What is Dyslexia?

The Definition

Dyslexia comes from the Greek words 'dys', signifying dysfunctional or difficult, and 'lexia' meaning words. So, dyslexia is an inability of the mind to recognize and process particular language structures and content. This has an impact on the individual's ability to absorb, store, recall and express information causing him/her difficulties in performing some basic tasks in one or more areas. The extent of the inability, sensitivity of the language and the resulting consequences are unique to the individual, just like a fingerprint. Dyslexia can have an effect on reading, writing, listening, speaking or dealing with numbers and on visual items, sounds, direction, movement and time sense. Associated with dyslexia is disorientation which is interpreting things felt, seen or perceived in a different or opposite way from the way others experience them.

The Feel

The feel of dyslexia is like a blinding of the mind where the eyes can see without the brain observing and the ears can hear without the brain listening. Our mind can be blind to its surroundings; it happens to all of us, but the degree and frequency at which it happens varies from person to person. This blindness is more pronounced for those who have dyslexia than for those who have not and it can have a major effect on how one interacts with one's surroundings, on how one learns and performs everyday tasks and on one's wellbeing  generally. Under stress or pressure the feel can multiply to such a level that the mind can become blank and empty, creating a loss of control. Such stress can have a dramatic impact on the signs resulting from the disability.

The Signs

The resulting consequences and signs that the dyslexia produces and the way an individual deals with them is distinct and unique. Despite this, there are clear, common, well known signs that many with dyslexia do possess. These include difficulties in reading, writing, remembering, expressing one's self verbally, concentrating, organizing, sequencing, following instructions and managing time. Slowness in performing tasks, particularly communicative ones, and any assignment involving multi-tasking can be stressful. As a result of these inabilities many lack confidence, have low self esteem and a poor self image when dealing with language. Physical features such as clumsiness, a poor sense of direction and of distance are also common. However, many of the typical signs that dyslexics possess remain hidden and not shown openly because of individuals' compensation skills.

The Learning

How can dyslexics learn if they struggle to receive information particularly from reading and listening? Some language patterns and non-verbal information are easily understood with many having a high ability to analyze them and process them into knowledge. Nevertheless, many dyslexics are unable to use much of their knowledge because of their inability to store, recall and express it. Stored knowledge requires a spark to ignite it. The spark can come from language received, an inner thought or an experience. Dyslexics, because of their language deficiencies, rely considerably on thoughts and experiences. This is why I believe dyslexics learn most effectively through thinking, experiencing and doing; i.e. much of their learning is created from information within the mind rather than from outside sources. They learn in a variety of ways which is why many develop an extraordinary ability to learn. They compensate for their difficulties in reading, writing, listening, speaking or remembering by using, alternative, non-traditional learning methods which may require enhanced observation, analysis, creativity, logic and discovery abilities. These are their instruments of learning. In other words dyslexics become extraordinary learners because of the disability. Despite closing some learning paths, their difficulties open up others. For many with dyslexia, their problem lies not with the ability to learn but in finding and following suitable learning paths, particularly when one is forced to learn in an environment that uses learning tools that are more suited to others.

The Motivation

There is so much stigma attached to persons with dyslexia that the emphasis is on what they cannot do instead of what they can do. Focusing on abilities, setting realistic goals and achieving them are among the greatest forms of motivation for dyslexics. Many can achieve if they are placed in an environment which highlights their abilities rather than inabilities.

When facing massive struggles to reach a goal, dyslexics need to overcome many more obstacles compared with non-dyslexics. So where does the motivation to reach a goal come from? What must be realized is that each obstacle overcome is in itself a goal achieved; hence, the persons concerned are achieving all the time.

The Compensation

Compensation is a natural form of behaviour used to cover up and hide weaknesses and inabilities. Many dyslexics can achieve on an equal level with others but it is how they achieve that is hidden. For example, when teachers see the results of a student's work, they may not know it may have taken 3 hours to complete instead of an expected 30 minutes. An expert compensator is one who has a language deficiency but shows no obvious signs. Often one needs to mislead, make excuses, or lie, in order to save embarrassment and humiliation. Such compensation skills are so necessary that not only do they become habits, they are done subconsciously. They become an ingrained part of one's everyday behaviour. Furthermore, this need to compensate is so profound that I believe in many cases a person with a deeper form of a disability is overlooked compared with someone with a milder form of dyslexia, for three possible reasons. Firstly, one with a deeper form has a far stronger need to compensate and apply coping strategies; hence, their weaknesses and inabilities are more hidden. Secondly, there is the need to use more extreme alternative learning methods. Thirdly, one may have inherited extremely poor linguistic skills but possess outstanding thinking and creative skills. The ability to compensate is very important to dyslexics. By hiding their disability and adapting to the environment without showing any obvious signs, they prove to themselves that they can survive and mix with others on equal terms, thus boosting their confidence and giving themselves  a great sense of achievement. Anything less, and being treated otherwise, can be a sign of failure.

The Terminology

There are many different definitions given for dyslexia, most of which are wrong and misleading. Dyslexia is a language disability not a learning one. Being labeled as having a learning disability can be degrading and insulting to many dyslexics, particularly those with an extraordinary ability to learn. Having language difficulties can, of course, affect one's ability to learn, but awareness of having an effect on something and being something are two entirely different things.

Depending upon the context and situation, words to describe a person who has a disability need to be very carefully chosen. The following terms can be inappropriate unless they are clearly defined in the context in which they are used:

Disabled learner – suggests that the individual is unable to learn when in fact he or she can (except perhaps individuals with severe disabilities)

Slow learner – many of these learners may have difficulties academically but are intelligent socially and are quick learners when dealing with people. The reverse is also applicable where some have high academic intelligence but have difficulties solving social problems and interacting with people.

Dyslexic – as already mentioned, a disability is like a fingerprint with each individual having his or her distinct pattern and structure. Dyslexic suggests that all people in this group have the same signs, difficulties and similar ways of dealing with dyslexia, when in fact these features are distinct and unique to the individual.

Communication disability – many who have a language disability have an exceptional ability to communicate by expressing themselves through art, music, and movement.

So what terminology can be more appropriate to describe learners who have a disability? The one aspect these learners have in common is that the disability affects how they learn and achieve. They are alternative learners because they rely more on alternative learning methods than on traditional ones. Those who do not have a disorder are traditional learners.

The Population

The number of dyslexics and their impact on society are far greater than people perceive. For various communities, stated figures can vary anywhere from 4% to 25%, hence it is not possible to any degree of accuracy to estimate the population of those who have dyslexia and other related disabilities. There are two major reasons for this. Firstly, anyone who has a disability does not want to show his or her weaknesses and inabilities and so will use all means to hide and compensate for them in order to save face, embarrassment and humiliation. Many feel a great sense of personal satisfaction being able to survive and mix in a society without showing any signs of a disability. As a result many go undiagnosed. Secondly, there are not enough professionals or trained people to carry out diagnoses and support the volumes of people who have a disability.