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Embracing Dyslexia - Crossing the chasm and saving lives

Opinion: Michael Hart, Ph.D., Child Psychologist

The term dyslexia was coined in the late 1880’s and comes from the Greek roots dys – meaning difficult – and lexia – meaning reading: difficulty in reading. One hundred years later, scientists had made great strides in understanding the causes as well as best practices in assessing and treating this most common, specific learning difference.

Now, 145 years later, we continue to refine our understanding of the underlying neuroscience and our educational interventions. Yet, we are still lagging in appreciating and embracing the profound social and emotional impact of dealing with this “invisible” disability.

Even today, a dyslexic child from a very early age often spends six or seven hours a day, five days a week, nine months out of the year in an environment that relentlessly pummels her with messages that there is something wrong with her, that she is a failure, or “stupid”. This disconnect, between the reality of her environment and her educational and emotional needs, often results in horrible anxiety, confusion and shame.

For undiagnosed adults, the anxiety, shame and fear may continue – often for the rest of their lives. They spend their lives attempting to avoid being exposed as illiterate, mentally deficient or unable to learn. They lose their jobs, relationships suffer, their health may even suffer. The shame, anger and confusion that dyslexics often feel can lead to social withdrawal or aggressive acting-out.

On an intimate emotional and social level, the costs are often significant.

On a cultural level, the costs are massive.


For undiagnosed adults, the anxiety, shame and fear may continue – often for the rest of their lives.

Martin’s Story

Martin is one of those students who spent nine months out of the year for over twelve years feeling fearful, ashamed and confused. Unfortunately, he chose to deal with it by becoming aggressive, and by cheating in school. He cheated on exams, changed his grade reports and lied to his parents for years. Anything to provide the illusion that he was not “stupid”. No adults understood his dilemma and he had nowhere to turn.

Early on in school education officials identified Martin as a “bad seed”. He was constantly fighting and getting suspended from school. This went on for years. All that time, Martin could not figure out why he just did not “get” learning to read and write. A part of him felt that he wasn’t “stupid” but he was so confused and terrified of being exposed that he chose the mask of anger to hide. He bobbed and weaved like a boxer to avoid detection.

In truth, Martin was and is a very sensitive person. His sensitivity intensified his anger and aggression because he felt he had no other option. Finally, in his last year of high school Martin again got into a fight, the last straw for his school, and one which prevented him from graduating.

He was at his nadir. After losing a full year, Martin, now 19 years old, begged and pleaded to be allowed to return to school. He was given one last chance. It was here where he was able to turn the corner. Not because of anything he really did (in the beginning anyway) but because one single teacher saw something in him. Martin was beaten, broken and lost but she looked behind that and carefully cultivated a trusting relationship. With trust came the opportunity to help him with his academic work after school. She helped him acquire study skills and pass college exams and ultimately gave him the confidence and capability to succeed in college and law school.

Like millions of children all over the world, Martin suffered needlessly for many, many years. Now in his seventies, the arc of his life completely changed because of that one teacher. He was one of the lucky ones. With help from his friends in college and his wife of almost 50 years, Martin has achieved considerable personal and professional success. But that feeling of never being good enough, the feelings of anger and depression are still sometimes with him. Fifty years after he suffered so needlessly, in spite of his subsequent success, Martin still sometimes feels those wounds.


The Cultural Impact

The research is clear that approximately 10 per cent of the global population has dyslexia. The reading disorder is neurobiologically-based and hereditary. Dyslexia knows no boundaries regarding gender, culture, geography or language. Incidence rates are amazingly consistent around the globe.

In the US, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of the 4th grade will end up in jail or on government subsistence. If a dyslexic receives help for reading in prison, there is a 16 per cent chance of returning to prison. If they don’t, there is a 70 per cent chance they will be incarcerated again.

Undiagnosed dyslexics are four times more likely to drop out of school. In the United States, the lifetime impact of lost wages due to dropping out of school is over USD 100 billion.

…the majority of teachers are not trained to understand language development and the connection to reading proficiency…If teachers are not educated about language development and reading, how should they be able to understand and appreciate the social and emotional consequences for dyslexic children…


Opinion-2_Small-1The Fundamental Issue

The fundamental question is why, if we know so much now about the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia, do so many children still suffer?

The answer lies in the disconnect between what the science of reading tells us, and what educators are still taught in university programmes and professional development courses. The science of reading reflects what we know about the science of language development. Capacity for language mastery deeply informs a person’s ability to read and write. And yet the majority of teachers are not trained to understand language development and the connection to reading proficiency.

In the US, three out of four elementary teacher preparation programmes still do not educate teachers about how children learn to read. Virtually no secondary school preparation programmes include curricula about reading and written language instruction, in spite of the fact that dyslexia is a lifelong issue.

How can we expect teachers to be able to address the needs of dyslexic children when they aren’t provided the education, training and resources to do so? The short answer is that we cannot. And if teachers are not sufficiently educated about language development and reading, they will not be able to understand and appreciate the social and emotional consequences for dyslexic children who are chronically misunderstood.

We need to cross this chasm between what we know from the science of reading, and how our teachers are taught and prepared for their work.


Opinion-2_Small-2A Call to Action

The worldwide call to action is clear. We need to cross this chasm between what we know from the science of reading, and how our teachers are taught and prepared for their work. We need to provide proper educational support and training during and after formal education. In addition to the science of reading and language, we need to sensitize educators to the oftentimes life-altering social and emotional damage and needless suffering that our dyslexic children and adults endure.

Largely due to the emergence of social media, there is global momentum in this direction. The silos are being broken down and more and more people are becoming aware of the pervasiveness of dyslexia, and the personal and societal implications of misunderstanding and inaction.

Let us leverage this global momentum. Let us leverage the scale of UNESCO in addressing this issue worldwide. Let us make sure that in addition to educating others about the science of dyslexia, the social and emotional impact is given proper attention as well.

A person’s social and emotional development so deeply informs how they make choices in life, how they interact with friends and loved ones, how they succeed in all aspects of their lives. It is our responsibility as leaders to understand and appreciate not only the science of dyslexia but the social and emotional toll as well.


Michael Hart, Ph.D. is a child psychologist with 25 years of experience in teacher training, clinical psychology and the diagnostic assessment of a full range of learning differences, including dyslexia. He is the founder and owner of and is currently providing webinars, online courses and onsite presentations and training regarding the proper educational care of dyslexic students.

Most recently, Dr. Hart gave the keynote address for the UNESCO MGIEP Learning Differences workshop in New Delhi, India.

Michael enjoys mentoring other professionals and is intensely focused on supporting teachers, specialists and parents as they become better informed and more experienced in the effective treatment of students who learn differently.