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Georgetown Patch: U.S. Dyslexic Community Developing Positive Identity and Moving Forward

Categories: In the News

This article, by Steve Dingledine, was posted to the Georgetown Patch site on April 25, 2013. 

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Dyslexia MeetingMotivated educators, artists, scientists, and business people recently gathered in a leafy suburb of Norwalk, Conn. with one goal in mind: redefining dyslexia. The agenda: to forge a new image and identity for dyslexic individuals, push for a more nurturing education system that balances remediation with the acknowledgement and development of previously ignored strengths, address the needs of nearly invisible adults who may have struggled their entire lives to compensate for their learning differences, and to build a dynamic community capable of rallying around the agenda and driving change. The event, officially titled the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation Conference on Dyslexia and Talent, was organized by Brock and Fernette Eide, authors of "The Dyslexic Advantage: Unlocking the Hidden Advantage of the Dyslexic Brain."  The Eides, with backgrounds in neurology and education, have stimulated a growing movement towards redefining the condition, which affects approximately 20% of the US population according to the Yale Center on Dyslexia and Creativity. A central issue the community worked on resolving is whether dyslexia should be considered a learning disability or a learning difference. The "positive psychology" movement in the research community has been challenging the disability label for over a decade to the relief of two generations of dyslexics who grew up fearing failure, struggling to keep up in school, and feeling ashamed of the resulting learning deficits. In parallel, the learning difference position is steadily strengthening as the neuro-scientific knowledge around dyslexia expands. University researchers presented recent evidence, based on advanced imaging technology, that the hardwire patterns and structures of the dyslexic brains are, in fact, different (A great explanation of the hMRI imaging used to detect dyslexia can be found here) "Something distinctive is happening in the brains of dyslexic individuals", according to Manual Cassanova of the University of Kentucky. Restoring confidence and the love of learning emerged as another theme, along with the idea that dyslexics have something unique and valuable to offer the world. A good explanation of this gift appeared in this article in the Wall Street Journal by Melinda Beckhighlighting the creativity that resulted from the childhood difficulties faced by actor Henry Winkler and Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy. A plethora of other inspiring examples were in attendance in Norwalk. Professor Jack Horner of Montana State University, who curates the Museum of the Rockies and was an advisor to Stephen Spielberg on the Jurassic Park films, shared the story of how he was astonished to be the first paleontologist to discover dinosaur embryos. How could this happen after more than 100 years of digging and discovery? He was simply willing to use a hammer to break open dinosaur eggs. Why were other scientists unwilling to do the same? "They said the eggs were too precious", Horner said. Dyslexics — as viewed through the work of the Eides, Tom West, and many others — see the world differently through material, interconnected, narrative, and dynamic reasoning. Their minds function at an especially high level when using enhanced 3D and spatial reasoning capacities and are often able to connect disparate ideas or patterns to solve problems. Professor Horner additionally used these strengths to realize that 5 of the 12 dinosaur species of North America were simply adolescent versions of adult dinosaurs. Now, there are only 7 species associated with the continent. How did he pull that one off? He noticed that there were only large, adult versions of dinosaurs in museums, reference books, and other repositories of dinosaur facts. He deduced that the smaller species were the young and then proved that their physical traits, including head shape and number of teeth, were developing towards those of the adults when they expired. Professor Horner shared more of his story earlier in the conference. He struggled early in school, which is perhaps the most salient shared reality among dyslexics, but learned to love collecting and sorting dinosaur bones in rural Montana. He eventually found a way to make a living while staying in the field of paleontology, but was kept out of "proper" academic circles due to a lack of formal credentials. He made the breakthrough on embryos, received an honorary doctorate, and became a professor at Montana State.  Many other attendees similarly used their strengths and learning differences to overcome the challenges of dyslexia  and have attained a high degree of professional success as poets, filmmakers, teachers, entrepreneurs, astrophysicists, academics, attorneys, doctors, economists, engineers, actors, architects, among others. Their testimonies are one of the keys to inspiring young people and adults with dyslexia to work hard and not give up, but along with every example of success came stories of anguish and despair. The needs and feelings of dyslexics are often put aside by ill-equipped and overtaxed front line educators. The demands and exigencies of contemporary testing requirements in public education help perpetuate long-running stigmas around being slow, lazy, or dumb if a person cannot decode text efficiently. If not supported through early childhood and adolescence, dyslexics can develop acute crises of confidence, debilitating anxiety attacks, and tend to identify with those pejorative labels. Job prospects can shrink in adulthood and a lifetime of frustration can ensue, though one might not believe that after hearing the testimony of so many conference attendees. Unsurprisingly, calls for more research into the social and emotional effects of dyslexia were well received. The conference closed with a dialogue on how the community can reach out and connect with more dyslexic individuals of all ages, improve lives on a day-to-day basis, and use their collective talents and connections to drive the agenda forward. Learning Ally, formerly Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic, was one of many organizations represented at the conference. Their recent public service announcement coined One in Five is raising awareness and providing a rough quantitative measure of the percentage of the population who are dyslexic. Jim Halliday, vice-president of the organization, shared his essential takeaways from the gathering: "1) Build relationships with like-minded individuals and organizations; 2) Develop a more visceral and colorful feel for the dyslexic talents; and 3) Even more effort and coordination is needed to turn the right intentions into actions and activities to capture the goals of the conference." Author Richard (Dick) Kraemek, author of Dyslexic Dick, shared his thoughts on how to capture those goals. "We need to organize a dyslexic movement that has the potential to educate all children with dyslexia, both rich and poor, and to encourage them to pursue careers in which they can utilize their unique strengths. Finally, this movement must change the public perception of what dyslexia really is." Others spoke of "removing stigmas", "dealing with issues of shame", "systematic identification" [in early childhood], "owning their own learning", "coordinated daily movement", "strategic approach", "implementation plan", and "marathon, not a sprint". But it was John Muir Laws, an inspirational, San Francisco-based naturalist, who may have uttered the most memorable and eloquent phrase of the weekend. He captures the essence of the new identify being forged by dyslexics. "I am now an exquisite dyslexic."