neurological in origin. The group also states that it is characterized by difficulties with “accurate and/or fluent word recognition and by poor spelling and decoding ability.”
Also, dyslexia is not just one set of conditions; instead, it can be a cluster of them. Individuals with dyslexia may not have the same symptoms. As a result of this, its cause and definition as a learning disorder is still debatable.
What is known about this condition is its prevalence in students with learning disabilities. It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of all students in special education have a reading disorder. Dyslexia is the most common form.
The term of dyslexia comes from the Greek words “dys” meaning ill or difficult, and “lexis” meaning word. In 1884, German ophthalmologist R. Berlin coined the term to describe what he had observed when he examined several patients. His definition for dyslexia was that it was a specific disturbance of reading in the absence of pathological conditions in the visual organ (Dyslexia: Learning Info.com, 2010).
Berlin changed his definition in an 1887 publication when he wrote: “presuming right handedness of the patient was caused by a left-sided cerebral lesion.”
He mentioned such terms as “word-blindness” to describe what he observed when he examined six patients with brain lesions. He discovered that most of these people had a full command of verbal communications but were unable to read.
For nearly a century later, dyslexia would go through various changes in definition and name. Eventually, dyslexia would become known as a learning disorder that affected the way one reads or see the written language. This designation was crucial; it would be used as one of the classifications of disabilities and learning disorders covered in a major law affecting special education (IDEA).
IDEA helped established the rules, regulation and definitions of learning disabilities that would be incorporated in special education. The law helps to establish dyslexia as a learning disorder. However, this has not stopped the debate on defining the condition.
DYSLEXIA AS A “GIFT”
Dyslexia’s definition as a learning disorder carried a negative connotation. Also, the idea that students with this condition would have to be separated from the general education population in order to take a special education course did not sit well with the students and their parents.
Then, in the 1960s, well known intellectuals were being linked to the condition. Soon, a belief circulated that Einstein, Thomas Edison, Newton and other notables had it. Suddenly, dyslexia was starting be known as the “affliction of the geniuses.”
This new designation was accepted by educators, specialists and those with the condition. Even today, numerous advocacy groups have been using this belief to boost the self-esteem of students with this condition, and raise more awareness of dyslexia.
Much of this can be credited to Ron Davis who wrote the book “The Gift of Dyslexia.” Davis, once a student with dyslexia who later overcame it, devised a learning program that was meant to treat this condition (It is known as Davis Dyslexia Correction® and is still being used).
In his book, he states that “dyslexia is a gift…and their [the intellectuals] genius didn’t occur in of their dyslexia, but because of it.”
This concept had noble intentions; however, this “affliction of genius” had a major flaw. Most of the claims that famous geniuses had the condition were unsubstantiated. Contrary to popular belief, Einstein was actually a gifted student in school, and was reading complex science literature at a fairly young age. While there’s speculation that Newton may have had a disorder, none of his symptoms matches those of dyslexia (in fact, some speculate he may have had a form of autism).
Despite this flaw, Davis does bring some insight on the condition.
“Dyslexic people are visual, multi-dimensional thinkers,” he states on the website Dyslexia.com.”We are intuitive and highly creative, and excel at hands-on learning. Because we think in pictures, it is sometimes hard for us to understand letters, numbers, symbols, and written words.”
Dyslexia is a learning disorder; but, as Davis states, it represents a disorder in which person with this condition will process or see things such as letters on a page in a different way from his non-dyslexic peers.
The use of a myth in order to support the self-esteem of students with this condition may help, but it eventually it will not treat the condition. Those with dyslexia need to have special curriculum, extra help, and some understanding from the educators in order to overcome the difficulties associated with this condition. This way, the real gift – the ability to obtain an education and to have the same access to the same type opportunities as their non-disabled peers – can be obtained.
”The Davis Dyslexia Association International (retrieved 2010):” Dyslexia the Gift: http://www.dyslexia.com/
“Dyslexia: the Gift of Affliction (retrieved 2010)”: Dyslexia: Learning. Info. Com: http://dyslexia.learninginfo.org/gift.htm
Arkansas Department of Education (2007) “Resource Guide for Specific Learning Disabilities (SLD)/ Dyslexia: http://arksped.k12.ar.us/documents/stateprogramdevelopment/DyslexiaGuideApril30.pdf
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