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The Elephant in the Room: Lexism and Dyslexia Debate

School child reading experiencing lexism
Craig Collinson Researcher Development Fellow Edgehill University writing on Dyslexia

Dr Craig Collinson

Researcher Development Fellow, Edge hill University

In this feature Dr Craig Collinson, dyslexic academic explores lexism and the barriers faced by Dyslexics.

To deal with the barriers and challenges faced by dyslexics we need to talk about the elephant in the room. To tackle the consequences of racism, sexism and homophobia – without first acknowledging the existence of those phenomena – would be of questionable value. Likewise, with dyslexics, one has to acknowledge the existence of Lexism. As both a dyslexic and an academic I write on Lexism. If you were to ask me, however, ‘what is dyslexia?’ – I would struggle to respond. First, there are a number of competing and contradictory theories. Second, those theories tend to be conceptually confused, and built on a number of essentialist – and often scientistic – assumptions.

What do I mean by that? – well to assume something is essentialist is to assume that one is dealing with a thing, with a single essence. This essence can be defined, and what is more should be defined, for it to be recognised as ‘real’. In this case, it sits within the realm of professionals who somehow know this essence. Scientistic, in this instance, is the misapplication of science to social questions which can lead to pseudoscientific claims. This might sound familiar if you have read anything on the so called ‘dyslexia debate’.

Dyslexia is a thing, so the thought goes. What is more, for dyslexics to be dyslexic they must have this thing called dyslexia. I think this is a mistake. Find me two dyslexics who are exactly the same – you will struggle; as the cliché goes, every dyslexic is different. Dyslexics exist as a group because of the commonalties within their educational experiences. Ask a dyslexic about ‘their experiences of dyslexia’ and the chances are that what you will get, in fact, is experiences of prejudice within or outside of education. So, what we are talking about exists in the realm of the sociologist or educationalist, not that of the psychologist. In other words, we are talking about Lexism and not ‘dyslexia’ (whatever that is).

Another problem arises from the failure to define this mysterious essence; and so we lurch from one extreme to the other. The other extreme is to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. What do I mean by this? Well, some psychologists are disappointed when this quest for essentialist definition becomes self-evidently mistaken. They have realised that pseudoscientific claims have crept into the dyslexia debate. Unfortunately, in rejecting the existence of dyslexia they are assuming that dyslexics’ existence (why we say dyslexics are ‘real’) is reliant on this essence – which of course they could not find because it was never there. But this was not why we need the concept ‘dyslexic’. We need the concept to acknowledge the existence of individuals who have a wide range of intellectual abilities, struggle to acquire literacy but have sufficient education. So perhaps dyslexics exist for another reason – which is not the realm of the psychologist at all.

I started my academic training as a historian – so I find many theories of dyslexia historically naïve. They tend to assume norms of literacy which until very recently did not exist, and only exist now as social constructions. I moved on to applied philosophy for my doctoral study. I started to question what makes me dyslexic. I could not at that time give an answer. Dyslexia did not explain my experiences of prejudice or hostility inside or outside formal education. I began to reflect upon my own identity – reading the works of the likes of Edward Said and Paolo Freire, I began to see that I was part of an Othered minority. ‘Othering’ is the process academics refer to when a rhetoric of ‘us and them’ is employed. Racism and homophobia, for example, are commonly known forms of Othering. The Othering of dyslexics is Lexism. What counts as the Othering of dyslexics?

In my academic work I refer to Lexism as the normative practices and assumptions associated with literacy which Other and discriminate against dyslexics. ‘Normative practices and assumptions’ require some explanation. When academics refer to something being normative, we generally mean following a social rule or expectation, or infringing upon that social rule or expectation (think of spelling as a set of social expectations which a dyslexic is consistently unable to meet.) The remit of the Dyslexia Commission is normative matters relating to the education system.

The normative practices and assumptions associated with literacy which discriminate against, or Others, dyslexics comes in a variety of forms. The blatant and unintellectual, based not on scholarship, just blind ignorance.  So, for example, the often-expressed belief by some that: dyslexics are just stupid and lazy – or dyslexia is the excuse used by middle-class parents for their child’s difficulties. I was the first member of my immediate family to go to university, so I find such claims idiotic. But the Commission’s remit is to de facto deal with more subtle forms of Lexism built into the education system, aspects of our culture or short-term policy actions which discriminate unfairly against dyslexics.

Examples are needed, they might not be palatable to some.

  • Assuming that if you are educated and intelligent you will read and spell as people believe you should read and spell.

Well, here we have an aspect of long-standing cultural assumptions. Literacy is often mistakenly taken as the correlate to education. Being a dyslexic with four degrees I am used to the confusion this can cause outside academia. Notably, however, my academic colleagues show far greater acceptance; dyslexic academics are far more common that the person in the street would realise.

  • Blocking access to the student loan book for those students who do not have GCSE English and Maths.
  • Introducing penalties for spelling grammar and punctuation in exams other than English language.

Those are policy dictates – the first of these would have meant I would have been unable to go to university. When I heard of this new policy, I interpreted it as ‘we don’t like your kind round here’. Enough said. The second policy dictate I critiqued in an article published in the British Journal of Special Education in 2018; entitled ‘Do I have to spell it out? Dyslexia, Lexism, and an object of comparison‘ – I argued at length that this policy is Lexist.

  • To create barriers to education through gatekeeping practises which leave parents frustrated and children distressed.

Here the Commission has its work cut out. Anyone involved in SEN knows what that sentence means, and the problems inherent in the current system. None of those examples have anything to do with dyslexia as a psychological theory – or a family of theories. It is Lexism; it is the elephant in the room. I wish the Dyslexia Commission the best of luck – they will need it.

Dyslexia Commission

Chaired by Matt Hancock MP, a former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the dyslexia commission will bring together all levels of government with civil society bodies and industry to consider ways to implement change. 

In 2022, there will be a series of policy announcements that will make a significant difference to people with dyslexia. This year, policy institute Curia is to partner with the British Dyslexia Association and other leading organisations in the special educational needs and disability community (SEND) to consider ways to make implementation as impactful as possible.

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