Sunday 2 December 2012

Dyslexia and the piano tuners

Yet another in my occasional series about dyslexia. Last night I was at a  party and I was having a chatting to one of my best friends, who has a dyslexic son. We were discussing attitudes to dyslexia and the fact that some people do not recognise the condition at all. In my opinion the level of public understanding of dyslexia is where the public understanding of blindness in the 1950's. In the 1950's if you were the parent of a blind child, any conversation about career prospects would inevitably involve a life of tuning pianos.The simple fact that someone couldn't see would lead to a perception that in some way shape or form, the child would suffer a mental imparement that precluded all manner of other employment avenues. In fairness, life in the 1950's did not have all the technological aids that allow all manner of career opportunities. Having said that, there is no reason at all why a blind person could be a physicist, a theologian or a myriad of other careers. David Blunkett is a prime example of the fact having been home secretary.

The reason people would suggest a career in piano tuning was primary due to prejudice and ignorance. This is where we are with dyslexia. There is not the stereotypical "piano tuner" job for dyslexics. Instead we get commentators making the most ludicrous claims, some claiming the condition doesn't exist and others claiming dyslexics have "other special gifts". The truth is quite mundane. Dyslexia is a condition that is unrelated to intelligence, but it hampers the ability to successfully measure it. In the UK we use time limited public examinations as the primary method of discerning intelligence. This method effectively discriminates against dyslexics. Let me give you an example. I would suggest that my wife and I are of similar IQ's. We may have strengths and weaknesses in certain subjects, but I would say neither of us is measurably more intelligent. We are both well read and well travelled. We read all manner of books and have reasonably similar interests in most spheres of literature (apart from Sci Fi, Comics and Chick Lit). Probably 50-60% of the books I've read in the last 25 years she has also read and enjoyed on my recommendation.

Earlier this year, we were on a plane and she was reading a novel on her kindle. I decided to try a little experiment. I would read the same page as her and see how far I could get before she "turned the page". The result startled me. It was consistently about 2/3rds of the way through the page. I had always thought I read more quickly than she did, because I tend to finish books more quickly.

This made me realise that in the forum of public examinations, I am at a significant disadvantage. This is the reason that dyslexics are given extra time in exams. I recently had an argument with a parent of a non dyslexic child as to the fairness of this. They felt that it was changing the goalposts. My view was that exams are designed to measure intelligence and knoweldge of the subjects. Exam times are designed to give pupils a "reasonable" time to complete the questions. For me, it used to take me 1/3rd longer to read the question and I then had to check the answer twice, to ensure I'd not done something stupid. This is how I coped. I got 10 O levels and three A levels at average grades. I was not given extra time and "ran out of time" in all subjects. I couldn't properly check answers. As I wasn't recognised as dyslexic then and dyslexics weren't given extra time anyway, that was the way the cookie crumbled.

When I started working, my weaknesses became my strengths. Because I had to check things properly and understand things properly, I found I understood issues better than many of my peers. Whilst my work may have been slower initially, I found that by concentrating, I'd actually complete work far better and more accurately than my peers when given a suitable timeframe. Often I'd take work home to check, so employers would get value for money. The downside is that when I am rushed, as with all dyslexics, I have problems with accuracy of written work. This means that I have to plan work properly. It is only when we have a "drop everything and get this out in half an hour" scenario, that it becomes problematical (ie when there is no time to check things through). Whilst I became conscious of this, I also realised that people who aren't dyslexic also make mistakes working under pressure.

I would usually work around this by asking a colleague "can you have a quick look at this before it goes out". Invariably they'd pick up some ridiculous typo or mangled grammar and have a laugh about it. What is interesting is I am very good at checking other peoples work. I've had far more practice than most.

If you ask many employers if they would employ a dyslexic and what work would they give them, I suspect they would exclude any job where accuracy of written communications was essential. Whilst there are individual cases where this may be appropriate, as a blanket rule it is as stupid as saying a blind person cannot become a physicist. I write a blog and I've had nearly three quarters of a million hits. Like it or not, I think I can get my message over and that is what communication is all about, isn't it?

I fully anticipate that within five years there will be software available that will be able take a blog such as this and correct all of the failings of my spelling and grammar, and will learn how my particular version of dyslexia mangles what I say. I hope that the next generation of dyslexics will not be disadvantaged and will not be excluded from jobs, courses and opportunities based on the views of people who don't understand the condition.

Due to the pressures of writing about other issues, I've not written all I want on this subject recently. In the new year, I plan to cover the subject in far more detail. I am extremely pleased to hear that in Mill Hill, a specialist centre for Dyslexia will be opening shortly. I have spoken to the team running the organisation and I thoroughly commend their work and their goals. If you live in the London Borough of Barnet and have issues with dyslexia (either yourself or as a parent), please have a look at the relevant pages on this website - - I am more than happy to publicise other Barnet based organisations who are working in this field.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Just in case you were not aware, I heard recently of a new font which is designed to help people with dyslexia to read more easily. Details are here
I believe that the maker is hopeful that the Kindle will add support for it. There's also a browser designed by the same person.
Hopefully this will help to deal with the worldwide glut of piano tuners, without having to resort to culling.