Decoding the Riddle of Dyslexia

Boston Sunday Globe
Vol. 220, No. 124
Sunday, November 1, 1981

Decoding the Riddle of Dyslexia

Two-Boston Scientists are trying to unravel the mystery of dyslexia, an insidious affliction with widely varying symptoms and an often devastating impact on those who suffer from it.

By Ora Baer


Her very presence was intimidating. The teacher, an enormous woman with an authoritarian manner, leaned forward to address the young mother. She glanced at the 5-year-old Rebecca, who stared ahead impassively, her porcelain-doll features expressionless as usual. “Mrs. Rich,” she said, her voice rising in accusation, “I can’t believe you could have such a child, after those two brilliant boys.”

It happened nearly fifteen years ago, but Jane Rich still shudders when she recalls the scene. The teacher’s indictment pierced through her like the cold steel blade of a knife. How indeed could she, a teacher, the wife of a professor with a medical degree, and the mother of two brilliant children, have a daughter who was failing reading readiness in kindergarten?

Rebecca is one of the estimated twenty-five million Americans with dyslexia, a learning disability that impedes one’s ability to process the symbols of written language. Dyslexia’s wide-ranging symptoms include delayed or inadequate speech, difficulty in learning and remembering printed words, uncertainty as to right- or left-handedness, confusion about directions in space or time, and illegible handwriting.

But few people with dyslexia have all these symptoms, and some have different ones as well. In the words of David Raymond, a recent college graduate who is dyslexic, “The one thing about dyslexia is that all dyslexics are different. They [doctors] don’t have a good definition for it. You can’t make any valid generalizations.”

The insidious nature of dyslexia has made it one of the most misunderstood afflictions. One parent speculates that it may be easier to cope with a visibly handicapped child than with one who has a more subtle disability. People are tolerant of the blind man with the red-tipped cane, they may even go out of their way to help him cross the street. But if your child looks perfectly normal, has average intelligence and unimpaired hearing and vision, yet can’t read, sympathy is not forthcoming. Worse still, in many cases, neither is help.

Experts estimate that dyslexia affects from 3 to 15 percent of all schoolchildren today. Among those who have suffered from it are artist Leonardo da Vinci and Auguste Rodin, writers William Butler Yeats, Hans Christian Anderson, and Agatha Christie, inventor Thomas Alva Edison, and politicians Woodrow Wilson and Nelson Rockefeller.

But their level of achievement is the exception. A vocational high school diploma usually marks the end of a dyslexia victim’s formal education. Where his academic talents or career interests lie is largely irrelevant, and he’s likely to end up as a janitor, warehouseman, or mechanic. With the proliferation of technology, dyslexic people are turning up in increasing numbers on the unemployment line. Says a former police sergeant, laid off after fifteen years of service when a new test revealed he was dyslexic: “My disability wasn’t too severe, but it was severe enough to make me lose my job.”

Compounding this bleak picture [is] the fact that no single cause for [this] disorder has ever been established. For years, Freudian theories that pinned the disorder on psychic traumas were widely accepted. But new findings from a neuralanatomical laboratory [at] Boston City Hospital stack the body [of] evidence overwhelmingly in favor of [a] neurological explanation. And those involved in this research can imagine discoveries that may someday rend dyslexia both treatable and preventable.