Ira Socol, who writes Special Education Change has become somewhat of a blog hero since he contributed to last year's BADD. Ira writes about accessible education, his Toolbelt Theory for Everyone should be required reading for everyone involved in academia. But from a personal point of view, I often read Ira's blog and think, if only I, or someone close to me, had read this stuff when I was still trying to finish my own education.
Nature made me a better than average reader. I could read very quickly and I could skim; I could look at a page and find an important word or the most relevant phrase or sentence. Give me five minutes with a novel and I could tell you who the main characters are and basically what happens. At school, usually loved the set texts we were given (unnatural child that I was), but I bluffed my way to top marks with any I couldn't be bothered with and frequently read ahead of the class in our history and science text books. I used reading to compensate for other weaknesses. As a chronic daydreamer, it was sometimes very hard to pay full attention in class – even in perfect health, I would fall asleep at my desk from time to time. But so long as I had read up on a topic beforehand, nobody ever noticed.
The Dreaded Lurgy then took this away. I pretty much lost the ability to read anything more complex than single words for the first or so year of my illness. There are lots of different sorts of dyslexia, there are several different mechanisms which enable us to read, so lots of different things that can go wrong. Abnormal brain symmetry, brain damage like Sara's tumour or my problem, even forms of malnutrition can be responsible for a person having difficulty reading. It also manifests itself differently. The problem I had was that I could no longer distinguish the symbols from one another; paragraphs became a grey smudge just as soon as I attempted to translate these symbols into language. Rather like trying to count the pebbles at the bottom of a running stream.
When that improved and I learnt a few tricks (chiefly involving coloured celophane), the words had and still do have a habit of rearranging their order within a sentence and the letters within the word. Meanwhile, I had and still have very poor stamina, as well as concentration and memory problems – all this becomes indistinguishable when you can't do the thing you're trying to do. I attempted to return to education when my reading was still extremely slow, tiring and unreliable.
My great fortune was with the timing. If someone sails through school up to the age of fifteen, acquires a physical illness and says, “I can't read very well.” they are taken very seriously. If someone struggles through school, especially when, in their frustration, they give up or get distracted very easily, and only then someone comes along with a label like dyslexia, there is more doubt. I have some sympathy with the suspicion of labeling very young children with impairments and nowhere do you have more trouble with what is normal and abnormal than when looking at child behaviour and aptitude. However, if we stopped regarding all such labels as some sort of charitable status, there'd be much less to worry about.
Another great fortune was that until I joined the Open University, I wasn't part of any institution (I would never be well enough to physically attend any classes). By the time anyone wanted to assess my special needs, they did this by handing me a list of adjustments I might need and asked me to tick the appropriate boxes and fill in any gaps. I think my GP needed to sign something to prove I had the sort of problems I descried, but my account of my own limitations was trusted absolutely. I have written briefly about my ridiculous crisis of conscience over exam conditions somewhere in this rambling post.
Anyway despite my trouble reading, I took on an English Literature A-Level*. This wasn't as foolish as it sounds. The sciences, arts and modern languages were impractical to do at home without a science lab, a stage, a studio or other people to practice talking to. And, believe me, there is much more reading in a humanities subject, at least at that level, then there actually is in English Lit.. History, for example, involved several text books of doorstep proportions - plus any extra reading you could fit in. For English Lit., I only needed to read four texts, two of which were plays – and one of the plays had to be Shakespeare.
Shakespeare is a gift for my sort of problem. Much less to read in a play than in a book, and dialogue is always the easiest bit to read anyway. Most of the important stuff is in poetry rather than prose (prose being reserved for low-status or comic characters), thus you have just one phrase or sentence per line, and you have all the clues that rhythm and rhyme provide. Added to this, you've usually got a wide choice of radio, television and film productions of the play you can track down, listen to or watch to support your reading. After all, the guy did not write plays to be read.
The novels were trickier. The obvious aid was audiobooks, but as well as the fact that it was massively expensive to obtain unabridged recordings, I felt like this was cheating.
We have this dichotomy in our culture, where one lots of media is for work and one lot for fun. One big factor in the reason that we read relatively few books as opposed to watching films and television programmes is that a lot of us are programmed with the idea that books are hard work. At [...]'s boys' comprehensive school, the teacher explicitly stated that he didn't expect that any of his charges would read another book in their lives, before he subjected them to Far From the Madding Crowd (the lower-ability kids read The Day of the Triffids and probably learnt to love reading).
At the same time, of course, a degree in English Literature is ten times more respectable than a degree in Film Studies. There's no fundamental reason why this should be the case. Personally, I think the world would benefit from reading more books; books do offer things that films do not and vice versa, but you get my point.
And so I imagined that audiobooks were cheating. Books were meant to be read; you made your own voices just as you made up your own pictures. You did all the work yourself, work I imagined to be crucial. I naïvely imagined that all people with visual impairments could all read braille and that every book ever written would be available in braille at a special braille shop that undoubtedly existed somewhere. I also had idea that dyslexia was a problem that only young children experienced whn learning to read and could all be effectively “cured” by teaching them to read in a different way (which can help, but not always). Audiobooks were a form of entertainment, not an educational tool.
Only of course, apart from anything else, listening is often harder than reading. Personally I had (and still have) to listen to an audiobook two or three times to take in the same information I could have read the once; my mind wanders. Then you have to get over the voices; an actors' accent or cadence can be completely distracting and even some authors are ill-equipped to read their own books. It is trickier to control pace, and you can't scribble wildly in the margins of a book on CD. But there are ways of getting round these things.
Fancying myself as a writer, I don't for a minute think that you have to see the shape of my words in order to understand what is being said. So what if you were listening to this? If I'm writing sentences which would be difficult to read out loud, then I'm writing sentences that are going to be hard work to read at all.
Whilst we should attempt to teach children to read and write, the ability to read something off a page is not absolutely fundamental to understanding our language, or the ideas explored in journalism and literature. In the same way, learning to walk was a fundamental for most of us, but some people manage pretty well without. Far better that everyone is given the tools that work for them for learning and in life.
* An A-Level, my non-English and Welsh friends, is the qualification you'd usually take between 16 and 18. Generally you'd take at least three or four and upon your marks, university entrance is determined. I didn't actually finish my A-Level, but that is beside the point.