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April 1, 2017
Vol. 74
No. 7

Dyslexia: Disability or Difference?

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Instructional Strategies
Policy
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Research in neuroscience only confirms what I witness every day in the classroom: No two students share the same brain print. Each one learns differently, managing his or her own unique network of cognitive abilities and challenges to access information, make meaning, and express ideas. My students' interests, exposures, skills, and difficulties combine in complex ways to define their school experience. Even my "strugglers" struggle in unique ways.
A condition like dyslexia varies in the way that it impacts students because of the diverse intellectual strengths they are able to deploy to compensate for, and work around, their challenges. In fact, many of my dyslexic students, some of whom are among my deepest and most creative thinkers, ultimately manage to leverage their intellectual abilities to become community and scholastic leaders. Likewise, in the world beyond school, one doesn't need to look far to find high-profile dyslexics who left their academic struggles behind to become leaders in their chosen professional fields.
Why then, given what we know about the potential of the dyslexic brain, do we still use the language of disability to sort, stigmatize, and pathologize the condition in school? Isn't it time to ditch the disability classification and replace it with more positive language that embraces and appreciates dyslexia as a neurodifference instead?
Well, wait, not so fast.
Claims about the unique strengths of individuals with dyslexia rarely, if ever, make reference to the dyslexic brain serving as an advantage in a school setting. Before we declare that dyslexia need not be categorized as a learning disability, we have to recognize how dyslexia actually expresses itself in academic environments, making a distinction between ideal school experiences and real ones. Even in my class, where I use flexible tools (including assistive technology) and flexible curriculum (offering a variety of ways to access content and express understanding), my dyslexic students still have to work harder than their non-dyslexic counterparts, and many activities take them longer because processing written language remains challenging for them.
So instead of rushing to uproot the word disability, we must first appreciate the purpose and protections that it confers upon the individuals it covers. Dyslexia advocates have fought long and hard for policies that support dyslexics in school settings so that they are able to flourish and achieve their full potential. These advocates have made a great deal of progress in raising awareness of the condition and securing rights to certain interventions and accommodations (related to reading instruction, assessments, and assistive technology, for example). Many of those hard-won—and still incomplete—victories have hinged on that one word: disability. If dyslexia were not a learning disability, students with the condition would not need these critical protections provided by the Americans with Disabilities Act to succeed in school. But they do.

The Fight for Reading Proficiency

Simply put, for students with dyslexia, the current educational environment in the United States necessitates the legal protections associated with the word disability. High-stakes, timed tests are reason enough for students with dyslexia to require legal entitlements to accommodations. These tests have the potential to act as discriminatory gatekeepers, potentially blocking dyslexic students from a host of deserved academic opportunities. Research shows that dyslexia robs individuals of processing time. Testing accommodations can return it. And considering that there is little evidence that speed is a valid metric for measuring understanding (Brooks, Case, & Young, 2003), timed tests without accommodations can yield inaccurate data about a dyslexic student's level of knowledge and skills.
Additionally, as long as students with dyslexia have to fight for specialized reading instruction or access to assistive technology like audiobooks in classrooms, we cannot afford to move away from the disability classification. By definition, students with developmental dyslexia struggle to learn to read in spite of adequate instruction and otherwise high intelligence. In other words, their difficulties with accurate and/or fluent word recognition and spelling are "unexpected" given the student's broader intellectual profile and environmental background. Offering more of the same reading instruction does not get these students over the hump. All it does is make them think they're unintelligent and generate personal anxiety about their ability to learn.
Depending on the school's reading program, dyslexics often need alternative remediation to learn to read. And the same things that make reading hard also make spelling and writing especially challenging. Most important, these challenges are not something students outgrow. Although developmental dyslexia's impact on students usually morphs over time, it never goes away.
Most teachers will admit that since students with dyslexia are often poor spellers, slow readers, and minimalistic writers, it can be easy to erroneously hold low expectations for them. Worse yet, without interventions and accommodations, students' mechanical challenges with reading fluency and written output can create a negative, self-reinforcing feedback loop. Studies have shown that academic performance is directly related to independent reading volume (Cullinan, 2000). Likewise, logic holds that students can only earn credit for knowledge and understanding if they have the ability to express it. Understanding these facts of educational life, conscientious teachers know that providing ways to give these labored readers access to content and alternative methods to demonstrate their learning is crucial. But how do we do this?

Reducing Instructional Barriers with UDL

Applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) can be a great starting point to help level the playing field for students with dyslexia. By definition, UDL is an instructional framework that provides flexibility in the way students engage with content and demonstrate their knowledge and skills (Rose & Vue, 2010). Through thoughtful curriculum design, it reduces barriers to content by providing accommodations and supports for students with disabilities. It also presents a fundamental shift in how we understand learning challenges, with an emphasis on remediating the curriculum rather than the student.
But even in an ideal UDL environment, identification of dyslexia as a specific condition is important. It allows the teacher to provide and suggest the most effective curricular adaptations and supports for students. Through thoughtful application of UDL, teachers can create classrooms that remove many of the obstacles that prevent students with dyslexia (and students with other learning disabilities) from achieving their potential.
Recognizing that dyslexia is a mechanical disability, not an intellectual one, is key to understanding the rationale for why dyslexic students should be identified and supported in flexible learning environments. Dyslexic students' mechanical challenges with the written word often interfere with their ability to access information and express understanding. UDL classrooms can address those problem by employing assistive technology like audiobooks and other supports to bridge those challenges.
Indeed, the principles of UDL can help educators remove potential barriers inherent in the format and design of assessments. For example, my 5th grade dyslexic student may not be able to explain in writing his understanding of why and how the electoral process works, but if my goal is to measure what he learned through our study, I might provide an alternative means for him to authentically show what he knows, such as using dictation software, giving an oral presentation, or creating a diagram. In this case, relying on a written assessment to evaluate his understanding would likely offer a flawed perspective of his capacity. If I want to know how much a dyslexic student knows about how U.S. elections function, then ideally I would not rely on a skill that the student struggles with to accurately evaluate his understanding.
One of the most significant characteristics that distinguish dyslexics from their nondyslexic peers, aside from diminished reading fluency, is the significant gap between their oral and written comprehension. Every year, without fail, I have at least one dyslexic student who regularly elevates our classroom discussion through his ability to make unique connections, synthesize ideas, ask important questions, and contribute sophisticated observations. Based on his ideas and understanding alone, this student would often be the highest-performing student in my general education classroom. But this same student might do poorly on a written test or essay on the same subject.
Consequently, I have been motivated, with the help of UDL concepts, to find ways to formally track and assess oral expression and assign it academic value (points or grades) on par with the way I track, assess, and value written expression. But it took me years to realize that my assessment practices were implicitly valuing written expression over oral expression, often to the point of not honoring oral understanding unless it could be expressed in writing as well.
Additionally, when I recognize a gap between student oral and written expression, I am more likely to ask the student to re-explain certain answers orally if her written ones are notably weak. This has made a big difference in allowing my dyslexic students to overcome their mechanical challenges so they can show what they know.
I have also realized how employing dictation software and apps to help get a dyslexic student's thinking onto paper can transform his output, engagement, and perception of his own potential. Even my weakest dyslexic writers come to understand that writing is a form of thinking. So if they are sophisticated thinkers, they can become strong writers. Speech-to-text programs (and sometimes just a keypad), allow my deep thinkers to produce work that reflects the full breadth and depth of their ideas.
Once these students start using dictation software and apps to complete writing projects, answer assessment questions, or compose daily work, their writing volume can more than double (although at times this creates more content than they have the appetite to edit). As a teacher, it is humbling to witness how much repressed knowledge is often hidden behind earlier complaints of "I can't write" or "I can't think of anything to say." More striking is my students' surprise when they see what they can do with the aid of dictation. Their attitude toward their writing improves and their sense of capacity as writers expands as the ease of expression permits them to focus on their ideas rather than the mechanics of expression.

Demystifying and Destigmatizing Students' Struggles

By many measures, of course, my students with dyslexia are hardly disabled, and most of them resist being seen through that lens. They rarely balk at the dyslexic label: They appreciate the way it helps explain and contain their struggles, clarifying that they are not "stupid." But understandably, many do not like the negative connotations associated with the word disability. Yet if we were to take away the disability status afforded to many of them, they would be left unprotected in an education environment that is often stacked against them.
The principles of neurodiversity, with their emphasis on appreciating and normalizing cognitive differences, are compelling and valid. But as a teacher, I currently see them as an aspirational ideal. If more academic environments embraced UDL for a broader range of students, and dyslexic students were not at an extreme disadvantage in school, then a paradigm shift that embraces the full spectrum of student learning differences (and deemphasizes a framework of disability) might be feasible.
Until then, the language of neurodiversity can play an important role in influencing education settings, language, curriculum, and pedagogy. For example, sharing the tenets of neurodiversity with dyslexic students can help demystify and destigmatize their struggles and help them see themselves in a larger, more nuanced, cognitive context. But in a school setting, for now, that understanding needs to be supplemented by the protections associated with an acknowledged disability.
Maybe one day we educators will look back in embarrassment at how our rigid education systems hindered our ability to accommodate individual learning differences, thus forcing us to categorize them as disabilities. In the meantime, there is every reason to strive to incorporate the more flexible and inclusive practices related to UDL. Not only will dyslexics be better served, but so will all learners.

EL Online

For a discussion of the unique learning capabilities of students with dyslexia, see the online article "Recognizing Dyslexia's Strengths in the Classroom" by Fernette Eide.

References

Brooks, T., Case, B., & Young, M. (2003). Timed versus untimed testing conditions and student performance. San Antonio, TX: Pearson Education, Inc. Retrieved from http://images.pearsonassessments.com/images/tmrs/tmrs_rg/TimedUntimed.pdf

Cullinan, B. E. (2000) Independent reading and school achievement. School Library Media Research, 3. Retrieved from www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslpubsandjournals/slr/vol3/SLMR_IndependentReading_V3.pdf

Rose, D., & Vue, G. (2010). Learning landscape: A retrospective on dyslexia. International Dyslexia Association, Perspectives on Language and Literacy, 36(1), 33–37. Retrieved from www.cast.org/our-work/publications/2010/2020-landscape-dyslexia-retrospective.html

End Notes

1 A recent study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides further evidence of neurophysiological differences in the brains of individuals with dyslexia. See Perrachione, T. K., Del Tufo, S. N., Winter, R., Murtagh, J., Cyr, A., Chang, P., et al. (2016). Dysfunction of rapid neural adaptation in dyslexia. Neuron, 92(6), 1383–1397.

 Kyle Redford is a veteran 5th grade teacher at Marin County Day School in the San Francisco Bay area, and an expert at Understood.org. Follow her on Twitter.

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