From the perspective of an affected person: Are dyslexics really handicapped?

A commentary by Lars Michael Lehmann, dyslexia expert and specialist journalist

Lars_Michael_LehmannYes, I have experienced for myself that dyslexics are regarded as handicapped. In the GDR era, people with learning difficulties in reading and writing were quickly regarded as learning disabled and had to attend an „auxiliary school“. At that time the term „dyslexia“ was not known. Today it has become a little more humane when I look at the development in Central Germany since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Nevertheless, little is known about our challenges as dyslexics. In today’s education system, people have become more open or more inclusive. Nevertheless, many experts who work with those affected know very little about it and cannot put themselves in our world of life and feelings.

A drawer or a label „handicapped“ or „sick“ is quickly available for us. I think it is a mistake that even the Federal Association for Dyslexia and Dyscalculia sees us as affected. For years, the association has been fighting for a recognized disability or illness that is listed in the medical manual of the ICD-10 as a mental disorder. That is why I am not a member of this association.

In the 90’s I only learned by detours that I was not a common learning handicapped, but different experts thought that I was a normal intelligent dyslexia. Consequently, I thought that I had to get every educational opportunity and demanded it from the authorities and ministries. At the time, I did not know that we were classified as disabled. That is why it was not easy to obtain suitable vocational rehabilitation through the Employment Agency. Because the authority saw you as a disabled person, which in retrospect was of no use to me. The authority was not in a position to promote an individual integration measure.  As a rule, one was only told what one was not allowed to and was not able to do. This did not fit in with the professional ideas I had.

About 20 years ago I wanted to become a photographer because I had a family background and a talent for photography. Here in East Germany, the difficult economic situation certainly played a role. Although I had the chance several times to do an apprenticeship with a photographer, the authorities were opposed, because in my case a professional development agency in Bad Pyrmont was responsible. I did not understand that at that time. Because with a dyslexia you need more time for written work from today’s point of view, spelling was less important in this subject. What counts here is some mathematics, technical understanding, a high degree of creativity and openness to work with people. I fulfilled these requirements with a lot of practical experience. The vocational rehabilitation assessment at that time saw things differently. And my career aspiration had to give way to the ideas of the authorities. Forced to do so, I was retrained as a screen printer, with which I could not do much. Here it was made clear to me that a „handicapped status“ can do nothing. Not real integration, but exclusion. That was integration against the person to be integrated. But it should be the other way round: You see the potential and promote it accordingly. That’s why I can perhaps understand why I tend to take a critical view of a disabled status. A dyslexia is a weakness that can be compensated for with courage and self-motivation if you are mentally stable enough. That’s why you don’t need a disabled status for it. I would have imagined under a vocational support organisation that one would get a support lesson there tailored to the individual learning difficulties. This would have worked better in the free economy. In my view, such institutions are not really up to date.

For me, however, these experiences also had something good. I simply could not rely on the state, but had to learn to go my professional way on my own responsibility. This step was not easy. It was uncomfortable. Today I can look back on these experiences with a smile and gratitude. Besides my research, these experiences were a good tool for my current work with the affected protégés. Because there is no reason why we as dyslexics should belong to the group of „handicapped people“.

One must not deny, there are certainly adults, who were not sufficiently promoted due to bad living conditions and got beside the dyslexia psychological secondary illnesses. Here there may be individual cases in which there is a mental handicap. But this does not apply to all those affected, which is why clinical psychology, which considers dyslexia to be a handicap, has not been able to identify the causes of the disease.