Evolutionary transliteracy – is dyslexia a skill?

writeback.jpg James Panton, writing in Spiked, challenges us to think more carefully about the meaning of the word 'dyslexia' as a scientific label. His article is a response to Prof Julian Elliott's comment in the THES that dyslexia 'serves an emotional, not a scientific, function'.[1] Panton writes:

By teaching children to understand that their problems are 'natural', we are implicitly shifting the focus of education away from pushing children to achieve to the best of their abilities

Possibly. But let's take that a step further. Are these phenomena really 'problems' at all? Or are they perhaps manifestations of evolutionary transliteracy?

This is purely anecdotal, I know, so excuse me, but I must pass on how years ago I had a student, Leonie Winson, who was severely dyslexic and who managed an enormous collaborative hypertext science fiction novel online, Dark Lethe, which she created from the email contributions from dozens of individual authors. Each writer took charge of different characters, developed their stories, and sent the texts to Leonie who carefully wove them together. This work demanded a level of complexity way beyond my own very linear brain, and I was convinced that her dyslexia helped her to understand and build the structure of the story.
Other examples of evolutionary transliteracy might include attention deficit disorder and perhaps synaesthesia – ‘skills’ which might hinder our interactions with the everyday world in some respects, but which give us advantages in other ways such as ADD perhaps making us good at computer games and synaesthesia apparently providing a useful edge for artists of all kinds.
I also had another student who had perfectly-formed and very literate hand-writing – the only difficulty was that the reader had to hold up a mirror to understand it. Leonardo is often praised for the very same skill, but it came naturally to her. It made her life very difficult since, unlike Leonardo, she couldn’t write both ways, only the mirror-way. But there must be a use for her skill somewhere. Secret service, perhaps?
So let’s try this rearrangement of Panton’s statement:

By teaching children to understand that their skills are natural, we are implicitly shifting the focus of education towards pushing them to achieve to the best of their abilities

[1] Dyslexia Myths and the feel bad factor, Times Higher Education Supplement, 2 September 2005


2 thoughts on “Evolutionary transliteracy – is dyslexia a skill?

  1. Always interesting what you find when you search for references of yourself through Google. It seems you don’t have to only worry about your own digital footprint but also what other people might write about you.
    I would argue against ‘severely’ dyslexic, but I have always felt my dyslexia gave me a strengh rather than a hinderance. I’m not sure how much my dyslexia effected or helped my writing and keeping track of those other storylines. It certainly made me more relaxed in the way I dealt with other people and their writing.
    It was issues of language and quality of narrative that interested me and still do. I never write without an awareness of my own abilities. Often that writing has a flavour or voice that is seen as different from someone without dyslexia. Whether that is a good or bad thing will always be a matter of opinion.
    Ayone looking for Dark Lethe will find it at:
    The link in Sue’s post nolonger works.
    Leonie Winson

  2. Leonie, thanks for this comment. I hope my observations didn’t offend you? I was always so impressed at the way you handled that very complex material, and, as you see, the memory of it has stayed with me.

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