"The D Word"
By Benjamin J. Lovett
In a 2007 episode of "South Park," the show's four boys visit a town where homeless people began to acquire enough money to buy homes, leaving the townspeople upset at having to live next to homeless people1. Paranoia ensued, since as one villager put it, "the people living in the house right next door to you could be homeless, and you wouldn't even know." The joke, of course, lies in the villagers' essentialist view of homeless people; the villagers failed to realize that someone with a home is no longer homeless. "The D Word" highlights a similar error, but its satire is unintentional.
"The D Word" is a triumph in essentialism, but applied to the characteristic "dyslexic" rather than "homeless." It is no mistake that despite a general sea-change in referring to individuals with disabilities using person-first language, this film refers to "dyslexic people." For the film's makers and scientific consultants, Sally Shaywitz foremost among them, having dyslexia is what sociologists call a master status (Hunt, 2011)—it takes precedence over all other statuses and roles that someone has, and it can never be questioned or altered.
I saw "The D Word" at a special screening at the National Association of School Psychologists' February 2012 convention. Shaywitz, a prolific researcher, presented the film, along with a brief opening lecture and a follow-up question-and-answer session. Since then, other screenings have occurred, including one on Capitol Hill to the recently-formed Congressional Dyslexia Caucus. According to the film's website2, it will be shown on HBO this fall, with DVDs available for sale in 2013. Clearly, this film is a very important popular media representation of dyslexia.
To its credit, "The D Word" explains and endorses the phonological processing theory of dyslexia, a theory with much scientific support. But the film also includes a mix of first-person perspectives and empirical claims that are either contradicted by research or that simply have not been studied empirically. These perspectives and claims unite in a set of general themes.
The first theme is that dyslexia is accompanied by distinct strengths. In her opening lecture, Shaywitz referred to a "sea of strengths" model of dyslexia, in which poor decoding is surrounded by strong skills in vocabulary, reasoning, concept formation, and other cognitive capacities. In the film, the first-person perspectives emphasize these strengths and others. One lawyer with a dyslexia diagnosis opines that dyslexia is "positively correlated with creativity." Financier Charles Schwab, also diagnosed with dyslexia, says that the disorder leads to less "sequential" thinking patterns, also aiding creativity. Another of the movie's heroes contrasts "learning" (which dyslexia is said to hinder) with "thinking." The film insists that each weakness in dyslexia is "balanced" by a strength, as if by some cosmic law. However, empirical research has instead linked dyslexia to a variety of other problems; reading problems are often comorbid with other learning and psychiatric disorders (Carroll, Maughan, Goodman, & Meltzer, 2005), and on average, students with learning disability diagnoses actually have somewhat lower cognitive skills (as indexed by their IQ scores; see Kavale & Forness, 1995).
The second theme is that if you need to work hard to accomplish great things, your dyslexia is impairing you. This theme is never explicitly stated, but again and again, the film's protagonists (all high achievers) report having to use various learning and study strategies, as if these activities are evidence of dyslexia. One surgeon with a dyslexia diagnosis reports that he had to read before and after his anatomy class, and even then, he only really understood anatomy when he saw the cadaver. Another individual with a dyslexia diagnosis reports that she needed to use countless flash cards to study for exams. A politician with a dyslexia diagnosis reports needing to underline or highlight text when he reads. Entrepreneur Richard Branson reports being so impaired that he had to write down what had happened at meetings, or else he would forget what happened. Of course, these are strategies that many nondisabled people use, but the film implies that they are signs of a latent disability. Indeed, the seats in the film's viewing room had small cards with the heading "You may be dyslexic if…."
The third theme is that a diagnosis of dyslexia is always beneficial. Parents and students speak movingly about how much better they felt once they received a diagnosis. The film's main character (who is also the filmmaker's son) avers that the key thing in coping with dyslexia is to "own" the diagnosis—to accept that this is just the way that one is. When this young man receives first-year honors at his highly selective private liberal arts college, the film implies that his "owning" the diagnosis led to his success. Certainly, accepting a disability can be a step toward adapting to life challenges, and the dyslexia label can indeed make people feel better (Riddick, 2000), perhaps because some individuals are comforted by having an explanation of the difficulties that they have faced. However, diagnoses are hardly as benign as the film suggests; instead, research suggests that learning disability diagnoses can act as stigmatizing labels that harm achievement via self-fulfilling prophecies (Phillips, Hayward, & Norris, 2011). When the diagnoses are valid and services are truly necessary, these risks are worth taking, but diagnosis is a far more serious matter than the movie suggests.
The fourth theme is that accommodations should be provided, no questions asked. Shaywitz is interviewed extensively in the film, and she tells us that "dyslexia robs a person of time," making extended time accommodations necessaryin a variety of settings, especially tests. She explicitly claims that additional time will provide substantial help only to someone with dyslexia; she says that nondisabled individuals may gain a few points, but they may also change a correct answer to a wrong answer — in sum, they do not really benefit. This is simply false; recent reviews of research have shown that students generally benefit from additional testing time regardless of their disability status (Lovett, 2010; Sireci, Scarpati, & Li, 2005). Shaywitz is even more vehement about the inappropriateness of asking that people with a dyslexia diagnosis be re-evaluated for dyslexia before receiving accommodations. But obviously, people's functional limitations can change greatly over the course of their lives, making Shaywitz's view confusing.
When one considers these four themes together, they form a radically revised portrait of dyslexia as a different kind of mind that is creative and nonlinear, slower at reading but superior in thinking, only impaired in the sense of having to put forth substantial effort to attain great things, and needing accommodations so that their accomplishments come more easily. It is unsurprising, then, that the film's website places "conservative" estimates of dyslexia's prevalence at 20 percent; if anything, it seems that well over 20 percent of the population would meet the lax definition provided by the film.
This portrait diverges greatly from the conception of dyslexia based in research and endorsed by our disability discrimination laws, which require that dyslexia be a true disability, involving actual poor reading skills that impair someone in life, relative to the average student or to the general population. And empirical studies dispute many of the film characters' specific claims, or else have not even been done to test these claims. Practicing diagnosticians should therefore be wary of the film, as should educators and parents; they will hear little useful information, other than about the phonological professing theory of dyslexia. Worse still, many viewers will begin to think that they or their children have dyslexia, just because they find that they have to work hard at academic or professional tasks. In sum, despite its potential to counter misconceptions about dyslexia, "The D Word" ends up providing several.
1 "Night of the Living Homeless," Season 11, Episode 7, original air date April 18, 2007.
Carroll J.M., Maughan, B., Goodman, R., Meltzer, H. (2005). Literacy difficulties and psychiatric disorders: evidence for comorbidity. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46, 524-532.
Hunt, S. (2011). Master status. In G. Ritzer & J. Ryan (Eds.), The concise encyclopedia of sociology (p. 376). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Kavale, K.A., & Forness, S.R. (1995). The nature of learning disabilities: Critical elements of diagnosis and classification. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Lovett, B.J. (2010). Extended time testing accommodations for students with disabilities: Answers to five fundamental questions. Review of Educational Research, 80, 611-638.
Phillips, L.M., Hayward, D.V., & Norris, S.P. (2011). Persistent reading disabilities: Challenging six erroneous beliefs. In A. McGill-Franzen & R.L. Allington (Eds.), Handbook of reading disability research (pp. 110-119). New York: Routledge.
Riddick, B. (2000). An examination of the relationship between labeling and sigmitisation with special reference to dyslexia. Disability and Society, 15, 653-667.
Sireci, S.G., Scarpati, S.E., & Li, S. (2005). Test accommodations for students with disabilities: An analysis of the interaction hypothesis. Review of Educational Research, 75, 457-490.
Benjamin J. Lovett
Department of Psychology
One Park Place
Elmira, NY 14901