In this post I will be moving away from my usual fare and giving some advice to any writers out there who, while not dyslexic themselves, consider putting a dyslexic character in their work. Even if you're not a writer, how about giving it a read? Because my advice is this:
Yes, I am dyslexic. What I am not is a fucking imbecile.
Most of us, actually, aren't. Most of us can, in fact, read and write to a level commensurable with non-dyslexic individuals. Bear in mind, please, that recent figures suggest that one in ten people are dyslexic, or suffer from a dyslexic type disability. I suspect someone would have noticed by now if over 10% of the population were functionally illiterate.
And no, dyslexia is not being used as a catch all term for what we used to call 'slow' children - that contradicts my initial statement about how dyslexic people are not bloody idiots. Dyslexia is a specific learning difficulty, meaning it impacts upon certain aspects of an individual's performance. It is assessed by a series of tests which resemble the common IQ test and take in all areas of ability; spatial reasoning, numerical reasoning, alpha-numeric problem solving, verbal reasoning, reading accuracy, that sort of thing. The results from these tests are then stratified, locating any areas of specific underperformance in relation to the individual's overall ability. If a certain pattern of underperformance is noted, the individual is diagnosed with the relevant learning difficulty.
Clear? It locates specific areas where there is weakness compared with the individual's average.
"Well, of course," you say, straw man as you are, oh hypothetical reader, "I'm not saying that dyslexic people can't be good at certain areas of conventional academia, but you've said it yourself, they have specific areas of underperformance. They aren't readers."
I'll admit, some dyslexics are not readers, but then so are some people who have no relation to the disability; some people just don't like reading very much. It may even be true that there are some cliche dyslexics out in the world, people who after many arduous attempts at school, learned functional reading very late, and, after having left school with a palpable sigh of relief, have never troubled themselves with a book again - despite being very creative and possibly extremely good at things like drama, and dance. Some may even still be functionally illiterate. I would hazard, however, that these people are the minority.
Because, once again, these views overlook the complexity of the thing, of reading itself, in fact. Reading utilises many skills, and among these are areas affected by dyslexia: the ability to process, store and retrieve information, or sequencing, that kind of thing. But these are only part of what one needs in order to read, so, rather than sinking under inertia, people with dyslexia do as people with disabilities have done since the dawn of time: they have developed coping strategies, heightening the surrounding areas of ability effectively to 'mask' the disability. This is why many people are not diagnosed with dyslexia until later life when greater demands are made from the weaker aspects of their abilities and their accustomed coping strategies cease to provide a 'level the playing field'.* Suddenly struggling, the dyslexic adult will seek to know why.
The biggest irony of learning difficulties is that the dip in ability need not actually bring the individual below the average skill set of someone without that disability; it is merely a drop in IQ relevant to that individual. Someone with mild-to-medium dyslexia and an IQ in the average range may reveal a noticeable handicap, but one easily overlooked. Someone with the same level of the condition and an IQ in the 110-120 range could drift through life totally undiagnosed because even their weaker areas perform slightly better than the average while and their most severe lapses are masked by coping strategies.
But this is not to understate the frustration, the sheer bloody irritation, the occasional weeping despair that having a learning difficulty can bring to an otherwise bright child. Understanding a text perfectly, but, when called upon to read it aloud, stumbling over familiar words, stringing sentences together in an awkward fashion. Knowing how a word is spelled, getting it right week after week on a series of idiot spelling tests, but still, when faced with it in the conditions of actually writing something facing a total bloody mind blank and writing something a four year old would know was incorrect.
It hurts, that; and what hurts more is then being called lazy, careless, or inattentive for getting it wrong, even though you had been beating your brain against the right answer, while your brain has refused to co-operate.
And what hurts even more is going through education like that, getting more than decent grades, going to University, studying English to a post graduate level, trawling through all those god-awful PDF files and academic books that are laid out in a way intended to give dyslexic people migraines**, and passing anyway because you care and are good at your subject and you love books too much to give a damn that sometimes it's really hard work. What hurts is doing all that and then having to read some writer - or listen to some random, ill-informed person - telling you that dyslexic people aren't academic, that dyslexic people can't read.
So, before you think about creating a dyslexic character, or just saying something that bloody thoughtless, remember: Albert Einstein was dyslexic and so is the almost disgustingly well-read Stephen Fry.***
We're not stupid, we're not lazy, and, this dyslexic at least, is really quite pissed off.
*as the assessor from the Dean of Student's office put it to me.
** visual distortion being another symptom, one exacerbated by certain layouts, contrast levels and fonts.
*** For more examples, see: http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about-dyslexia/famous-dyslexics.html
(For more information on dyslexia, see http://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/. Don't get me started on dyspraxia or we'll be here all day. Must dash, novels to write, books to read.)