Monday, 26 January 2009

Slysdexia

Accidentally Semi-Serious Article, orignally posted on Deadjournal

Today I was doing some research for a job application, and accidentally found out that dyslexia is fictional. Fantastic news for all those dyslexics out there who were under the impression that they had difficulties concentrating on reading because words jump off the page, mix themselves up, replace themselves with blocks of colour at random, or any of the other problems associated with the condition.

The surely Nobel-worthy discovery was made by a Labour MP from Manchester, Graham Stringer, in this here column.

Ordinarily I would jump at the chance to rip on dyslexia, not least in order to annoy my dyslexic younger sister. You know the type of thing… it’s just a made-up term for stupid people, dyslexic walks into a bra...

Unfortunately, Stringer seems to genuinely believe that it’s a made up disease – ‘political correctness gone maaad’ and other clich├ęs. Essentially, like Dawkins on Christianity, Stringer doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.

For a start, he insinuates that being dyslexic and being functionally illiterate are essentially the same thing. Bollocks. Functional illiteracy means a person can’t use reading or writing in everyday situations. Dyslexia is a learning disability that means the sufferer has trouble learning to read and write, but it doesn’t stop them from doing so entirely. The brain processes information in a different way, and whilst that can cause frustration and lead to people giving up (ergo sliding down the helter skelter of functional illiteracy), if they get support there’s no reason it shouldn’t be overcome.

I know several dyslexic people who have not only made it through university, but done pretty damn well. Being functionally illiterate would have hindered them somewhat. Not that being dyslexic didn’t pose problems, but you know what I mean. If the two conditions were the same, they wouldn’t have been able to fill out the application.

Stringer contextualises his findings in his regular visits to Strangeways, where many of the inmates are illiterate. He thinks that if literacy rates were higher, crime rates would decrease. That’s probably true – if you can’t read or write you’ll have problems getting a job and you’ll be poor and therefore potentially more tempted to go out on the nick. It’s not rocket science, it’s the gospel according to school. But how does this relate to dyslexia, you might ask? Well, the reason people are illiterate is down to bad teaching. And when bad teachers get caught out, they say “o hai, iz not ma fawlts tho, the childs are dyslexic.”

“If dyslexia really existed,”
bristles our intrepid hero, “then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.” Now, I’ve looked this up (on Wikipedia), and apparently literacy rates in South Korea are indeed 99%, so that checks out. Nicaragua meanwhile, is at 80.1%. And the United Kingdom? Well, 99% again, actually. What kind of government are we dealing with, that doesn’t Wiki its figures before writing an article about the fictional nature of a condition whose existence is supported by mounds of ongoing research?

Towards the end of his diatribe, it transpires that Stringer is actually trying to make a case for something called synthetic phonics, a teaching method piloted in West Dumbartonshire which, according to him, has achieved great results and all but eradicated functional illiteracy in the area, which we can all agree is A Good Thing. But he incites ridiculous examples to make his point, like some idiot medical student saying she’s discriminated against as a dyslexic by having to do written exams.

“I don’t know about anybody else,” he says (the subtext of course being that of course he knows about everyone else, and more besides), “but I want my doctors, and for that matter, engineers, teachers, dentists and police officers to be able to read and write.” Well, fair enough.

Except I looked up what the idiot was actually arguing, and it seems the case goes a little bit beyond what Stringer mentions in his column. Quel surprise. Her problem was specifically with multiple-choice (ie not written) exams, for two reasons.

1) It discriminates against dyslexic students because the nature of the condition, as mentioned above, is such that words seem to move about on the page and it’s quite difficult to read and select the correct answer. A further point might be one that my sister explained, which is that she finds it hard to go back and check over what she’s written - she sees what is supposed to be there rather than what is actually in front of her.
2) “In normal day life, you don't get given multiple choice questions to sit. Your patients aren't going to ask you 'here's an option and four answers. Which one is right?”

I think on balance I would like my doctor to know what’s wrong with me based on a little bit more knowledge than picking at random out of four possibilities. And I know some are picked at random (about 50% of them according to the medical student I lived with in first and second year of university…). The main alternative to multiple-choice papers is apparently a ‘user input quiz’, which asks a question and requires you to come up with an answer yourself. Kind of like an old skool exam, then. We’ve all heard how education has gone to crap; surely Stringer ought to support this girl’s advocation of a return to the good old days, before dyslexics were invented?

It’s one thing to say that the education system has failed some people, and another to say that dyslexia doesn’t exist. The same system has failed both groups, and whilst there presumably is overlap between the functionally illiterate and the dyslexic, numerous other factors are at work here. From just a few weeks of experience working in a ‘community’ library I know that truancy, drug taking and crime affect young people who are well able to read and write, but don’t bother because it’s not cool, or because they don’t have to, or because they think there are better things to do. There’s a whole culture of choosing to be ignorant despite abundant resources and support being available – ten year old girls saying they can’t wait till they’re sixteen cause then they can “get a hoose wi ma mate fae Livvy, it’ll be brrruuwyant.” School is shite, reading is boring, and so on. It’s not because they're incapable - far from it. They just aren’t interested, and nobody is giving them any compelling reasons why they should be.

Furthermore, schools quite often don’t pick up on it, assuming instead that the kids who read slowly or can’t spell are just thick. Why bother to put someone forward for the test if they’re just slow? It’s expensive to do. Better to just bung them on a table with the other stupid kids and let a classroom assistant deal with it.

If synthetic phonics is as good as Stringer thinks, he should be campaigning for it using the results from West Dumbartonshire as proof, not questioning the existence of dyslexia by means of tenuous comparisons with famous prisons. I don’t know why anyone would be so wilfully obtuse in their arguments when it sounds like a perfectly sound case could be made without them. There again, I’m not a member of parliament. Yay democracy.

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