My name’s Ann, and I’m a 33 year old dyslexic woman. Because of COVID-19, I’ve decided to be a 33 year old dyslexic woman on the Internet writing things much more often. This past week the Guardian published a long read article by writer Sirin Kale called “The battle over dyslexia“, and I have some things to say about it as it pertains to me, an adult dyslexic person.
To summarise, the general gist of Kale’s article is that there’s a scientific battle raging as to whether dyslexia is even a thing. Her argument hinges on disagreements between notable academic educational psychologists, specifically on their having differing views on how to solve the complex problem of how local authorities provide support for children struggling to read within the social and political context of the UK. I’m not a parent and I’m not involved in the world of SEND, so this blog isn’t about addressing the specifics of this argument. However, before I write more, I want to sincerely extend my compassion to the parents of all children struggling to read and access education, dyslexic or not. Our education system shouldn’t be failing anyone, but fighting about dyslexia isn’t how we solve this problem and Nancy Doyle has already responded about this on LinkedIn.
What I do want to address in this blog is the whole “dyslexia, is it even a thing?” being published in a publication of the standing of the Guardian, and having the argument underpinning this assertion be based solely on how dyslexia manifests in childhood. Questioning whether dyslexia is really a thing at all is a major take-home of Kale’s article, and I think this is clear from many of the responses on social media. As such, I think Kale’s writing is actively harmful to dyslexic people of all ages and all backgrounds because in questioning dyslexia she is taking from us the ability to describe ourselves to other people and be understood. She is, in particular, taking from adult dyslexics the ability to be understood as a dyslexic adult. This is an injustice to us as knowers of our own lived dyslexic experience.
To the best of my knowledge, the only actual dyslexic Kale spoke to in the year she took to carefully research and write her article was Lord Addington who is quoted as saying:
“If you’re telling me that dyslexia doesn’t really exist, I’m afraid my everyday experience of life says you’re wrong.”Lord Addington, quoted in Kale’s article
I’ve never met Lord Addington, and given that I’m not a hereditary peer I have a pretty different background and life experiences, but I for sure feel him on the lived experience of being dyslexic.
Being dyslexic isn’t all of me, but it is in every part of me and it affects all of my lived experiences. It is literally all about the way I am able to think. It is intimately connected with my relationship with my family because it’s exceedingly likely that I inherited it. It has had a role in absolutely everything I’ve ever done, from my childhood right up to being 33 years old today.
And so you might see why I don’t appreciate having my identity “debated” in a national newspaper. Quite aside from badly misrepresenting current science, it’s just not cool to write an article for a whole year about dyslexia and largely fail to talk to adult dyslexic people about their lived experiences of being dyslexic. Lord Addington is only really quoted in his professional capacity as a politician and advocate, and his lived experiences aren’t explored; as far as I’m able to tell, everyone else quoted is a professional working in education or a parent of a dyslexic child. Kale needed to hear the voices of many more actually dyslexic adults to learn about the dyslexic experience, which extends far beyond that of learning to read.
Almost every adult dyslexic to whom I’ve spoken openly about the marginalizing effects of dyslexia has a story about the time they failed in school and a story about the time they failed in a job. These stories are, for better or worse, part of the culture of being an adult dyslexic. My own stories of failing in education and in paid work are, frankly, not low stakes tales; and this is despite my very significant race, class, and educational privilege. Like Kale, I’m a graduate of the University of Oxford, and I’m lucky to have many positive stories about achieving educational and career success, but not every dyslexic has these. My own difficulties did not stop when I learned to read, they happen every day and especially every time I learn something new. They’re happening as I write this and organise my thoughts. I sure hope that the next person at my work I need to explain my dyslexic struggles to hasn’t read Kale’s article, because if they have I think they’re much less likely to be sympathetic to me.
Kale’s article misses all the truly good and joyful parts of the dyslexic experience too. The other part of dyslexic culture is in fact just culture in general and especially visual culture and technology, because without dyslexic thinking connecting the seemingly unconnected there isn’t progress. We might not be the super greatest at the reading or the short term remembering but we’re here for a very good evolutionary reason. On the scale of human history reading happened incredibly recently, and differently thinking neurodiverse brains are a human survival tactic. I could reel off a great long list of famously successful dyslexics here, but perhaps a more grounded testament to this is that Kale’s article ended-up on the front page of Hackernews (a notable or notorious depending on who you ask tech news aggregator) and has 74 comments at the time of writing. This is a pretty high level of engagement, and speaks to so many folks working in tech and start-ups because they’re dyslexic. We have a pretty unenviable collection of wicked problems to solve in the next ten years or so if Earth is to remain habitable, and we need everyone to be able to contribute to solving these problems. We won’t solve them without the contributions of dyslexic people.
So, to conclude. The year is 2020. Writing about a group of marginalized people without having really spoken to or listened to those people shows you’re not reading the room, and your writing is likely to do real harm to those people. The science of dyslexia is not in the state it was 44 years ago in 1976. Dyslexic people are real, dyslexic children become dyslexic adults, and our lived experiences as adults go far beyond our experiences of learning to read. Our stories deserve to be heard and understood.
This blog is dedicated to anyone who has ever had their identity questioned or erased by writers in the Guardian, I hear you and I see you 💖.
Featured image of a squid swimming slowly via the Creative Commons.