If you’re involved with education or neurodiversity advocacy, chances are you came across a recent article in the guardian ‘The battle over dyslexia’ by Sirin Kale. The main part of The article explores Julian Elliott (an educational psychologist) views on dyslexia. Naturally, as a dyslexic person, I was intrigued by the headline alone and wanted to see what it was about. As I began to read this article, I thought I recognised this debate that Julian was presenting, then I realised I had watched a YouTube video where he was talking about this topic before. So this idea wasn’t 100% new to me, but previously I didn’t give it much thought. However, now I am more intrigued and want to try and grasp an understanding of Elliott’s reasoning for his claims.
The article starts with Elliott’s early experiences of working with dyslexic children as an educational psychologist. He noted that many children struggle to read; some were labelled as dyslexic, and others weren’t. However, the difficulties dyslexic children had with reading and writing varied significantly according to Elliot, and he questioned if dyslexia was a condition at all due to the lack of formal diagnostic criteria. Since then, Elliot has strongly argued that there is no difference between a person who struggled with reading and writing and a dyslexic person. Therefore Elliott considers the label of dyslexia meaningless and rather than focusing on diagnostic labels; we should focus on helping these children to read and write.
Now, my own personal view is that I am a fan of labels. If I didn’t have the label, I would not have been able to access support, get reasonable adjustments needed, and unlikely to be able to complete two university degrees. Well, I don’t know if I’ve passed my master’s yet as I only finished a few days ago at the time of writing. Nonetheless, Elliot’s argument indicates that you shouldn’t need a label to access support (which I do agree with).
There is no doubt a societal issue where predominantly middle-class and wealthier families can access a dyslexia diagnosis a lot easier than working-class families and people from other disadvantage backgrounds. However, through my dyslexia label (and also my autism and ADHD labels) I have been able to meet other people with the same conditions as me, relate to them and build a sense of community. Something that I would not be able to achieve with neurotypical people. Also, I find it incredibly helpful to have a word that explains my difficulties and that is generally universally understood (even if it’s a basic understanding from others) in my adult life. If I had only received support in school and had no information about my dyslexia as an adult, it would have been a massive disadvantage which would have affected my ability to hold down a job.
One of the core arguments made by Elliot was that reading and writing difficulties in dyslexia could vary significantly. From my experience of working in education and studying psychology, I have found that each neurodivergent condition affects the individual in different ways, and this is not just the case for dyslexia. So I think Elliott is right to say that the reading and writing difficulties for each individual do present differently. Still, I think the dyslexia label certainly has its benefits in my experience and helped me to understand the nature of my difficulties as a child.
In terms of diagnosing dyslexia, I am not an expert, but I have spoken to several people who carry out dyslexia assessments. They told me about the discrepancies in being able to define dyslexia and how can dyslexia be effectively tested for, as there doesn’t seem to be a single standard gold test. I think this is the crux of the issue that Elliott is talking about, as there is no one clear way to diagnose dyslexia currently, so we shouldn’t be labelling children as dyslexic at all who struggle to read and write. However, other neurodivergent conditions can present with diagnostic issues, such as the gender and cultural biases in the current diagnostic tools for autism. Autism is understood to be a spectrum condition, with a common phrase used ‘when you’ve met one autistic person, you have only met one autistic person’.
Could this be similar for dyslexia? Where dyslexia is an umbrella term that describes a broad range of people who experience challenges with reading and writing, but it doesn’t always present in the same way? Possibly (that’s another whole debate in itself) but I think it’s unfair to deny people the label that helps give them a better understanding of themselves just because the diagnostic tests (and criteria) are not ideal yet when they’re people clearly having challenges with reading and writing. However, I do believe that individualised support is essential and is based on the students’ needs. So I am in favour of labels, but I see it as a starting point. The next step is to understand how dyslexia impacts the individual and then to work out what is the most appropriate support for the individual person.
I have mixed thoughts on Elliot’s views. However, I fundamentally believe in dyslexia (even if it’s not fully understood yet) and that the label can be incredibly helpful. What I also consider crucial is that dyslexia diagnosis needs to be fully accessible (and not depend on people’s finances) and we look at the individual needs of dyslexic people, so that the support can be tailored to benefit each dyslexic person.
The full aricle can be accessed here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2020/sep/17/battle-over-dyslexia-warwickshire-staffordshire
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