In many countries, dyslexia is classified as a disability, but there is a shift towards seeing it as a gift rather than a disability.

Dyslexia is not a disability – it’s a gift. It means that I and many other dyslexic thinkers can portray the world through images because we think in images.”

Sally Gardner – British children’s writer and illustrator.  

Dyslexia: a Disability?

In the UK, the Public Sector Equality Duty (section 149 of the Act) came into force on 5 April 2011. In this document, a disabled person is defined as having “a physical or mental impairment which has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities.”

Under this legislation, dyslexia and other learning difficulties may be considered a disability depending on the effect the condition is having on one’s daily life.

Many people fought long and hard to get people to accept that dyslexia even existed and then went on to fight further for it to be recognised as a disability.

The reason for the struggle was to force authorities to provide the right sort of support and help in the education system and in the workplace.

Depending on the policies of the country you live in, there are advantages to having an assessment of dyslexia.  There can also be some downsides.

Arguments for assessment:

  • Gives you and/or your child an explanation for their difficulties.
  • You may feel a great sense of relief when you realise you/your child is not ‘stupid’, ‘lazy’ or ‘unmotivated’.
  • It can open up access to support e.g learning support, specialist teacher (this will depend on individual schools and local or national government policy.)
  • You/your child might be entitled to get assistive technology such as a computer and software, extra time in exams, breaks during exams, reader and/or scribe in class or exams, etc.
  • You/your child might be offered a reduced time table and exemptions from subjects such as foreign languages.

Arguments against assessment:

  • You/your child may begin to identify with the label – might use it as an excuse, “I can’t do that because I’m dyslexic”, preventing them from attempting certain tasks.
  • You/your child may become too reliant on the support in school. This can become a crutch, encourage dependency and it may be harder to develop into an independent learner.
  • If your child’s school does not offer the assessment free of charge, it can be expensive to go to a private assessor.
  • In the UK and Ireland, dyslexia is seen as a ‘high incident’ issue and often an assessment does not automatically mean additional support as the school is expected to already be dealing with it.

In the UK, companies are required to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for any employees with dyslexia. However, whether to tell your employer you have dyslexia can be a difficult decision to make. How can you be sure they will look on you sympathetically? Could they use your disclosure against you in some way, for example to block promotion or to get you to leave?  

This really is a very difficult question and we have met many adults who have spent years finding innovative ways to hide their dyslexia, causing stress.

People find themselves held back in many ways, such as not going for promotion if it means more paperwork or being afraid to take a risk on a new job in case they can’t cope.

Although dyslexia strictly speaking refers to difficulties with reading and spelling, it often goes hand in hand with other challenges too. These problems associated with dyslexia can feel extremely disabling especially if there is a lack of understanding and support.

The view of dyslexia as a disability has led to a ‘medicalisation’ of the language around it. You hear words like: impairment, suffer from, deficit, defect, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment etc. With these negative connotations, it is no wonder that there is a new fight to ‘rebrand’ dyslexia and show its positive aspects, so we hear a great deal now about it being a ‘gift’ rather than a disability.  

Dyslexia: a Gift?

We know that many people with dyslexia have significant strengths in areas such as visuospatial skills, problem-solving and creative thinking. They are often very good lateral and strategic thinkers.   Many company CEOs are dyslexic and according to a study by Julie Logan, Professor of Entrepreneurship at London’s Cass Business School, 35% of U.S. and 20% of UK entrepreneurs have dyslexia.

As people feel able to be more open about it, we are hearing increasingly about highly successful people who also have dyslexia – people from all different areas of life. Here are some examples:

Actors: Jennifer Aniston, Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves, Kiera Knightley

Scientists and inventors: Albert Einstein, Michael Faraday, Pierre Curie, Thomas Edison

Entrepreneurs: Richard Branson, Jamie Oliver, Henry Ford, Anita Roddick

Artists & writers: Agatha Christie, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leonardo Da Vinci, Pablo Picasso

Is there something about the way a brain with dyslexia operates that makes people particularly gifted in certain areas? We don’t really know, yet.

Without a doubt, it can be highly motivating for people who are struggling with their learning to hear about gifted, successful people who have succeeded despite or some would say because of, their dyslexia.

On the other hand, what if you have dyslexia and don’t display genius-level gifts and talents?  Is that going to act as a demotivator or another reason to feel somehow inadequate?

Our view is that everyone deserves to be accepted and respected for their own uniqueness.

Dyslexia: an Expression of Neurodiversity?

FMRI scans have shown that the brain of a person with dyslexia is using different areas to process language in comparison with people who have no problems with reading and spelling.

We know that people with dyslexia have difficulty with hearing and sequencing sounds (referred to as a ‘phonological deficit’ by Sally Shaywitz) and they may also have difficulty with visual processing.  

For us, at JLS, this merely points to a different way of thinking and processing information, not a disability or impairment. We look at the range of thought, inventiveness and creativity that has enabled humans to survive and thrive in many diverse environments. As a species, our ability to think differently from each other is a strength.

Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species.

The only ‘norm’ against which we measure ability/disability is constructed by each society. In our society, literacy is seen as essential – the ability to learn to read and write has become the norm and synonymous with intelligence.  People who find these skills a challenge are, therefore seen as ‘disabled’ because their brains are not learning in the way a ‘normal’ brain does.

At JLS, we say there is no ‘norm’ – just diversity. The education system needs to adapt to differences, not pathologize them.

We have seen hundreds of children, young people and adults learn how to read and spell effectively and go on to succeed when provided with the means to learn that works for them.

This leads us to conclude that there is a mismatch between how a particular brain needs to learn and the way we are teaching now in our education system.

“We see dyslexia, not as a disability but as an expression of neurodiversity; pointing to a discrepancy between how a person is taught and how they learn.” Sara and Paula