Science aside, let's give dyslexics help they need

March 17, 1998|By Adele Paff-Fryer

THIS MONTH, news accounts reported the results of breakthrough research on dyslexia, led by Dr. Sally Shaywitz of Yale University. In this study, 61 subjects (29 were dyslexic) were asked to do increasingly difficult phonetic exercises while their brains were scanned.

The dyslexics showed a different pathway to accomplishing the exercise. Several "experts" quoted in news articles recounted the standard approach to dyslexia, using phrases such as "developmentally different," "need better ways to cope," -- i.e., it's a neurological problem.

What a relief. I thought I was "dumb," "lazy," "disorganized" or -- as teachers phrased their kinder complaints about me to my parents -- "not working up to my potential." The truth is that I have spent most of my life not working up to my potential. But then, who hasn't?

When I was growing up in the 1950s, if you did not read well and fast, the verdict was clear: Something was wrong with you. And because some aspects of reading will always be difficult, I still find it hard to shake off the "wrong with you" feelings.

Now that scientists have pinpointed a physical reason for my problem, does this new research somehow exonerate me from all the accusations of being lazy and dumb? In fact, I think the problem lay more with my teachers and their curriculum than with me.

The benefits

A large number of dyslexics will quickly explain that this so-called disability is also synonymous with a strong aptitude for problem solving, with free-thinking, inventiveness and creativity. Many people agree that a dyslexic, when presented with a situation or problem (decoding a word, for example), sees many solutions. That makes it harder for us to see the mundane, simple, one rote answer that regular education wants.

Most programs that approach dyslexic students with careful attention to the standards that prevail in each academic discipline, coupled with a lot of opportunities to use their innate problem-solving abilities, find that they can build a solid academic foundation. These students usually go on to do well in "normal" classrooms. There is no denying that the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching reading is one of the best methods for doing precisely this.

But I take offense at the notion that there is anything "wrong" with us, or even the notion that now there is proof we are not just goofing off. There are enough successful dyslexics that we should be able to face down the established educational system and its limited, one-right-answer approach.

There is nothing wrong with us. Yes, I have a different learning style -- and I don't need a brain scan to prove it. So what? I also have two doctorates and am a graduate of the National War College (equivalent to a doctorate in military science). I am still trying to work up to my potential.

Once I stopped listening to the naysayers, I realized my abilities were far superior to those of most of the people around me, and that I had a lot to do to work up to my real potential.

My story is not atypical, but the power of suggestion can be very destructive. Many very smart adult dyslexics believed what they were told as children, that they were simply dumb or lazy. Yet everyone knows someone who did poorly in school, is not well-educated and does not like "book learning" -- but nevertheless became a successful adult.

Think how much more she could do if someone had opened the door to books rather than labeling her dumb. In our own way, dyslexics get angry at the labels. Some of us conquer the books; some of us work around them.

A double-edged sword

But now research is suggesting a reason for our "dumbness," and that can be a double-edged sword. It can be a reason to be patronized and told it is OK when you do not learn, an excuse for not succeeding.

I am more afraid of labels that provide excuses than of being called dumb and lazy. As a child, I knew I was not dumb or lazy, and that it was not OK that I was not learning to read as my classmates did. So I kept working at learning, and working hard.

xTC Am I pleased with this new research? Yes, but only as far as it may help younger dyslexics to be discovered earlier, so that they may be put in the kind of learning environment that will enable them to work up to their superior potential.

Adele Paff-Fryer, an educational researcher specializing in preschool-age children, writes from Ruxton.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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