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The Dark side of Dyslexia: Stigma


I'm finally back after quite a long absence, my apologises! Hopefully I will be able to get back on track now and keeping on posting about dyslexia.



An ‘identity blemish’ and a negative socio-cultural construction based on a person’s publically displayed behaviours, stigma labels can be highly damaging to ones self-esteem and self-concept. Sociologist Erving Goffman (1959 and 1990) labelled these publically shown behaviours as ‘frontstage behaviours’, which people are judged and analysed on. Representing a negative and damaging societal reaction, stigma can lead to derogatory comments aimed towards member of society, discrimination and prejudice. Ultimately this can cause a shift in the power dynamics in society, causing the ‘stigmatised’ to become socially excluded, lose power and status in an ‘us and them divide’. Well that was all very theoretical! But within Sociology and Social Psychology, large amounts of theoretical literature, and empirical research, exist that outline and explain the construction of stigma within contemporary society. Interestingly I was curious to see whether research concerning stigma around dyslexia exists within this body of study.



From my own experiences and conversations with other dyslexics I have definitely seen some evidence of stigma within daily life. One such example is people assuming that all dyslexics can’t read or spell. However the reality is very much different. Like all humans across the globe, every dyslexic individual is unique and find different daily tasks difficult. These can include organisation, auditory/working memory, filling out forms, understand timetables and maintaining attention and concentration. This lack of understanding and scope of what dyslexia is can cause individuals, who mean well and are trying to help, to be condescending, unhelpful or even slightly rude. Additionally, a number of fellow dyslexics have reported being allocated hurtful negative labels, such as lazy, stupid, thick, slap-dash and sloppy. Once again, this indicates a lack of understanding, empathy and knowledge of dyslexia emphasises how dyslexics are singled out in society without being properly understand. These detrimental labels given to dyslexics are not representative or even remotely truthful. It may take dyslexics longer to complete a tasks or they may require some help or support with that task. But this does not mean that they live up to these hurtful labels, as many of us simply work and process information slightly differently. This is precisely one of the reasons that I set up this blog and its corresponding website. In order to educate, clear any misunderstanding about dyslexia and give a voice and support network to the dyslexic community.



Interestingly there does appear to be a research, both academic and cultural, that documents the existence of stigma amongst the dyslexic community. An article from the Independent featuring high profile dyslexic Richard Branson (see useful links section below) emphasised that so often dyslexia is merely seen as only a negative trait. This negativity bias/heuristic must be combatted in order to reduce stigma and assumptions made about dyslexics. Crucially Branson outlined that over sixty million people in the UK are dyslexic in some shape or form. Because of this large number represent approximately ten percent of the national population, dyslexia should be celebrated as all dyslexic individuals have huge excellent potentials to achieve. Therefore dyslexic should be recognised as a positive factor rather than a stigma-laden negative trait. On the British Dyslexia Association website the prevalence of stigma was not officially stated. But, it was emphasised that even though dyslexia is vastly evident in society “a large percentage of the population still do not understand what dyslexia is and do not know how best to support”. For an official established national body/association to state this on their website is pretty powerful and speaks volume on how dyslexia is still misunderstood, potentially leading to stigma and discrimination, even in 2019.



An empirical interview study by Alexander-Passe (2015) delved into the life and experiences of dyslexic individuals. This highly intriguing and comprehensive research outlined both how stigma is created and whether dyslexic individuals feel they are stigmatised against. The forces that drive stigma towards dyslexics were discussed at length within the article. The ‘driving factors’ discussed include a lack of knowledge and understanding towards dyslexics/dyslexia, a confirmation bias where people are labelled and viewed as dyslexic and all other characteristics are ignored and a ‘ableism argument’ where those with a disability are seen as less capable compared to those with no disability/neurodiversity. Fourthly, the author stresses that a lack of understanding and warped view of dyslexia is created by there being no single scientifically agreed definition of what dyslexia actually is. This ambiguity can cause dyslexic individuals to lose out on tailored support and opportunities in schools, workplaces and society as a whole.



Results from the interview study found that individuals viewed their dyslexia to be both positive and negative, as it provides them with unique individualised skills but simultaneously made them feel different to others. In relation to stigmatisation, participants stressed that dyslexia was a ‘tabooed’ subject that people are nervous and reluctant to discuss. Consequently, this lack of discussion contributes to the poor understand of what dyslexia actually is. Notably, one participant explained that when they have disclosed as being dyslexic others have responded by saying “really you don’t look dyslexic”. In saying this, is it suggested that disability is something that one can see and if people don’t publically present this ‘disability identity’ then they are lying or being untruthful about their diagnosis. This disregard can be extremely damaging. Not only can it lower trust levels, self-esteem and self-worth (as discussed in the dyslexia and self-esteem blog) it could cause individuals to shy away from disclosing their dyslexia to others in order to receive help and support. The above quote does appear to somewhat represent stigma and prejudice. It may have been said as an innocent compliment to help the dyslexic individual feel better about themselves, but it can have damaging psychological consequences.



Thus, much like the negative affect dyslexia can have on self-esteem, stigma can also greatly affect the psychological wellbeing of dyslexics. The prevalence of stigma around dyslexia may be subtle or unintentional but it does still happen. Subsequently my message for the day stresses how important is to be aware and have some understanding of dyslexia and other neurodiversities. The willingness to learn and discuss tabooed topics is the key to reducing the stigma and empowering the affected individuals. Therefore, by doing this, the dark side and damaging underbelly surrounding dyslexia can be lessened.



Useful Links


Alexander-Passe, N. (2015). The Dyslexia Experience: Difference, Disclosure, Labelling, Discrimination and Stigma, Asia Pacific Journal of Developmental Differences, 2(2): 202-233.

British Dyslexia Association. (2019). Accessed on the 25th of February 2019, at https://www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/about.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Mayflower.

Goffman, E. (1990). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

The Independent. (2017). Accessed on the 3rd of March 2019, at https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/dyslexia-richard-branson-potential-intelligence-genius-advantage-virgin-a7710676.html

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