The Gift of Disability?

I was listening to our client and partners Driver Youth Trust on Radio 5. While it was great to have an hour devoted to the subject of dyslexia, and the programme highlighted some great work led by a young woman aiming to change the way we assess needs. It did however rehash regular myths about the condition. Chris Rossiter, DYT’s Director has challenged in his latest blog.

I was listening to the show with my daughter. A highly political, very vocal and severely dyslexic 14 year old. At one point during the programme one of the speakers referred to dyslexia as a ‘gift’ – the carefully considered political discussion we had been having swiftly moved into a stream of words that probably shouldn’t have been used in front of her mother and which I have removed from the quotes here!

“It’s not a gift. Unless a gift is what you give something when you want them to on their knees at the end of the day so tired that words are swimming in front of their face and their brains are fried”.

“Learning resilience and grit and how to work harder might of come from having dyslexia – especially when I have teachers who tell me that 5 year olds can spell better than me or idiots say that dyslexia isn’t even a thing – but I learnt determination through playing hockey too; and that’s much more fun and frankly being hit by ball when in goal is somewhat less painful than trying to read”.

“Why do people insist that dyslexia is a gift?  Is it because they don’t understand it? It because they are dyslexic and it makes them feel better to think of it as a positive? Or is it because society cannot cope with processing the pain of disability so glams it up to make it easier to think about? Are there trendy and acceptable faces of disability with the rest of us bunged in the too thick and too lazy box?”

And that last one really hit home. Alongside the Prime Minister’s comment this week that social mobility was for the bright poor (with the implication that the ‘thick poor’ can stay where they are – hidden away from the deserving ‘us’) was the same happening with disability? Do we choose our images of disability to suit our notion of the noble and worthy brave soul who has risen above adversity to make the most of their lot?

The Paralympian. The compelling bi-polar author. The brilliant blind musician. The autistic savant (beautifully written up by Alex Lowery in his ‘We are not all Sheldon Cooper’ blog).

This is not to say that role models aren’t wonderful. That seeing individuals with disabilities succeed and be visible in society isn’t important. Of course it is.  

But for every Richard Branson-esque dyslexic made good there is another struggling to find work. Some students with dyslexia will get 10 A*s (or grade 9s) while others will struggle to pass any exams. This shouldn’t be read as one person working harder than another; as one child being determined when the other is lazy. It is because dyslexia is just one factor in an individual’s life. As my daughter reflected (after the swear words had passed) “the romanticising of disability and the notion of the ‘able disabled’ helps perpetuate a myth that some people with disabilities are worthy of help because they are special while others – without superpowers – are worthless”. This is dangerous ground. As dangerous perhaps as presenting people with disabilities as hopeless and dependent.

This is something to come back to in later thinking on SEND. But for now the last words go to Kendra. “If something thinks dyslexia is a gift please don’t let them buy my birthday present”.