Why dyslexics get written off by teachers

A story caught my eye a while back about a university student who’d just graduated, despite being written off at school as worthless and ridiculed by university lecturers for misspelling.

The New Zealand school system in action, circa 1970…

It turned out the student had dyslexia, dyscalculia and dysgraphia, which sounds like a nightmare combination. In fact, all are manifestations of one basic issue: particular ‘hard-wiring’ which often includes a processing issue where specific signals end up tangling because of path ‘bottlenecks’. This has a variety of manifestations ranging from classic ‘dyslexia’, in which written letters ‘dance’; to audio dyslexia (same thing with phonemes), dyspraxia (same thing with motor control, causing co-ordination issues), dyscalculia (numbers), dysgraphia (handwriting), and synesthesia (in which senses tangle; for example, innocuous sounds, such as other people chewing, invoke real pain).

As far as I can discover, everybody has some aspects of all these issues – it’s a spectrum; but thanks to the medical profession having to categorise everything in isolated boxes and then ram people into those categories, the problem usually gets diagnosed as one of several supposedly isolated abnormalities depending on what’s manifesting. What it means is that some people with the issue can read and write OK but have motor control issues; or ‘hearing’ issues, or whatever. Some have synesthesia. Most actually have aspects of ‘all of the above’, often mild and perhaps unnoticeably in some respects.

It turns out that up to one in ten people apparently have at least one of these cognitive issues, meaning ‘dyslexia’ in its various forms is normal to the human condition. However, for a variety of reasons, the issue has been treated in the western diaspora as an abnormality that has to be corrected. Or it’s missed and those with it are written off as idiots.

The funny thing is that the same hard-wiring that produces symptoms of ‘dyslexia’ also leads to styles of ‘visual’ thinking, which is an easy way of conceptually integrating the shapes and patterns of the world. A vast amount of innovation comes from it – much of what has shaped the current world, for instance, is a product of people who were known dyslexics, and who think in such a way, such as Nikolai Tesla. Or Albert Einstein. His theories of relativity – Special and General – are simple to visualise in hindsight. But the cognitive leap needed to create the idea – to have the insight that maybe the universe is a zingy, stretchy, entity in which space, time, length, gravity, mass and the rest interact together… that’s something else. And, of course, Einstein is but one example.

The other thing about dyslexia is that it’s possible to induce it, if you hammer someone relentlessly enough. I have my own experience. I never had problems reading (quite the opposite), but as a kid at the turn of the 1970s I ran into issues with audio and motor co-ordination after Napier’s Nelson Park School decided that as a left-hander I was smudging the fountain pen they required all kids to use. Even then it was obsolete, but the fix wasn’t to get a ballpoint. Instead, the school was going to force me to swap hands. Tail wagging the dog, but all that mattered to the school was crushing pupils into a prescribed and narrow ‘normal’, to do which kids had to be first broken into traumatised submission to the teacher’s power.

It didn’t work. I couldn’t control my right hand, and no amount of punishment made any difference. I lost co-ordination. Finally a ‘hearing lag’ began, where all I’d hear was a garble before sounds resolved, typically ‘Oogle bargle womph, you idiot Wright.’ Repeated tests proved there was nothing physically wrong with my hearing.

Hi. I’m your teacher…

Because one teacher after another viewed this as deliberately challenging their power, they weren’t going to stop until I did what was physically impossible for me, or left the school, or was dead (on one occasion, I was told I would suffer punishments so severe I’d wish I was). Missing a punishment (as in, not disentangling the order to stay back to be punished) was the worst crime a pupil could commit, punishable by extreme measures designed to show who had the power. The outcome was that by 1972 I was hyper-alert, knowing I was targeted, knowing that the hammers of hell could slam out of the blue any second, no matter what I did. Worse, I knew I had to face this spectre of sudden assault out of nowhere every single day without relent – over things I hadn’t chosen and couldn’t control. I was nine. The abuse stopped when I left Nelson Park School, as did most of the cognitive problems, luckily for me.

Handedness is a spectrum, and these days, induced dyslexia (of some form) is one of the known consequences of forced-swap for heavily left-handed people.

The funny thing is that ‘dyslexia’ in any form seems innate to the human condition, and normal – but only seems to be defined as a ‘problem’ in the western cultural diaspora. I suspect there is something about the nature of western culture and languages that grates with the way this issue manifests on a raft of levels. And perhaps this says something about western thinking as a ‘flavour’ of the human condition. Thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018

2 thoughts on “Why dyslexics get written off by teachers

  1. One is tempted to hypothesize that the issue(s) are related to the individual capability for abstract thinking in some form or another, a quality that, until the last century or perhaps the last half of the nineteenth, wouldn’t have been considered of any importance at all by the vast majority of society, especially in the West.

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    1. I think that’s true. A lot of these issues only emerged when wrapped around the ‘modern’ western social view – the one that emerged with industrialisation during the eighteenth century. Add the push for ‘social conformity’ that flowed from the social militarism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and it’s a recipe for outcomes that disadvantage anybody unfortunate enough not to fit the prescribed pattern.


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