Searching for Words: What to Call Dyslexia

I want the world to know that I don’t like the word disability, it herts my feelings. I can do everything.”

That charming and inspiring quote is from Leia, a dyslexic 10 year old who authored this guest post on Learning Ally’s blog. Leia speaks her mind about the world’s views on dyslexia and the term “disability” in particular.

But click over to Learning Ally’s main page and that term is right there in the top left hand corner: “Bringing parents and teachers together to help students with learning disabilities like dyslexia succeed.

We’re not criticizing Learning Ally here. In fact, we have also used the term “disability” when writing about dyslexia, both on the blog and on the Dybuster website. So we’d like to open up a dialogue. How important are the words we use to refer to dyslexia?

Teacher and student, Dybuster International
In the classroom. Photo: Dybuster International.

We’ve experienced for ourselves just how paramount it can be to stay sensitive to people’s feelings on this topic. In a Facebook post last week we asked the question, “How many children suffer from dyslexia in the United States?”

A reader commented that “suffer” might be the wrong word and suggested “struggle with” as a better reflection of what dyslexia entails. We thought she had a point, even though a similar post that used the same wording was actually shared and liked among other readers.

Going back to Leia’s feelings on the word “disability”, what alternatives for this exist? Well, the website Friends of Quinn refers to learning “differences”, while LDonline runs the whole gamut from disabilities, to disorders, to differences. Note that not all of those terms are used to apply to dyslexia. British professor Julian Elliot sparked a certain amount of controversy by suggesting the elimination of the very term “dyslexia”.

Clearly, thoughts and opinions vary on this topic, so that’s why we’d like to open the question up to readers. How do you feel about the word “disability”? In which direction would you point society on this search for the right words?

Justin on the job. Smile! Justin is Dybuster’s market research analyst and dyslexic.
Justin on the job. Smile! Justin is Dybuster’s market research analyst and is dyslexic.

We started our search right here at Dybuster and asked Justin, our market research analyst, what he thought. Justin is dyslexic and his thoughts mirrored Leia’s:

Dyslexia is not a disability, far from it, it’s a different point of view. Just like you have brown hair and I have blond hair, it’s a different set-up in DNA… Living with dyslexia gives you a different perspective on situations.”

Are you or your child dyslexic? We’d really like to know what you think about this; please leave a comment below for us and other readers!

2 thoughts on “Searching for Words: What to Call Dyslexia”

  1. As someone that intends to enter the world of international education, I feel questions like this are worth considering before you even enter the classroom. The reality of the situation is that for a kid with dyslexia or dyscalculia, it can affect their sense of identity if certain labels are associated with their condition. Moderating what those labels are within your professional and social community is sure to allow you the freedom to guide how how that kid is perceived by his or her peers and how the subject perceives his or herself. It seems to me that it is simply a state of being, and therefore deserves to be described as such. I describe them here as “conditions” to reflect my sentiments towards them, but at the same time if I say a student “has a condition” it still seems to imply that there is something “wrong” with them. (At least that is the impression I get talking to students.) But if we go too far in the other direction and describe them in more aesthetically pleasing terms it might not do justice either, seeing as many students in my experience find dyslexia extremely frustrating. Do we want to belittle their plight?

    My thoughts are that the label will not be as important as ensuring that our communities really understand what is happening to someone with dyslexia. One word will not accurately describe the experience, so why not start with a neutral word and make sure that peoples’ associations with it are tied to a deeper understanding of the condition?

  2. Dyslexia as a disability, or as a gift? It’s a great and thoughtful topic — very glad you brought it up here. At Learning Ally we see and play it from all sides of the fence. Why? Because this reflects the state of things in our world and the many facets of our members’ experience. On one hand you flagged young Leia’s sentiment: “I want the world to know that I don’t like the word disability, it hurts my feelings. I can do everything.” She echoes countless students we know who point to their dyslexia as a different way of thinking signalling unique talents and strengths.

    On the other hand, federal education law (IDEA) lists dyslexia as a learning disability. In order to qualify for accommodations and services (including our educational audiobook library), you must qualify as having a “disability.” That’s how the law is written, and is even the context for driving changes in our educational system that are slowly but surely making it possible for more kids to succeed in a mainstream classroom despite their learning differences. Aha — and then with that term, “learning differences,” we ricochet to another way of looking at it: many kids learn differently and respond best to differentiated, evidence based instruction.

    We’ve heard every flavor of outlook from parents, teachers and kids — comprising a “360 degrees view” in which there are no rights and wrongs. Personally, I am inspired by the perspective of Dr. Maryanne Wolf, who argues that it’s all about neurodiversity, which is something really great for the human species. Thanks for bringing up a topic that we’re all listening in on.

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