Dyslexia is a developmental reading disorder affecting up to 15 percent of the U.S. population. It is characterized by difficulty with interpreting and processing language. More specifically, dyslexics encounter trouble "decoding" symbols such as letters. Printed text literally moves around the page or falls off it entirely. Letters blur, become blocks of color, reverse order and transform themselves in an array of other non-decipherable configurations.
The above description is accurate, but incomplete. It emphasizes the downside and ignores the upside. Thanks to the work of Tom West, whom I met Feb. 11 at a workshop at the McLean School in Montgomery County, and many others the perceptions around dyslexia are shifting.
A more nuanced and hope-inspiring viewpoint balances the negatives and positives and asserts that many dyslexics have other cognitive skills in abundance, including visualization and intuition. They can also see problems and solutions in the big-picture frame and can detect obscure patterns in unique and, at times, revolutionary ways.
These skills and talents have proved enormously beneficial in science and technology, mathematics, the arts, and business. Well-cited examples include the work of Einstein, Jobs, Mandelbrot, Picasso, Cruise, and Branson, but it is crucially important to recognize less well-known and exalted people who aren't headed for everlasting fame.
Some achieve extraordinary recognition and are recognized leaders in their fields. Carol Greider won a Nobel Prize in 2009 in Medicine for her work in molecular biology. Fred Epstein was a pediatric neurosurgeon who pioneered techniques to treat children with severe injuries. Richard Rogers is an architect who has designed buildings all over the world, including the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Diane Swonk is an economist and advisor to the Federal Reserve Board.
Others are living highly successful and productive lives. Melissa Rey won the Discovery Education Young Scientist Award in 2008. Another is Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker, who won a Guggenheim Award and Maya Deren Award of the American Film Institute. Yet another is a former student of mine who has managed to become an excellent reader and writer and who made the "A" Honor Roll list this year at ! There are millions more like them.
Overcoming the challenges of dyslexia can be daunting, however, and the educational system needs to adapt to meet their needs. I've learned alot regarding these challenges from my wife Indira, who overcame a lack of essential accomodations in elementary and secondary school to eventually graduate from law school.
Our society, unbeknownst to me beforehand, is heavily geared to text-based learning and work activities. The emphasis on reading text, which creates "winners" and "losers" through standardized tests and entrance exams, creates enormous and damaging confusion, doubt, and depression among many dyslexic students (as well as other non-conformers) whose skills and talents are not rewarded or even recognized. These students need to be fully accomodated and every attempt needs to be made to ensure they do not feel broken. For example, dyslexic students can be given auditory materials to accompany school texts and assessed through oral exams that place them on a more level playing field.
Our education system needs to evolve from the factory model that admittedly works well for some (but is largely a sorting mechanism) to a garden model that serves the interests of all students (and allows their talents to flourish). It's distressingly ironic that visionaries such as Steve Jobs are so celebrated for upending the status quo and pushing innovation while in the schools the scope for creativity and imagination is often crowded out by political imperatives around testing and quantitative measure (important as they are, too much emphasis on them lowers student and teacher morale and distorts the meaning of learning).
Dyslexics and other non-conformists need time and space to grow within school contexts. Their creative genius and divergent thinking needs to be incorporated into classrooms and not stifled. Their teachers need to have the flexibility and freedom to nurture their strengths and talents while helping them to reach their potential on their terms.
The upside of dyslexia is being recognized more now than ever before, and whether supported and accomodated or not, dyslexics will continue to see the world differently and will continue to shape it in magnificent ways. The rest of us need to do a better job of adapting to and learning from them than has been the case up to now.