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Dyslexia: The Anti-Authoritarian Disease

Personal Perspective: Dyslexia is not mental illness nor a learning disability.

Key points

  • Dyslexia didn’t affect my learning, I simply had to learn through other mediums.
  • Dyslexia makes you question the authority of written language.
  • Dyslexia is the inability to accept preconceived ways of relating to the world.

As I progressed from primary to secondary school it became increasingly difficult to compensate for my inability to read and write. When I was ten, after several brain scans, endless hours of my parents talking to my teachers behind closed doors, and me spending two days on a Hamburg-Wechsler-Intelligence-Test for Children (HAWIK-III) in the basement of a slightly creepy psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with dyslexia.

In primary school, my teachers would sometimes let me get away with drawing my answers. I remember when we learned about the solar system, I would draw every single planet and assign them a non-descript cluster of letters. Mars became a medium-sized red blob with ‘M’ written underneath. Venus looked a lot like Mars, just a little smaller and closer to the sun. It had a ‘W’ written underneath. When I had to read in class, I would remember fragments of the story, take it from there, and make up my own story while pretending to read. My brain worked much faster in fictionalising-mode than it did in decoding-mode. I’d continue “to read” until someone, either my school mates or teachers, would call me out. But why would they do that? My stories weren’t bad, I thought. No worse than what we were reading anyway.

I would often reverse letters. I couldn’t tell where to put words in a sentence. When my teachers were trying to “help” me, their ‘rules’ never made sense. They kept saying that something was “wrong” with me. I had no idea what was “wrong” with me. I couldn’t see my mistakes. But what are “mistakes” to begin with? Wrong according to what, precisely? Dyslexia makes you question the authority of written language.

The German school system of the early 2000s was uncompromising. I had to navigate an increasingly hostile environment. Dyslexic meant stupid. Dyslexic meant something was wrong with me. But I was a smart boy. I was creative, attentive, curious, and knowledge-seeking. I was clearly capable. There was really nothing “wrong” with me. How bad can it be not to be able to read or write? There is a myriad of other ways of engaging with the world, after all. I simply didn’t know how to spell or decrypt strings of letters, that was all. Nothing was lost on me. But my environment suggested otherwise.

The problem wasn’t me; it was the modus operandi of schooling. The hegemony of the written word was the problem. Why, I remember thinking, is a string of letters worth more than an intricate diagram, a drawing, a sound, or the spoken word? I never felt incomplete. Curious, maybe, about the written word, the way someone with no expertise in the Japanese language might approach a Japanese character. But school made me believe I was a lesser human for lacking mastery of what is considered an essentially human skill: written language.

Dyslexia is not a mental illness and yet I was cared for by a psychiatrist. Today, we call dyslexia a learning disability, but I had no difficulty picking up complex and abstract ideas. Dyslexia didn’t affect my learning, I simply had to learn through other mediums. I could still listen to, experiment with, and explore the world. Why would I have to write about or read about it?

The hegemony of the written word is a peculiar contingency. Before capitalism found payoffs in modern schooling, written language was a class-marker. If widely distributed basic reading- and writing skills weren’t beneficial to capital, I don’t think most of us could read and write. That also means, the inability to do either is a thorn in capital’s eye. This is why many dyslexics, otherwise capable, fall through the grids of modern schooling and job markets.

If dyslexia is not a learning disability and not a mental illness either, what is it? Dyslexia is fundamentally the inability to accept preconceived ways of relating to the world. In essence, it’s the inability to recognise rules as authoritative and those who make those rules as in authority.

What non-dyslexics tend not to understand is that disregarding the rules of written language isn’t a choice for us. We are incapable of recognising the normativity of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. We are anti-authoritarians by design, not by choice.

This is not to say that I don’t see the benefits of social conventions in written communication. It can be helpful to know whether we are talking about ‘Bops’, ‘Bobs’, ‘Pops’, or ‘Boobs’. But should we be holding those accountable who fail to adhere to those social conventions? Isn’t communication all about meeting a bunch of felicity-conditions? If everyone knows what is being referred to, why punished those who draw red blobs on their exam sheets? Why should the burden be on the dyslexic to “write properly”? Why isn’t the burden on this largely literate society to understand us dyslexics?

Today, I tend to confirm to the arbitrary standards of the written word. I collect books and write academic articles. I overcame my dyslexia, but not really. My dyslexia has made me suspicious of rules and authorities. I cannot but question the reasoning behind things having to be done one way rather than another. I feel an itch when I sense oppression and I hate the arbitrariness of tradition. Having learned how to read and write never felt like a success. Undeniably, however, it opened new worlds. And it made life much easier.