A 2009 study found that the majority of adult dyslexics hide their dyslexia. Why? To protect themselves from bullying, stigma and shame that starts as children and lasts a lifetime.
Adult dyslexia and the ‘conundrum of failure’ is a fascinating, heart-breaking and helpful research study by Kathleen Tanner. The study was conducted at Australia’s University of Wollongong over a three-year period during an adult education course specifically designed for dyslexics.
The study asked participants how they defined themselves based on Nosek’s (1997) three categories of dyslexics (I’m paraphrasing directly from her book below):
- The Candid Dyslexic – you know you’re dyslexic, and you willingly disclose and acknowledge your dyslexia to yourself and others
- The Closet Dyslexic – you know you’re dyslexic, but conceal it from others out of shame and fear (and for some, there is even self-denial)
- The Confused Dyslexic – you don’t know you’re dyslexic, and you struggle through school and life unaware of what causes your trouble with words
The majority of the people in Tanner’s study described themselves as “closet dyslexics,” and had developed compensatory or “passing” techniques. Many of the participants had experienced being bullied, stigmatized and marginalized because of their dyslexia.
The study also showed that these categories aren’t fixed; dyslexics move between the 3 categories throughout their lives. (That’s my experience.)
The “conundrum of failure”
Tanner’s research shows that being perceived as a failure, and feeling like a failure, is what drives adult dyslexics to conceal their dyslexia.
She identifies five sub-types of failure as experienced by the dyslexics in her study:
- System failure – when failure happens “due to ignorance, failure or inaccurate acknowledgement or identification of needs”
- Constructed failure – multiple points of failure are listed here — a) the failure model; when students must first fail to get the help they need or, b) when students are labelled but their need is minimized (and they still don’t get the support/acceptance they need to succeed) and, c) there is negative stigma attached to label
- Public failure – public humiliation based on dyslexic weaknesses, such as reading out loud; verbal and physical abuse by peers and teachers
- Family failure – parents feelings of failure and a child’s guilt and fear of letting parent’s down
- Personal failure – the emotional impact of failure; begins when a dyslexic starts school and lasts a lifetime, including depression, suicidal thoughts/attempts, unemployment
Tanner concludes that it’s hard to know what is more disabling — is it the barriers dyslexics face in society or the individual characteristics of dyslexia?
That is what she calls the “condundrum of failure” (conundrum is defined as a “a confusing and difficult problem or question; a puzzle”):
“These negative experiences culminate in what I have coined the conundrum of failure and, despite the efforts of so-called ‘supportive others’, the oppressive attitudes and beliefs which are institutionalized within schools and society devalue those whose literacy skills are deemed to be inadequate.”
The problem with the deficit model
Tanner is pointing to something really interesting here — the pervasive use of the deficit model when defining or describing dyslexia. The problem is that dyslexics internalize and perpetuate this disabling definition, for example, by lowering our expectations or limiting our life choices.
Tanner suggests that there is much we can do to help our children develop a healthy self-identity, and that means not only addressing weaknesses but also strengths:
“In a 20-year study of students with learning disabilities, Raskind, Goldberg, Higgins and Herman (2002) identified specific “success attributes” (personal characteristics, behaviours, attitudes, and conditions) (201) that enabled students to succeed in adulthood despite the difficulties and failures they encountered through school. They claimed that students who did not have these attributes experienced “continued failure” throughout life.”
We have good reason to focus on dyslexia as “difference” not “deficit.”
When summing up my thoughts on Tanner’s research, I was going to say that I think things have gotten better in the ten years since she wrote this paper. But in reality, I feel we’ve only made small gains.
For me personally, this means I remain mostly a “closet dyslexic” at work, because my experience with disclosure has been mostly negative and humiliating. I’m more willing to talk about it with friends or trusted colleagues. But mostly, I use this forum — anonymous blogging — to create awareness. I’m definitely not alone in this, and many others are sharing their stories on social media without sharing their identity. Many do disclose publicly, and I hope that one day I feel empowered enough to do so.
Candid, closet or confused? Or all three? Which are you? And why?
Failure is “embedded in the exclusionary and oppressive ideology that is reflected in our language use, belief systems and attitudes.” ~Kathleen Tanner
“The Westernised school system promotes a particular notion of the skills necessary to achieve social and economic competence” (Barnes and Mercer 2003, 144). This has led to the marginalisation of students with specific learning disabilities, such as dyslexia. Throughout their lives they have had to deal with the message: if they succeed in learning to read and write they will be successful in their lives. If they fail to gain these educational skills, they will be considered social failures. Living with this attitude “can have the effect of making people … feel they are not seen as functioning adults … and feel they cannot be open about their difficulties because such attitudes are supported in popular culture” (Herrington, Hamilton and Mace 2001, 2). These attitudes reflect not only the failure barriers and social oppression that exists within society but also the way those attitudes have been internalised by members of society who, as unconscious conduits, perpetuate these attitudes.” ~Kathleen Turner
“Those students involved in special education classes or withdrawal groups expressed frustration that they knew they could grasp the content of regular classes on a cognitive level but just needed to be shown how. They expressed anger at things being ‘dumbed down’ and having to work with students who were not their intellectual equal and throughout their schooling experienced the stigma attached to the concept of intellect (Students H 26/F & P 23/M).” ~Kathleen Tanner
“On a daily basis, many of the students spoke of the unconscious assumptions, promoted by the exclusionary ideology that underpinned their educational experiences, in that people are continually judging their inability to read proficiently or remember. “You know what they’re thinking when they look at you that way” (Student N 29/F).” ~Kathleen Tanner
“Physical and emotional bullying within and outside the classroom emerged as a common theme. Anecdotes encompassed accounts of victimisation, humiliation and social devaluation that stemmed from the value placed on intelligence and literacy skills in western society. Although the gender and ages, of the students varied markedly, the theme of being punished or put down because of literacy skills was constant and made them feel as ‘lesser beings.'” ~Kathleen Turner
“A key factor which arose from this research was the need to provide a forum in which the participants could gain knowledge of their dyslexia. It is not necessarily the discussion of failure that is important but more so acknowledging and providing opportunities to gain understanding and knowledge about one’s dyslexia and openly discuss issues within a supportive educational environment. It is enabling closet dyslexics and confused dyslexics to express their fears and assist them in dealing with societal attitudes that exacerbate their perceived ‘failures’, as well as allowing an opportunity for advocacy for the candid dyslexics. It has also identified a new category in addition to Nosek’s three, being the Public Dyslexic that incorporates those adults who openly and willingly highlight and promote their dyslexia in the public arena.”~Kathleen Turner