Dyslexia is a Gift? Where’s the Return Line?

Dyslexia is a gift? Where's the return line?  Why Dyslexia is NOT a Gift by Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley

I’ve had something on the tip of my tongue and burning a hole in my brain for years now and it seems like it’s finally the time to let it out. This blog post won’t make me any friends and I am totally okay with that. Dyslexia is not a gift. It just isn’t.

Dyslexia is Not a Gift

Students with dyslexia are not going to be successful, creative geniuses because they are dyslexic. They are going to be successful, creative geniuses because they are resilient, have support from community and family, are smart, and like the rest of us, found something they love. The books written about those who are uber successful have super supportive families or someone in their life who took an interest. Or they had the means. That is not the norm, that is the upper middle class view of dyslexia. It promotes a false narrative to all those kids who don’t have the support they need, or the resources. These are the kids who are sitting next to the kid I am advocating for, you know, the kids who don’t have an advocate.

Here’s the thing, I’ve worked with many, many students, adults and children, over the last twenty years and NOT ONE of them thought or thinks dyslexia is a gift. The adults I worked with in adult literacy didn’t become movie directors, billionaires, artists or famous actors. They became under employed, under educated and sometimes incarcerated adults. They take a hit to their self-esteem and a hit to their ability to be self-sufficient. They cried in my office, they didn’t rejoice. The vast majority of them came from low socio-economic homes with little support and many times with parents who also didn’t have the literacy skills needed to excel. They are fearful and anxious that their kids will also suffer in school, and yes they will use the word suffer.

Look, I’m out there, I have had my boots on the ground for over 20 years. You know what I see? I see parents crying in IEP meetings. I train teachers flabbergasted that they don’t already know what I am teaching them. I see kids developing depression, anxiety, behavior problems and more. They would all give back their dyslexia if given the chance.

My perspective is built on my experience with multitudes of people, not a select few. I have worked in low socioeconomic neighborhoods and don’t even get me started on the kids for whom English is not their first language. I’m working with these students, I’m sitting in countless IEPs, I’m training teachers, and if we want to be taken seriously we have to continue to describe the toll of a failure to remediate and a failure to identify dyslexia really takes on a student and their family.

I have put my money where my mouth is by going to my state legislature and going to Capitol Hill. I know that promoting a dyslexia sperm bank hurts those of who try to be taken seriously by policy makers. We have to remember that his message is largely begin supported by those with the resources to help their children or themselves. But I’m here to tell you, it’s not reality and it’s far beyond the your neighborhood. So, stop it.



12 thoughts on “Dyslexia is a Gift? Where’s the Return Line?

  1. Patrice steele

    I totally agree dyslexia has been nothing but despair for me I still struggle as a 30 year old adult and I have other mental health issues mild Asperger’s and there’s not a lot of help where I’m from in Florida with dyslexia still looking for employment but dyslexia has nothing to do with the talents I already have that something separate. when you have Community you can do a lot of things but I still feel like there’s a door shut on me so I totally agree with everything you said in your blog.

  2. Christa

    This is the small minded ableist approach to understanding the difficulties that dyslexics face. Dyslexia can indeed be a gift. At the least it is completely neutral. It is the way in which a person’s brain develops, usually with strengths in some areas and trouble in others in traditional modes of education. What is not a gift and isn’t neutral is ableism – the discrimination and oppression of those who have differently wired brains and learning styles and needs.

    What the people you know are facing is ableism – a lack of support for the fact they are dyslexic, not dyslexia itself. And oppression compounds. A lower class dyslexic person of color WILL struggle more than an upperclass white person who is dyslexic. Because oppression compunds! But we don’t blame the oppressed – people of color or dyslexics. We blame the opressive systems.

    And your conceit that the only way to get policy makers to pay attention to treat dyslexia itself as though it is a curse is a backwards and ultimately more harmful way to approach the issue. If your students are told there is something wrong with their brains their depression and anxiety and low self esteem will only worsen. In fact that may be where a large portion of it in the students you know is coming from.

    We need to move forward to understanding differences like dyslexia as a natural worthwhile state of being that is deserving of our respect and support, NOT calling fundamental parts of our population – that does indeed gives strengths when recognized – the scary monster in the closet. Your discourse is familiar in all disability communities and disabled advocates like myself know it is not helpful.

    1. Peter Bowers

      Hello Christa,

      You make a very important point that “A lower class dyslexic person of color WILL struggle more than an upperclass white person who is dyslexic.”

      And this too, is an important point, “We need to move forward to understanding differences like dyslexia as a natural worthwhile state of being that is deserving of our respect and support.”

      But I would argue that Kelli is making a crucially important point that you have missed that is necessary for it to be possible to get where you want get to. I hope that you will take the time to see the rather long comment I posted on Part 2 of of this article. I try to clarify the point that the key obstacle that dyslexics face is an instructional one. English people live in a world in which the basic assumption that drives most literacy instruction (classroom and remedial) about our orthography is that it is a system that is MAINLY about representing the sounds of words. This is a false representation of our English spelling that results in most adults and children assuming that English is full of “exceptions”. In fact all those “sight words” that we have to memorize are completely ordered when we understand how our writing system actually works. Those exceptions should be taken as falsification of the “spelling rules” being taught. My own frame on this is that it turns out that dyslexics have a particular negative interaction with that misconstruction. Those who just see a written word and remembers how to read or spell it do not need to pause the think about how so spell “does” “sign” or “rough”. They just read or write it without having to think about the “sound-letter correspondences”. The dyslexic, on the other hand, does not have that kind of immediate access to the written word and pauses and tries to apply what they have been taught — and when they do, they get the spelling or reading wrong! I would argue that the greatest obstacle that dyslexics face is not whether or not other people think they have a gift or not. The greatest obstacle that Kelli is trying to highlight is that they suffer most when the standard instruction they receive misrepresents the writing system they are trying to learn. And this makes sense when we recognize that that instruction puts almost all the leverage for their learning on the cognitive processing (phonological processing) they have been Identified as having. When meaning and structure are brought to the process of making sense of print – everyone, but especially dyslexics – can UNDERSTAND spelling. If we highlight the fact that the word “does” is built on the base “do” and has an “-es” suffix, just like “goes” has a “go” base and an “-es” suffix, we can see the meaning connections between “do” and “does” is parallel to “go” and “goes”. What we need to tell everyone — but especially dyslexics, is what Carol Chomsky pointed out in 1970 — bases and affixes do not even have pronunciations until they are in a word. Once we start understanding the relationship between meaning structure and phonology, we can understand that the word “sign” can build the words “signal” “design” “signature” and many others – and that spelling marks that meaning connection. On of the gifts that many think dyslexics have is a capacity for lateral thinking, problem-solveing etc. That gift is leveraged for learning when we teach the actual structure of the language, and buried when we hide it.

      I really recommend you read Kelli’s part two. And I hope you read my comment there and explore some of the links to the linguistic tools teachers around the world are giving themselves and their students for understanding our writing system. No matter what else we do, it makes sense to me (and there is much research to support this) that the first task we should be doing is making sure that all students receive instruction that accurately represents our writing system. Once we get to that point, I think all of us will be better able to see the gifts that dyslexics bring all of us.

      1. Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley Post author

        Thank you Pete! To be clear, I never suggested any of the things that Crista stated I said in my blog posts. I don’t assume all lower socioeconmic people are african-american. I have never told a student they were broken or backwards. In fact, I did blame the system and not the oppressed. I encourage people to actually read what I write before they comment. I appreciate your support and I hope everyone reads your first comment as well.

    2. Dr. Kelli Sandman-Hurley Post author


      Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. You are taking what I said out of context and/or misinterpreting what I actually said. I actually did, and do, blame the education system and more specifically the university teacher training programs. I never blamed the ‘oppressed’ and I think if you reread the post without a preconceived idea of who I am or what my thoughts are you will see what was written.

      Additionally, my use of the terms low socioeconomic was not a euphemism for ‘a lower class dyslexic person of color’. The adults I wrote about were as diverse as you can get. Many different races of people can be low socioeconomic. Interestingly, one poster pointed out that it is a mistake to assume this only happens to those who struggling economically. You made it into another issue, not me.

      My biggest point was that students with dyslexia will success because they ARE resilient and smart, it seems you missed those sentences as well. My observation is that those success are more likely to happen for students who are identified and supported. I have never told a student there is something wrong with them, ever. Just ask them. I am an open book. You also made that leap with no supporting evidence from what I actually wrote.

      I have never once said that dyslexia is a curse, ever, not in writing, not in a presentation, and not even in personal private conversations. What I did say is that it makes my job harder at the political level to convince politicians there is an issue in the schools if people are out there saying it isn’t a problem.

      Please be more careful with your criticism. In the heat of emotion sometimes leaps are made that are totally unjustified and you have done just that.

  3. Ginger

    As the mother of a profoundly dyslexic child I could not agree with you more. My sons dyslexia has caused me more heartache than anything else in my life. I watched my sweet, loving, smart, funny little boy grow into a sad, depressed, self-loathing and bullied child. And he had support. He went to a specific school for dyslexic children 3-6 grades. Even those things didn’t save him from feeling the slam that comes from your peers, your teachers and the entire world when you can read well enough. Happily we found help for him and with lots of therapy, mental health days, one school counselor who “got it” and a million prayers, he graduated high school in 2016. I had to fight tooth and nail for him, though, and I still cry for his future some days.
    Dyslexia is not a gift. It’s just part of him. It’s no different than all the other things people are born with and they learn to cope and accommodate and advocate for themselves. They are not gifts. They just are.

  4. Laura

    Thank you for this post — it’s a reminder that can help folks understand the depth of the struggle for students and families with dyslexia. In defense of folks who perseverate on gifts, I suppose there is some value to help remove the misperception that learning disabilities like dyslexia equate to low intelligence. In that regard, I do think raising awareness about neurodiversity, while at the same time recognizing the real struggle and support that people with LD/dyslexia need, could be a valuable strategy to improve outcomes for struggling families.

  5. Marilyn Zecher

    The gift is that we do know how to help those with dyslexia. The problem, as you state, is that not enough people know how to help. Too few in public education know how to recognize the problem and then treat it early enough and long enough to make a difference. I was lucky, initially trained in a public school program dedicated to helping those who were reading and spelling below grade level, an O-G based program. We were not allowed to use the word dyslexia though. The answer IS to go to the legislature, the houses of higher education, to community and to organize, advocate for change. I do believe that many individuals with dyslexia find a talent and pursue it successfully. Too many do not and are lost, struggling to make a secure life for themselves.

  6. CAS

    Right on!! All we see on TV talk shows are the very few who have had the opportunities and support to overcome their challenges. The good news is that these success stories actually are iconic models that prove with proper diagnosis, support and training, a successful life can be achieved. Diagnosis and intervene early.

  7. Lynda Shour

    My son is dyslexic. The difference between he and I is that he was tested, diagnosed and tutored. He should have been tutored for dysgraphia too, but couldn’t afford both.
    He was in a Montessori school through 6th grade, which meant I had to have him privately tested, but the school was more than willing to listen to the results. This summer he will be tested again. I contacted the public school he is in now to make sure they will read and accept the recommendations. The said they’ll look at it, but they don’t have to accept the accommodation suggested. Don’t get me wrong, these are typically very helpful people, but just the attitude. It really pisses me off. Testing is not cheap. The college board needs it so they will consider giving him extra time. He’s just finished 10th grade.
    Personally I think I have expressive dyslexia. Grades in school were mostly C’s, E’s and F’s. I grew up in Scotland and according to the teachers I just didn’t work hard enough. I didn’t know how. In my 5th year of high school I began to do a bit better.
    I have cried, I have argued and almost been fired advocating for my child. I am a Montessori teacher at the same school my children used to attend. I’m not perfect and neither is the school!


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