Dear Grammar Policeman or Policewoman,
First of all, I should probably tell you that I used to be one of you. As a high school English teacher, I used to grade essay after essay, feeling increasingly angrier the deeper I got into my grading stack over the disregard for commas, the misuse of apostrophes to create plurals, the insistence on the erroneous alot instead of the correct (if boring) a lot.
I wasn’t exactly working myself up to vandalize grammatically offensive public signs, but certainly I did my share of feeling superior to people on the other side of an internet connection who made errors in their online contributions.
Then, as happens so very often, the universe laughed at my ignorance and set out to teach me a lesson. I became mama to two brilliant, creative little people. And those little people just so happen to be dyslexic.
In spite of being a “highly-qualified” teacher with a master’s degree in education, I was sadly and completely ignorant about dyslexia when I was in the classroom. Was dyslexia seeing letters backwards? Had those kids not read enough or been read to enough when they were younger? I didn’t know, and it didn’t seem like anything I needed to know much about anyway, because I’d only ever had one IEP that listed a dyslexia diagnosis. I had no clue then that almost every child with an IEP I’d ever taught was probably dyslexic. I didn’t realize that “Specific Learning Disability” is what public schools called dyslexia because it helped avoid spending meager special education budgets on costly, though actually effective, interventions. I didn’t realize that I’d probably had many more students with dyslexia than I’d ever had IEPs for because avoiding testing and intervention is another tactic for making do with a meager special education budget. After all, 5-20% of the population is estimated to be dyslexic.
Being the homeschooling mama of dyslexic children has put me squarely on the playing field to see the struggles of any and all language learning for people with dyslexia. It’s one of those things that one just can’t understand until one has experienced it. But to give you an idea of what it’s like, think about the thing you’ve struggled to learn the most. Imagine that you can’t just fake it till you make it to the test or the end of the course. It’s something that you struggle with mightily every single day for a lifetime because reading and writing is so ingrained in everyday life.
Please pay attention to what I’m about to say. Dyslexic people aren’t stupid. They have at least average intelligence, and very many of them are exceptionally smart. I also want you to understand that many people with dyslexia are smart in ways that aren’t appreciated in the school game. My children, and many other dyslexic people, have spatial intelligence beyond what I can understand from my neurotypical perspective. It’s almost like they have access to a 6th sense. It’s no coincidence that so many wildly successful entrepreneurs, internet moguls, and science heroes are, or were, dyslexic. A big part of understanding dyslexia is understanding that it isn’t all struggle. Beyond the fight to learn to read and write, there are gifts, and our society would do well to start celebrating and fostering those gifts rather than dwelling on what’s difficult.
Our culture is full of people who want to raise awareness of differences, of people who pay lip service to being compassionate and understanding. So hear this.
Our culture is full of people who want to raise awareness of differences, of people who pay lip service to being compassionate and understanding. So hear this. Mocking people who have difficulty remembering and putting into practice the many, many nuances of written language is bullying. It discourages people who may have something very important to say – something clever beyond the thoughts most neurotypical brains can conjure up – from speaking up. Because every dyslexic person you encounter has a lifetime behind him or her of being mocked and looked down upon for not getting the written communication thing quite right.
Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you just didn’t know. You just didn’t get it. Please, act on your beliefs about accepting and celebrating neurodiversity. Give people a little grammatical grace. Yes, work to teach children the conventions of our language, but do it with compassion and the understanding that language learning is more than a little difficult for many of us humans.
Thanks for coming to my Ted Talk.