Dyslexia: Advantage or Disability or Both
By John Russell, Ed.D.
Over the last several years, successful dyslexics have received an unprecedented amount of attention in the popular press, so it is fitting that this year’s speaker at The Windward School’s annual Robert J. Schwartz Memorial Lecture is the distinguished neuroscientist and educator, Dr. Gordon Sherman. His talk described the value of cerebrodiversity (our species’ collective neural heterogeneity), of which dyslexia is a byproduct, and challenge conventional assumptions about socially and culturally defined disabilities. In an article that Dr. Sherman published in the journal of The International Dyslexia Association, Perspectives on Language and Literacy (Winter 2010), he refers to the work of the renowned scientist Dr. Norman Geschwind (1982), who posited that dyslexia’s advantages may outweigh its disadvantages, stating, “One of the most important lessons to be learned from the genetic study of many diseases in recent years has been that the paradoxically high frequency of certain conditions is explained by the fact that the important advantages conferred on those who carry the predisposition to these conditions may outweigh the obvious dramatic disadvantages.” Thirty years later an ever increasing number of case studies and a small number of research studies are fueling renewed interest in Geschwind’s seminal hypothesis about dyslexic advantages.
Fast-forward from Geschwind’s 1982 report to the present. In the January 26, 2014 edition of The New York Times, in an article entitled What Drives Success, Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld examine the traits that enable certain cultural/ethnic groups to succeed when others struggle. In their article, Chua and Rubenfeld report, “It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex—a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite—insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.” I was struck by the numerous parallels between these traits and the characteristics of the highly accomplished dyslexics featured in Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, David and Goliath. In his book, Gladwell presents a case study of David Boies, the prominent, highly successful attorney. As a dyslexic, Boies faced challenges as a student, most notably his difficulty with reading. Gladwell points out that it was these very struggles that led Boise to develop compensating strategies similar to the three described by Chua and Rubenfeld that have, in turn, made him the successful attorney that he is today. There are many other individuals who ascribe their successes in various fields to their dyslexia.
Gladwell notes, “You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child.” Then he provocatively asks, “Or would you?” Dyslexia, according to Gladwell, is a “desirable difficulty” in that there are dyslexics who appear to benefit from their disability. As an example, he cites the results of a study conducted by Julie Logan (2009) who found that more than a third of the entrepreneurs she surveyed—35 percent—identified themselves as dyslexic. The study also indicated that dyslexics were more likely than non-dyslexics to delegate authority and to excel in oral communication and problem solving. Gladwell suggests that dyslexia has blessed these individuals with these abilities that make them particularly well suited for entrepreneurship, implying causality from this apparent correlation.
In 2012, Drs. Brock and Fernette Eide published The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Potential of the Dyslexic Brain, in which they contend, like Geschwind before them, that dyslexia, or the “dyslexic processing style,” isn’t just a barrier to learning how to read and spell; it’s also a reflection of an entirely different pattern of brain organization and information processing—one that predisposes a person to important abilities along with the well-known challenges. In The Wall Street Journal article “Dyslexia Workarounds: Creativity Without a Lot of Reading” (April 1, 2013), Melinda Beck reports on successful dyslexics like Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy, Cleveland Clinic CEO and thoracic surgeon Dr. Toby Cosgrove, and actor and children’s book author Henry Winkler, in presenting the positive side of dyslexia. “I frankly think that dyslexia is a gift,” Dr. Cosgrove tells Beck. “If you are supported in school and your ego remains intact, then you emerge with a strong work ethic and a different view of the world.” Unfortunately, that turns out to be one mighty big “if.” While the case studies and anecdotes attributing an advantage to dyslexia are inspirational, they can also be dangerously misleading.
The sad truth of the matter is appropriate support for dyslexics is lacking in most schools across the country, and bright, capable, learning disabled students face plummeting self-confidence simply because there is a lack of understanding about their true capabilities. Far too often, they experience chronic academic frustration and outright failure. As a result, students frequently come to The Windward School with feelings of insecurity that reinforce their academic struggles, but once they are remediated, they exhibit that deep seated belief in themselves that is critical to success. What our students continuously tell us confirms this. One student recently wrote, “At my former school, if I didn’t answer a question correctly, the other students would laugh at me and I would feel very stupid and embarrassed. Being different felt awful. Although my experiences at my former school were dreadful, since being at Windward I have achieved so much academic success that I believe in myself.”
The Windward School is committed to helping create supportive school environments for all learning disabled students. #
Dr. John Russell is Head of the Windward School.