History Of Dyslexia

This paper summarizes the history of dyslexia to understand how the perceptions of dyslexia have evolved over time. This writing will also examine how social, economic and political influences have impacted students with dyslexia throughout decades of educational history. Timetoast timeline of the history of Dyslexia May 24, 1970, a baby boy named John came into this world. His parents were excited and had big dreams for John. When the first day of kindergarten came, his parents helped pack up his supplies and were so excited as they put him on the bus. Much to their disappointment, the school became their worst nightmare. John met all his milestones as he developed into a happy go lucky five-year-old, so when the school called and said they wanted to test John and put him in a special classroom, his parents began to worry. John began to hate school and tell his parents that his teachers were not nice to him. His music teacher called him retarded and soon other children began to chant the same horrible words. The scenario above, as horrific as it seems, pales in comparison to the treatment of children in the early 1800 and 1900s.

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Children with disabilities were put in institutions, excluded from schools and access to learning, due to fears and/or the belief that these children could not learn and thus lead independent lives. The treatment of this population ruined their chances of becoming independent successful citizens. Learning disabilities have been discussed since the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s. As early as 1887 a German neurologist Adolf Kussmaul studied people that could see, were not intellectually delayed nor speech delayed but seemed blind to words. While scientists like Rudolf Berlin, who coined the term dyslexia in 1887, it was not until the 1930s that dyslexia was commonly used and not until the 1960s that public schools and the federal government began to take action (Morin). Prior to this movement, children who had reading difficulties were considered to have either mental impairments or poor motivation. Child development and educational psychology were in their beginning stages so the inaccurate picture of students who struggle with reading could not be refuted at this time. (​Vellutino, Fletcher, Snowling, & Scanlon, 2004).

​While schools were improving at providing services to these students, they were commonly taught in separate schools, classrooms and away from peers. Coupled with this, children with dyslexia were being diagnosed in higher proportions from wealthier socio-economic groups while their counterparts from lower socio-economic groups were not getting any services (A Brief History of Dyslexia). Students whose parents had money were able to get somewhat of education and those that came from poor families did not. This disparity put many people with dyslexia at an even greater risk of living in poverty and not being able to care for themselves. However, the Civil Rights Movement and the Supreme Court case, 1954 ​Brown v. Board of Education​ decision which expanded equal rights under the law to minorities, laid the foundations for similar equal rights for people with disabilities. “Parents, who had begun forming special education advocacy groups as early as 1933, became the prime movers in the struggle to improve educational opportunities for their children (Pardini). ”

In the 60s and 70s, educators, doctors, and researches around the world started to recognize the​ ​legitimacy of learning disabilities and its ramifications on the learning process. (Morin, n. d. ). Parent and advocate groups keep pushing for the rights of students with disabilities, thus leading up to the passing of Public Law 94-142, in 1975. This was a landmark win for students with disabilities, affecting millions of people. It was now required of public schools to provide ALL students, regardless of their disability, a free and appropriate public education.

Furthermore, schools had to provide this education in the least restrictive environment. Because of this legislation, a shift took place in which educational changes were now thought to be the best course of action in helping students with learning disabilities. There was solid evidence to support the idea that many poor readers are poor readers because of poor instruction, not excluding biological factors as relevant because they are interrelated (Vellutino). This was a monumental win for people with disabilities, changing the course of their lives. These students had rights to an education, rights to learn alongside their nondisabled peers. While these landmark cases and decisions were being made, schools were slow to make big changes. John’s parents had to still fight with district administration to have him spend time with his non-disabled peers. They had to spend thousands of dollars on an outside evaluation to prove their son was not retarded.

Finally, when John entered middle school, he was exposed to a group of teachers that saw the potential in him, particularly his music teacher. Middle school was a turning point for John, he had to work harder than most of his peers, but he was determined to participate in music classes and rejoin some general education academic classes. Meanwhile, big discoveries were happening in research labs across the United States and the World. In the 80s, doctors like, Dr. Roger Sperry, discovered that the brain’s two hemispheres process information differently. The brain’s left hemisphere focuses on processing fine detail whereas the right hemisphere deals primarily on large-scale, big-picture thinking. Based on this understanding, another researcher, Howard Gardner, a ​research professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, developed the idea of multiple intelligences (Morin).

As a result of Gardner’s work, dyslexia was viewed as an issue with how the brain processes information versus people being mentally deficient or lazy. Unfortunately, students like John were still being tracked into paths that the school thought was the best placement. When he entered high school, the guidance counselor wanted him to enter the track of classes that were not slated for college. They wanted John to take auto shop and leave high school with a job they felt he was destined to have. John hated cars and engines. He wanted to go to college and pursue music. Again his parents had to intervene and fight the district for what they knew was in his best interest. John not only graduated high school with honors but also went on to double major at Millikin University. He became a successful music teacher. He later went on to earn his Master’s degree and is now a highly recognized principal, recently earning Principal of the Year award in Lake County. He also speaks all over the country about his experiences and fighting for education for ALL students.

What if his parents had not been fighting for him? What about the millions of children that do not have the same experiences John did and are in jobs that people deemed in their best interest? Doctors and educators are still learning more about the brain and how it works. In the 90s, scientists like Dr. Sally Shaywitz began using technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to pinpoint areas in the brain that become active or less active as individuals with dyslexia and nondyslexics read. Because of the advancements in technology, Dr. Shaywitz was able to confirm that the dyslexic brain concentrated on the right-hemisphere the brain, while the non-dyslexics brain focused on the left-hemisphere (Wolf, 2007).

Additionally, she ascertained that when people with dyslexia were trained they could actually shift brain hemispheres while reading, allowing their brains to interpret reading like their non-dyslexic peers. The work of doctors and researchers through the use of technology advancements was instrumental in understanding the impact of research-based instruction on improving dyslexic readers. Because of these discoveries, educators today are required by law to use these research-based methods when providing instruction.

The later part of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century came with big changes to legislation for people with disabilities. With the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and updates to IDEA in 2004, the lives of people with disabilities were transformed. Having a disability was no longer considered socially unacceptable. Famous musicians, authors, actors, athletes, etc. are now coming out to talk about themselves or family members that have been diagnosed with disabilities. People with disabilities have the support of the courts to ensure their rights are protected. Research is still being conducted to support people and families affected by dyslexia. In 2005 a team at Yale discovered which gene dyslexia is related to. It is inconceivable that just 50 years ago millions of Americans were being denied the right to education thus a meaningful life. There is still much room for improvement, but the gains our justice and school systems have undergone in less than a century is encouraging and beneficial to ALL people in the United States. Students with disabilities now have equal access to the general education curriculum and the chance to lead productive independent lives.

Works Cited

  1. “A Brief History of Dyslexia. ” ​A Brief History of Dyslexia | The History of Dyslexia​, dyslexiahistory. web. ox. ac. uk/brief-history-dyslexia. Morin, Amanda. “A History of Learning Disabilities and ADHD. ” ​Understood. org​,
  2. www. understood. org/en/learning-attention-issues/getting-started/what-you-need-to-know/a-timeline-of-learning-and-attention-issues. “Preview of Article:” ​Rethinking Schools Online​,
  3. rethinkingschools. aidcvt. com/restrict. asp?path=archive/16_03/Hist163. shtml. Vellutino, F. R. ,
  4. Fletcher, J. M. , Snowling, M. J. , & Scanlon, D. M. (2004). Specific reading disability(dyslexia): what have we learned in the past four decades? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45(1), 2-40.
  5. “What Is Dyslexia?” ​Yale Dyslexia​, dyslexia. yale. edu/dyslexia/what-is-dyslexia/.
10 October 2020

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