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!

What is it like to have Dyscalculia?

Dyscalculia affects around 5% of children, a smaller proportion than those affected by dyslexia (the rate of occurrence for dyslexia in the United States is approximately 15%). This has resulted in dyscalculia remaining relatively unknown; many people are not even familiar with the term.

What effect could this have on children with dyscalculia? Imagine struggling every day at school with number problems that your peers master far more quickly than you do. Your teacher is beginning to lose patience with you and your parents think you are just not trying hard enough. They don´t understand that you are trying hard every day, but even basic arithmetic concepts make no sense to you. You are called lazy or stupid or both.

This is the reality for many students with dyscalculia. With awareness of this learning disability still low, children may not be diagnosed as dyscalculic and not receive intervention that could help them succeed in the classroom.

Dybuster blog, classroom photo

To get a sense of what math and numbers are like for a child with dyscalculia, try Understood.org´s online tool Through Your Child´s Eyes. Select “math issues” and grade level and then experience some of the difficulties dyscalculics struggle through when presented with numbers. The tool also simulates reading and attention issues, useful for anyone with an interest in dyslexia and other learning disabilities.

Click here to test out the learning issues simulator (external link).

Famous Dyslexics: Inspiration

Explorer Ann Bancroft. Source: Wikicommons.
Explorer Ann Bancroft. Source: Wikicommons.

Plenty of famous people in history are supposed to have been dyslexic. Even though it appears some of these assertions are conjecture, there is no doubt that you can find many successful dyslexic folks in all fields and disciplines. Even a shortlist of a few modern-day dyslexics includes some impressive names.

Let´s go to Hollywood first. Director Steven Spielberg, who brought us Indiana Jones, Schindler´s ListJurassic Park, and Lincoln, spoke to the Friends of Quinn website about being dyslexic. Spielberg was only diagnosed with dyslexia as an adult. His words to young people with learning disabilities are as inspiring as any scene from one of his movies:

“You are not alone, and while you will have dyslexia for the rest of your life, you can dart between the raindrops to get where you want to go. It will not hold you back.”

Another film luminary who was not diagnosed young but who went on to win an Oscar, Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award is Whoopi Goldberg. Besides her phenomenal talent, Goldberg possesses plenty of grit and overcame struggles in school and drug use to become one of the most successful performers of all time.

Moving to the world of business, we find many successful dyslexics among top entrepreneurs. The companies Cisco´s, Kinkos, and Virgin all were led by dyslexic CEOs. Another influential business figure and adviser to the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve Board, Diane Swonk, is also dyslexic and nearly failed English in college despite her high level of intelligence and abilities in math and economics.

highway
Where are you going?

Many people with dyslexia are creative. Take Scott Adams, creator of the popular comic strip Dilbert. Or writers Natasha Solomons and Jane Elson. Or micro-sculptor Willard Wigan. Not sure what a micro-sculpture is? These tiny but perfect creations need to be seen to be believed.

We end with a dyslexic who defines “boundary-pusher”: explorer Ann Bancroft. Bancroft has travelled by foot and dogsled to the North and South Poles and is a living example that there are no places dyslexics cannot go.

Get Involved, Make a Difference

Last week we featured 18 year old Robert Lawrence and his fund-raising run for dyslexia. This got us thinking that some ddd readers interested in volunteering for dyslexics might like to be pointed towards a few possibilities.

Reach out: volunteer to help people with dyslexia.
Reach out: volunteer to help people with dyslexia.

If you are a parent of a dyslexic and based in the United States, the first website you might want to stop off at is DecodingDyslexia.net. This is the mother site of the organisation and introduces you to a grassroots movement pushing for more educational intervention in the public school system. Led by parents, the movement is represented in all fifty states and each state has either an own website or social media presence or both. Contact the representative in your state to find out how to get involved.

For readers in the U.K., check out the British Dyslexia Association or DyslexiaScotland.org.uk. Here you can find information on everything from manning hotlines, fundraising, or as an employer how to make your office dyslexic-friendly.

Based in the Pacific region of the U.S.? Headstrong Nation is looking for a volunteer social media contributor to help manage the organisation´s Facebook page. If you have killer writing skills, a flair for social media, and a passion for raising awareness of dyslexia then get in touch via the non-profit´s website.

For college and high school students who themselves have dyslexia or another learning disability, have a look at the Eye to Eye mentoring program. This organisation matches mentors with young students in an art program, designed to provide mentees with both role models and a means of self-expression. To participate you do need to be enrolled at a school with a chapter of the program (full list available here) but should that not be the case and you are sufficiently determined then you can talk with Eye to Eye about opening a chapter at your school.

These are a few of our suggestions but you can come up with your own ways to help, just like Robert did with running. Open up your heart, your mind, and your time, and you can make a difference.

How do the Orthograph Learning Games Help Children with Dyslexia?

Orthograph software was developed around the concept of a link between dyslexia and difficulty in mapping spoken language to written language. This difficulty is known in neuroscience as the phonological deficit.

What does this phonological deficit look like? Basically, the brain areas responsible for automating phonological processing are less populated by neurons in people with dyslexia than in people without dyslexia. This means dyslexics have difficulty converting the spoken word to written, and the other way around.

The brain processes information through various channels. Dybuster Orthograph‘s concept is based on activating new channels for learning. Words are not just depicted as black letters on a white background but shown in specific sequences of colors, forms and sounds. The syllables within a word are presented in 3D, so that a spatial aspect is introduced into the learning process.

This is explained in more detail in this handy video we put together:

Using the program allows the brain to be able to link, process and combine the information from these newly activated channels. The result is that a dyslexic child is better able to map spoken language to written language and the phonological deficit we discussed above is decreased.

Results of using Dybuster OrthographIn a study involving 80 children, the results of using Orthograph software were compared against the progress of children who did not use the program. Playing through the learning games for a few months resulted in the users making 33% fewer spelling mistakes than previously.

Orthograph software can be tried for free: just click here to access the trial version. The games are meant not only to be fun but to allow dyslexic children to make lasting improvement in reading and spelling.

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Dybuster Schools: Visiting Students Where They Learn

Swiss schools where Dybuster software is used.
Map of Swiss schools where Dybuster software is used.

Since its founding in 2007, Dybuster has had the privilege of working with over 1000 schools and more than 35,000 children (discuss: dyslexia and dyscalculia is produced by Dybuster International). In May 2015 we went to visit a couple of the schools that use our software made to help children with dyslexia and dyscalculia. Getting to meet some of these children was the best part of our school visits!

Though Dybuster software is used around the world, the programs were initially developed in Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. So our learning games for both dyslexia and dyscalculia really took off first in Switzerland before spreading to other countries like the U.S. and Canada.

The first stop on our road trip was Uttwil, a tiny town in the canton of Thurgau. The school is also small: only 160 students in the first six grades. Our software has been part of their curriculum since 2011. The village is right on the shores of Lake Bodensee and a lovely place to visit. After first consulting with the school´s special education teacher, our CEO Christian Voegeli spent some time in the classroom.

Dybuster CEO Christian Voegeli gets feedback from a young learning software user.
Dybuster CEO Christian Voegeli gets feedback from a young learning software user.

Speaking with teachers is an important part of our school visits. Learning software does not replace traditional learning but is meant to enhance and support instruction from a teacher. By meeting with teachers in their classrooms we can find out what they need and how better to suit their requirements.

Mirjam Rutidhauser, classroom teacher at school in Uttwil.
Mirjam Rutidhauser, classroom teacher at the elementary school in Uttwil.

Next stop on the trip was Nidererurnen, another small town, this one nestled in the beautiful mountains of canton Glarus. Here we visited another elementary school and talked to the kids about the programs. They were obviously happy to see us:

Student at elementary school in Niederurnen
Student at elementary school in Niederurnen

These visits were a highlight of the end of the school year for us. In the midst of rolling out new features such as the Orthograph Module Editor and the Dybuster Cockpit, it was great to take some time and meet with the people the software is actually for: children and their teachers. Many thanks to the students and teachers who shared their school day with us!

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What Causes Dyscalculia?

According to sources listed on both Understood.org and AboutDyscalculia.org, there is no universal consensus on the causes of dyscalculia. However there have been studies on what happens in the brains of dyscalculics while solving math problems. To understand this let´s first have a look at how children develop mathematic abilities in general.

NeuronalActivityBy the time they are just three months old, babies are able to differentiate between large and small quantities. When they get to preschool, children learn number words to enable them to describe these quantities. In elementary school, they learn Arabic numerals, which will not make any sense without those number words from the previous stage. Finally, children develop a mental conception of numbers – an internal number line – which automates such judgements as large vs. small, and estimations.

During this development, new skills are first processed in the anterior regions of the brain. These regions are responsible for logical thinking and for controlling attention and working memory. But as the brain masters these skills they are taken on by the posterior regions. This automates basic number tasks and frees up capacity in the anterior regions for processing more complex and difficult ones.

Student photo © Dybuster
Student photo © Dybuster

For children with dyscalculia, this process of skills becoming automatic happens much more slowly than for their peers. Instead these skills stay in the anterior regions of the brain, meaning that dyscalculic children have to concentrate fiercely to solve simple math problems. They rely on “counting out” the answer, a very slow process. As they advance through school the quantity and complexity of math problems they are expected to solve increases and along with it their anxiety. The more anxious a child becomes, the more overloaded will be his or her anterior brain regions, making it even more difficult to tackle numbers and solve problems. This can result in a life-long fear of math and can impact a dyscalculic student´s entire school and working career.

Dyscaculia is not nearly as well-known as dyslexia (chronic difficulty in reading) or dysgraphia (difficulty in writing). As a child with dyscalculia may be otherwise bright and creative, teachers and parents may not understand where the problems in math are coming from. This can lead to additional pressure on the child, who is already struggling with numbers and the feelings of inferiority these struggles cause. To learn more about dyscalculia browse through the Dybuster blog or have a look at these other resources.

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What is Dyscalculia?

"Math on walls." People with dyscalculia struggle with numbers and basic mathematical skills. Source: SplitShire free stock photos.
“Math on walls.” People with dyscalculia struggle with numbers and basic mathematical skills. Source: SplitShire free stock photos.

Dyscalculia: even the term sounds unfamiliar. Many people with dyscalculia might not even know the condition exists. Instead they may just think they have difficulty with math, or that anything with numbers is a struggle for them. Even those familiar with the terms dyslexia and dysgraphia may never have heard of dyscalculia.

So what is dyscalculia exactly? Dyscalculia is a learning disability that affects around five percent of the population. People with dyscalculia may be intelligent and creative but struggle enormously with basic mathematical problems.

During childhood, specific regions of the brain develop and become specialised in the processing of numbers and mathematical thinking. In children with dyscalculia, the development of these specialised brain functions lags behind that of their peers.

Dybuster Calcularis website

When children experience these difficulties with numbers they can develop feelings of anxiety and inferiority whenever faced with math and arithmetic problems. These feelings can persist into adulthood, meaning that dyscalculia can have long-term psychological effects on those who have it.

Compared to dyslexia or even dyspraxia, dyscalculia is less widely-known and there are fewer resources out there for those dealing with dyscalculia. A dyslexic can do a quick search of “famous dyslexics” and come up with a list of celebrities and famous historical figures who are or were dyslexic. Dyscalculics will have much greater trouble locating others who can relate to their experience.

There are support communities and resources out there for those who have dyscalculia. Check back here Friday to learn about a few of them in our weekly roundup focusing this week on dyscalculia.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Dyslexia?

What are the symptoms of dyslexia?

The earlier dyslexia is diagnosed, the sooner intervention can help children overcome their learning difficulties. This list from the Dybuster website shows that early symptoms may include difficulty with:

  • Learning the alphabet in the correct order
  • Associating sounds with their corresponding letters
  • Identifying or generating rhyming words or counting syllables in words
  • Segmenting words into individual sounds, or blending sounds to make words
  • Word retrieval or naming problems
  • Distinguishing between similar sounds in words; mixing up sounds in multi-syllable words (for example, “aminal” for animal, “bisghetti” for spaghetti)

Older children may exhibit:

  • Slow or inaccurate reading
  • Very poor spelling
  • Difficulty reading out loud, reading words in the wrong order, skipping words and sometimes saying a word similar to another word
  • Difficulty with associating individual words with their correct meanings
  • Difficulty with time keeping and concept of time when performing certain tasks
  • Difficulty with organizational skills
  • Failure to see (and occasionally to hear) similarities and difference in letters and words