Sidestepping diagnosis

March 20, 2014

In her response to my challenge to the scientific validity of a dyslexia diagnosis (“Time to rethink dyslexia?”, Opinion, 6 March), Kate Saunders reframes the issue in terms of the needs of disabled students and refers to the Equality Act 2010 (“Those with dyslexia need continued aid”, Letters, 13 March).

The trick here is to appeal to the disinterested reader’s natural and humane instinct to support the assertion that students with disabilities should receive the help necessary to maximise their potential. Who could argue with that? I don’t. In her letter, however, Saunders neatly sidesteps my point by interweaving the term “disability” with that of “dyslexia” so that the two become intertwined. This act of fusion is further beefed up by references to discrimination.

I don’t argue against the importance of meeting the genuine needs of those with disabilities (that is, those who find immense difficulty in decoding text and who may need highly specialised IT equipment) but instead point out that the concept of dyslexia and its assessment are wholly flawed. Nowhere in Saunders’ letter is there any recognition of the problems that result from the hijacking of the term “dyslexia” to describe so many different difficulties, only some of which represent a genuine disability that might impair access to degree-level study. Nowhere does she acknowledge the problem of assessments that are conducted by privately employed personnel on behalf of fee-paying customers who themselves benefit substantially from the outcome that is typically sought and usually provided.

As Saunders indicates, there is a shortage of funds for those with genuine disabilities. So let’s be absolutely clear about which sorts of problems require assistance and how help can be tailored to individuals, while avoiding pseudo-medical diagnoses that only obfuscate matters. If we do this, there might be fewer cases of ironic jokes in universities about dyslexia assessments that always result in a dyslexia diagnosis, extra time in examinations offered as an almost Pavlovian response and laptops for all who are diagnosed dyslexic whatever their individual needs.

Julian Elliott
Principal of Collingwood College and professor of education
Durham University

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