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A Pioneering New Way To Face Up To Dyslexia

March 22, 2010

In a Same Difference first, this post is part of two debates. First, Is Dyslexia A DisAbility?, and second, Inclusion Rules!.

I didn’t write this, I’m not writing this. Amy is writing this. Say: “Hello, Amy.” I speak into Amy’s crooked ear, and she types on my behalf. Amy can tell the difference between a lower-case “b” and a “d” with one eye closed, after three gins. She minds her ps and qs, and she’ll mind mine if I ask her. Amy is comfortable with all the many and subtle ways of “ough”. Words are her open book, as simple as ACB. So she writes with an assured dexterity, without even looking down. But what you hear, the timbre, the cadence of the clusters and chicanes, those are mine. The voice that is whispering into your shell-like is mine. And that is a great and subtle alchemy. These squiggles, these secretive, revealing spoors are only desiccated sounds — the dried minestrone of speech. It’s the voice that matters, warm from the mouth. Not these cold, black letters.

The first alphabet with vowels is Greek, 800 years before Christ. The word comes from alpha and beta, plagiarised from the Phoenicians: the pictograms for “ox” and “house”. A stable. The alphabet is a stable for words, for ideas, declarations, statements, jokes, orders, denials, rhymes, reasons, lies and last testaments. And you know what else stables are full of.

It was suggested that we should print this the way I write it, just so you could see, get some idea of the mess, the infantilely random alphabetti muesli of my 55-year-old writing. You’d get a kick out of it. No, it would really amuse you. People still laugh at me on paper: “Oh my god, is that real? Is that how you write? You’ve got to be joking.” I’m not immune, but I’ve grown thick-skinned, if a little defensive. After all the awards, the pats on the back, the gimpy words that put the kids through school and put a chicken in the pot, you can scoff all you like. You can scoff for free. I get paid for these words, and I gave up caring when I discovered the rest of you spell phonetic with a “ph”.

There are better things to do on a miserably wet night than to come to a charmless church hall. Inside is the familiar setup of self-help: the table with pamphlets and privately published books of obsession, the industrial teapot, the semicircle of plastic chairs, the posters of concern and encouragement. There are perhaps 20 people here, talking in little groups, with the familiarity of a cause that is also a social life. A pair of women see me and beam. They are the vestal stewards of church halls everywhere: solid, energetic, intimidating. “Ah, there you are!” says one. “We’re so pleased you could come. Have you got a cup of tea?” “Have a biscuit,” says the other, producing a tin of chocolate ones. There’s a plate of plain digestives. “These are the VIP biscuits,” she whispers. This is probably the only hall where I’m a VIP: the monthly get-together of the Bexley, Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham Dyslexia Association (founded 1974). And I am a dyslexic. A dyslexic who writes a lot — 1,500 words, give or take, a day. And if I let the spellchecker get its bureaucratic little pince-nez within squinting distance of any of them, it would say 1,000 are spelt wrongly. I am a grammar cripple, a functioning illiterate. Literally. I write for a living and, like blind mountaineers and limbless golfers, I am a straw to be clutched at by these quietly desperate and bravely determined people whose lives and dreams for their children have been overwhelmed by 26 characters in search of an orthodoxy.

The meeting gets under way. Four experts — an expert being someone who knows more than you do — sit in front of us: a teacher, a helper, a student and a learning-difficulties coach. The parents, mostly mothers, their faces taut with worry and incomprehension, listen intently. One or two have brought their children, who sit with their heads down, drawing, trying to be invisible. I’m with them. The questions swiftly become long, anguished stories of uncaring schools, intransigent authorities, lax teachers, jobsworth governors and thwarted children. At every hardship and symptom, the experts and regulars exchange knowing, conspiratorial grins and raised eyebrows. A desperate mother, twisting her fingers into knots, says the social services are trying to have her committed as an over-anxious parent. There’s a chance they’ll take her child into care. The room shakes its head and tuts with the commiseration of the vindicated paranoid.

After too long, the meeting closes. It has answered all the questions with more questions. Doors have opened to reveal corridors filled with more doors. It has helped only to concern the concerned, whose anxieties mostly revolve around statements. Children with learning difficulties need to be statemented — that is, given a series of tests by a professional that take a long time and are, if not arbitrary, then not altogether precise, a bit like a Cosmo quiz for the semiliterate. They are useful, and they are craved by the parents of children who are failing.

A statement imposes a statutory obligation to give the child special attention. Education authorities and school boards don’t want to do this because they don’t have any money. They do have time. Time is everything. Children grow older, grow out of their shoes and, with luck, out of their schools. Everyone agrees that the sooner you treat dyslexia the better — so they connive to put off statementing. They don’t return phone calls, they cancel appointments, lose forms and files, hoping the problem will go to another catchment area, another school, and probably the private sector. They’re not uncaring or cruel. They know that the help they can give a dyslexic child will probably amount to no more than an unpaid, untrained teaching assistant doing a bit of nursery-rhyme reading a couple of afternoons a week. Everybody understands that the urban comprehensive system isn’t going to step up to the needs of a dyslexic child. Still, most parents have no choice but to make bigger and bigger nuisances of themselves. The children find they do have a choice: they can check out. They can turn up, but they can turn off. They can be in the room but not present. They can get their self-worth by being disruptive and too clever by half. They stop offering up their self-confidence to the blackboard to be squashed and mocked.

I hover by the book stand. There’s a list of famous dyslexics — Lee Ryan, Tommy Hilfiger, Benjamin Zephaniah, Steve Redgrave, Richard Branson, Zoë Wanamaker, Eddie Izzard, Toyah Willcox, Albert Einstein, Jackie Stewart. It sounds like a really horrible reality-TV show. I could make a starrier list to advertise consumption or syphilis. “We’re a bit in two minds about Einstein,” says the book monitor. “He was probably autistic.”

I buy a pamphlet called The Perplexed Parent’s Guide to Special Needs. It is £8. It contains a glossary, four pages of jargon, 87 learning abbreviations. So much easier to tell a parent their child has PMLD than “profound and multiple learning difficulties”. The well-meaning ladies ask if I’ll write for the dyslexic newsletter. I make my excuses. On the way out I am approached by a mother with her daughter, who’s had her head bent over a notebook. She must be seven or eight. Her drawings are clever and accomplished, fluent doodles of fantasy things, things that aren’t in this room. We smile at each other. “So good at art,” says one of the vestal ladies. “Typical dyslexic — so much creativity.”

Maybe I’m too hard on these people, but I’ve been avoiding meetings like this all my life. I’ve been avoiding writing this article for as long as I’ve been writing. I was diagnosed dyslexic when I was at a state junior school in north London, bottom of the class at pretty much everything except the nature table. We were given IQ tests, and apparently mine was disproportionately higher than my academic achievement. This was the way dyslexia was diagnosed in the 1960s. Although not a new disease — it was originally noted in the 19th century — it was new to the newly comprehensive school system, and a solid majority of teachers imagined it was either a dubious American import or a euphemism made up by middle-class parents for their dim sprogs. There was certainly no provision for it other than extra homework, which I got and resented, then lost and forgot, dropped in puddles, used as goalposts, fed to the neighbours’ dog. So I was sent to a boarding school, St Christopher’s, in Letchworth. They said they not only understood dyslexia, but could sensitively help.

At my interview the headmaster asked me to read from the paper — The Guardian, naturally. The Commonwealth Conference was on in London. The first paragraph was an exotic list of African and Asian names. I fell at every one. He beamed. Seven years later, as he shook my hand and I left without a meaningful or useful qualification, he wished me good luck without conviction. The careers adviser had suggested a career in hairdressing. “I’m sure you’ll talk your way into something,” said the headmaster. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a pupil who’s spent as much time doing special extra study on Saturdays.” And he laughed, and so did I. Neither of us meant it. It was only afterwards that I wondered if perhaps, after so many years of punishing my inability to understand, they might have thought of some alternative to taking away the only morning I had to myself.

In retrospect there was a prophetic encounter. I loved history. It was taught by a malevolent and bitter man who always gave me low marks for the work I struggled over at the expense of every other subject. One day I went to him in tears and said I thought my history was better than he gave me credit for. He said he thought my history was very good, but my writing was appalling, and he marked me as an examiner would: “You have a problem with your writing, Gill.” And I thought, actually, no I don’t. You have the problem with my writing. To me it makes perfect sense. And I pretty much decided then and there always to make my dyslexia someone else’s problem.

There was, though, the “one” teacher. The one that, if we’re lucky, we all manage to find. He taught English. Peter Scupham. He didn’t teach me how to write, he didn’t do phonics or useful tricks to distinguish endings; he taught me how to read. He didn’t even do that, really. He just showed me how to read. He read all the time — often out loud. He would come to our dormitory late at night and read MR James’s ghost stories by the light of the full moon. He deconstructed Blake. The Sick Rose was the first poem I ever learnt by heart. I read very slowly, but I forget very little. And it doesn’t matter — books aren’t a race. A book doesn’t melt or go off. The author’s still dead, the words still live. Peter Scupham showed me the breadth of what was possible. It wasn’t Dead Poets Society or Helen Keller, it was just going to the shelf. I found him very early one morning sitting on the floor of the English department, ripping up dozens of copies of Shakespeare. He looked up without surprise and said: “You’ve got to show them who’s boss.”

I was never going to make university or poly. I stumbled into art school via the labour exchange, manual and menial work: shops, warehouses, building sites, gardens, kitchens, waiting, nannying, modelling. And I did five years at Saint Martin’s, then the Slade, where I took my art-history exams with a dip pen. I cut my own quills and wrote with an elegantly illiterate, romantic scrawl. A lot of dyslexics end up in the art room or the drama department. Along with the worry of perceived dimness, there is a parallel and concomitant assumption among mothers that dyslexics are artistic. As amputees grow stronger in their remaining limbs, so children with deficient spelling will develop a heightened aesthetic, have natural affinity to line and colour, bias-cutting and spinning clay. In the church hall there’d been a lot of knowing smiles when I said I’d been at art school. “Of course, we’re all artistic, aren’t we?” said the woman who claimed she hadn’t discovered her inner dyslexia until after she’d completed her doctorate, and was wistfully still trying to uncover her innate creativity. I stayed with art until I was nearly 40. I got quite good at drawing. But I’d done it for 25 years, so I should have been competent. There is no proof that dyslexia makes you any more culturally sensitive or artistically dexterous than people who can spell. We end up holding brushes instead of pens because it’s where we find some self-confidence. I don’t regret the art, but when I finally did sit down to write, oh my God, it was like coming home. This is what I’d been trying to say with chiaroscuro and perspective. Why didn’t I ever think of words? I was amazed at how easy writing is if you take away spelling and grammar. If you just say it.

Julian Elliott is a researcher into special needs, a teacher and an expert on dyslexia. Or, rather, he would be if he thought it existed. But last year he caused a lot of asterisks to be inserted into exclamations by questioning the very existence of dyslexia. I called him: I was rather looking forward to a fight. After all these years to discover that I’d been suffering from some imaginary disease, that I was just dim and backward all along. Happily, Professor Elliott’s own written style is as wooden as Pinocchio’s best-man speech. It is what’s technically known as “academic remedial”. Less fortunately, within three minutes I agreed with almost everything he said. Far from being a chalk-dust-and-elbow-patches grammarian, he’s a liberal, sensitive soul.

His point is that dyslexia the label has become a meaningless catch-all. So many symptoms and conditions are attributed to it: word blindness, innumeracy, short-term-memory loss, low self-confidence, truncated attention and untidiness, sensitivity to light, poor hand-eye co-ordination, inability to tell left from right, and various choice incapacities from the lighter end of the autistic spectrum. This is no longer a medical condition, it’s a social one. He emphasises again that there is no link between IQ and dyslexia. We are not innately smarter, nor is there any provable link with artistic talent, theatricality or interior design. On the other hand, being a brilliant speller isn’t an indicator of high IQ either, nor is reading a lot. But still, there is a huge weight of parental pressure behind the acceptance of dyslexia as a cause for special treatment and an indicator of aesthetic sensitivity.

Elliott does not deny that some children have difficulty reading and writing, but he says that the difficulty simply falls into the general bucket of special needs. The treatments for dyslexia and for other learning difficulties are identical, and if the cure is the same, so, possibly, is the condition. But there is consternation at the thought of disbanding the dyslexics’ club, not only from parents but from a host of commercially interested schools and experts. There is a lucrative dyslexia industry. Where the state system has been unable and unwilling to offer help, it has colluded with the private sector, all too happy to offer a service and to exploit the worries and fears of parents. So now there are legions of specialists and gurus whose cards mothers exchange at school gates with a desperate trust. Teachers sell preparatory cures, from coloured cellophane to gymnastics to computer programs. A devoted, sympathetic department geared to dyslexia is now one of the best selling points of a private education.

I mentioned to Elliott that I have a son who is dyslexic in exactly the same way as I am, with pretty much the same IQ I had at his age. “Ah, yes,” he says, “there does seem to be a genetic link, particularly between fathers and sons.”

I asked Ali’s permission before mentioning him here. He said it was fine, as long as I didn’t make him look like an illiterate poster boy. He’s now 17 and struggling with exams. The provision for dyslexics is almost exactly the same as it was when I was at school — more work, extra reading, extra writing, one-to-ones with a woman with ethnic jewellery who speaks in a slow, loud voice.

Fairley House is a school that specialises in dyslexia and its associated learning difficulties. This is the gold standard for specialist help, and it needs to be: it’s not cheap. They take children at the end of primary school to help them make the jump into secondary education. This is the great nightmare for parents; the competition for big school, both public and private, is fierce. Fairley House is a bright and jolly place in Pimlico, named for Gordon Hamilton-Fairley, the oncologist murdered by the IRA. I remember hearing the bomb that killed him. The school is noisy and energetic. Every wall, door and ceiling is covered in information — pictures, mobiles, labels. It’s like being inside a hyperactive 13-year-old’s scrapbook, a great, tie-dyed stampede of spangly encouragement and useful rubrics.

The headmistress might have stepped off one of her own walls, a lady with Day-Glo energy of the sort that seems to exist only in education and the more charismatic fundamentalist churches. She bobs down the school corridor like a cork in a millrace of children, shouting encouragement and cosy admonishments with a pantomime zeal. She has assigned me to shadow an attractive and winning lad called Zinzan. We go to his maths class with Millie, George and Lewis, taught by Mr Taylor, who’s been bitten by the same dog that got the headmistress. We’re learning percentages using packets of sweets. They try to teach everything with a practical example or a stick-in-the-head image; they learn pi using real pies. I sit on the little chair behind the desk, and the oddest thing begins to happen: I can feel myself regressing, the panic begins to constrict my chest. I can’t follow what Mr Taylor is saying. I don’t understand.

Millie leans across and helps me, not as a politeness to a grown-up who’s older than her dad, but with the fellowship of the impaired; another word-blind, number-paralysed school sufferer. It all rushes back over me: everything falling off my brain, like hearing through double glazing, the fog of incomprehension, the panic of being left behind. I’d completely forgotten the loneliness of classrooms where it all makes sense to everyone else. I look down at the page and my handwriting belongs to a child. I get it all wrong. “Never mind,” says Millie. No, never mind.

This is the most salutary of lessons. I had utterly buried this feeling: being here in this place. To fail with the kindness of professionals willing you on, egging you to understand, just to grasp the simplest corner of a concept that is forever opaque and ghostly. I still can’t do long division, or short division. I have no idea how grammar works. I can’t name the parts of a sentence. And, do you know the weirdest thing? If I were Chinese I wouldn’t have any of this. It seems there is no pictogram for dyslexia. If I were being taught in Finnish, it’s unlikely I’d be dyslexic. This is an overwhelmingly English condition. It’s the language, stupid, our irrational, fraught and contrary written tongue, that breeds misconceptions and misunderstandings that some of us never get into our thick heads. We can’t deal the memory cards, the exceptions to rules, the little charming eccentricities.

English was only recently regulated and systematised, when public schools had to turn out a large civil service and the mercantile class of clerks who all needed examining and filing. Before then, English was firstly a declaimed, sung, spoken, hot language. Not the chilly, starched memo-for-your-files, cc’d written one. But there’s no going back on it. It won’t return to the glorious free-for-all, extempore, idiosyncratic, phonic whoop of the 17th century. This is the way it is. And school’s currency is forever going to be words and numbers. If you can’t collect them and order them, it doesn’t matter how many sweets you count or pies you make or colourful drawings or pasta pictures. You are never going to be rich here. And we just have to live with that. Get on with the rest of our lives. If you offered most parents, indeed most dyslexics, the opportunity to spell like a Scrabble champion but that the price would be ugliness, they’d never take it. And anyway, how much do the rest of you remember about schoolwork?

The galvanising headmistress asked me if I’d talk to a few of the children about my experience with dyslexia. Of course, I said, through a pasty grin. She led me into assembly. You want me to take assembly? “Just a few words. They’re all very excited you’re here.” How long shall I talk? “Oh, 20 or 30 minutes, then questions.” I stood in front of this sea of blameless little faces, knowing that behind each of them there was already a room full of low esteem, full of catalogues of failure, a great weight of parental concern, and I wondered again at the horrible obstacle course we make of other people’s childhoods after we’ve f***ed up our own. And I caught sight of Zinzan, and I felt the anger, the hot fury for the wasted, tearful, silently worried, failed years of school, and I had a Spartacus moment. I started talking, rather too loudly. I told them this was their language, this English, this most marvellous and expressive cloak of meaning and imagination. This great, exclamatory, illuminating song, it belonged to anyone who found it in their mouths. There was no wrong way to say it, or write it, the language couldn’t be compelled or herded, it couldn’t be tonsured or pruned, pollarded or plaited, it was as hard as oaths and as subtle as rhyme. It couldn’t be forced or bullied or policed by academics; it wasn’t owned by those with flat accents; nobody had the right to tell them how to use it or what to say. There are no rules and nobody speaks incorrectly, because there is no correctly: no high court of syntax. And while everyone can speak with the language, nobody speaks for the language. Not grammars, not dictionaries. They just run along behind, picking up discarded usages. This English doesn’t belong to examiners or teachers. All of you already own the greatest gift, the highest degree this country can bestow. It’s on the tip of your tongue.

And then I caught sight of myself, standing like a declamatory ticktack man, bellowing like a costermonger, and I stopped and stared at the faces staring at me with expressions of utter, dyslexic incomprehension. From the back of the room, a teacher coughed.

Famed dyslexics

Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein are both believed to have been dyslexic (some suggest that Einstein was in fact autistic). Yet these great minds led the Renaissance and revolutionised physics respectively. The three-time F1 champion Jackie Stewart wasn’t diagnosed as a dyslexic until he was 42; he has confessed that without motor racing his frustration with the written word might have driven him to crime. As a child Keira Knightley also found reading scripts ‘excruciating’. ‘I was — and still am — dyslexic. My mother told me if I came to her every day with a book in my hand and a smile on my face I’d get an agent.’

Eddie Izzard attributes his surreal material to his ability to make ‘sideways connections’ which he says is down to his dyslexia. The billionaire Richard Branson believes that dyslexia actually helps him: ‘I assume everyone thinks like I do, so I say what I mean clearly and simply and cut out the business waffle.’ Toyah Willcox suffered at school and failed nine O-levels. Despite this, she has found a positive side. ‘Those with dyslexia tend to excel at something: for me that was acting. So it can prove to be an extraordinary gift’

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2010 9:47 am

    Having dyslexia does not mean that you or your child has difficulty learning subjects other than reading or is below average in intelligence. Anahi Newsletter

  2. kategladstone permalink
    June 4, 2013 4:19 pm

    Dyslexia is actually quite common in China — http://www.bing.com/search?q=dyslexia+chinese&form=APIPA1 — though the form of dyslexia that ales a difference in
    Chinese involves different parts of the brain from the form that makes a difference in English.

    Any English-Chinese dictionary larger than a phrasebook (there are several on-line) will show you how “dyslexia” is written in Chinese.

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