How Our Understanding of Dyslexia Has Changed
If you had been born a hundred, or two hundred, years earlier, the world would have been a very different place. If you were lucky enough to get an education, your classroom would also have been very different. You might have found yourself in a basic village school, with an untrained teacher trying to show you how to read and write. If your family could afford it, you might have been sent to a better school, where your teachers would have higher expectations. The rules would be strict. If you didn’t keep up with the class, you might be made to wear a dunce’s cap. You might even have been caned just for finding the work difficult. School was a tough place for everyone. For children who struggled with the lessons, it was especially difficult. What would quickly be recognized as a learning difficulty today was once considered a sign of bad behavior that needed to be punished. Awareness of dyslexia has grown since then. Although there are still children who go undiagnosed, there is a good chance that anyone entering the classroom today will meet a well-trained teacher who can recognize any problems. Learning difficulties like dyslexia will quickly be diagnosed, and the right kind of support will be available. Still, it is interesting to look back and see how far we have come.
The History of Dyslexia
In the past, dyslexia would rarely have been spotted. It is only in the last few centuries that education became available to large numbers of people. As literacy rates increased, the fact that some people struggled with numbers and letters became clear. Terms like “word blindness” were used to describe these problems, but they were poorly understood. We knew very little about child development or how to help people learn. Children who did not succeed at school were often falsely believed to be medically incapable of learning, or simply dismissed as badly behaved. Progress was made during the 20th century, when the term dyslexia became more common. It was recognized as a learning difficulty that should be approached as an educational problem more than a medical one. New educational methods were developed to help children who were identified as dyslexic. Children who would once have been dismissed as unteachable were by the 1980s being given the chance to learn in a way that worked for them. Doctors, psychologists and teachers all collaborated in working out what dyslexia was, why it occurred, and what could be done to help people affected by it.
The importance of the support systems that are in place to help students with learning disabilities like dyslexia is clear when we consider the experiences of previous generations. Poorly trained teachers who relied on techniques like rote learning did not know how to handle children who needed different kinds of help. Instead of offering additional support, they often shifted the blame onto the children themselves. A child might be labeled stupid or lazy because they struggled with the work. If they acted out in response to this criticism, they might even be marked as a troublemaker. It was all too easy for children who needed extra help to be neglected and drawn into bad behavior that could continue in later life. Problems such as drug addiction were often more common among people affected by undiagnosed learning disabilities. Those who succeeded often did so in spite of their teachers, not because of them, as described in the examples given by the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. The situation today is very different. Children whose educational needs are recognized early can receive the support they need in the classroom. Even if they still end up struggling with problems like addiction, treatment centers now offer programs that are specifically designed for people who are also affected by dyslexia. Help is now available for those who need it.
The University of Michigan reports that it is estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of people in the US are affected to some extent by a language-based learning disability. The most common of these is dyslexia. The number of people who have been identified as dyslexic has risen over the last 30 to 40 years. This increase did not reflect a change in the number of people affected by dyslexia. It has come about because dyslexia is much more likely to be recognized today. Doctors, teachers and parents are all more aware of conditions such as dyslexia. The signs that a child is struggling at school are more likely to be spotted early. Action can then be taken to ensure that the right diagnosis is made and that support is offered. Teachers and parents have many resources available to them, and publishers like Barrington Stoke are even producing books that are designed to be dyslexia-friendly. However, this was not always the case. Dyslexia has always existed, it just went unrecognized for far too long.
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