Guest editorial: Must all disabilities be treated at public expense?
January 20, 2015
During recent months, opinion pieces have appeared here bemoaning the sad, lonely fate of neglected dyslexic students who, it seems, are often deprived of the benefit of special programs. I’m not sure I agree. I am dyslexic but, luckily, was not diagnosed until I was in grad school. I consider myself blessed to have avoided any sort of special treatment.
My second-grade teacher told my parents that I was having trouble reading, so my mom invoked the 1956 solution and we headed to the local optometrist for a pair of glasses that might as well have been window glass. I wore them about twice. Then I learned to read.
I had trouble with the readers aimed at my grade level — because they were boring and simplistic. So I started reading books aimed at higher levels. This forced me to develop habits of memory and concentration. If dyslexia struck while reading a particular paragraph, I could recognize the inconsistency right away and read it again. I made time for reading by getting up an hour early and, needless to say, had no electronic gizmos to distract me.
Within a couple of years, I’d made my way through Jack London, Jim Kjelgaard, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton, and eventually the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and Robert Service. Importantly, nobody pandered to my dyslexia, because "trouble reading" never came up again. The writers I read were good, honest story-tellers, not clever, grant-sucking educational parasites. The stories were stories for boys or tomboys, there were no detours in them for gender sensibilities or kowtowing to diversity. They weren’t racist or sexist, but the stuff was fun to read because the writers weren’t looking over their shoulders for the political correctness police.
Eventually, I read a lot of books and graduated from high school. I went to Brown, unaided by any affirmative action program for the learning disabled, because I still didn’t know I was learning disabled. Then I came to grad school in English at the U. of U., which is where I found out I was dyslexic. A couple months later, at the Kennedy Center, I did a reading of my own poetry with the U. Jazz Band (Beat poetry could be the last refuge of the deeply dyslexic). Over the next few years, I did a bit of freelance writing, wrote and directed a syndicated daily radio show about television, did a year of law school at the U., and finished up at Cornell.
Then I went to work at an "elite" law firm. After I’d gained some seniority, I was responsible for training the new lawyers with whom I worked, and I detected signs of dyslexia in the writing of many of these top graduates of top law schools. Usually, it wasn’t hard to help them address their problems because they were hard-working and ambitious and had already defeated their "disability" on their own terms.
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The same is undoubtedly true for all the great men who were supposedly dyslexic: Edison, Einstein, Churchill, Ted Turner, Charles Schwab, and all those NASA engineers.
Every single one of them excelled because any trouble they might have had with reading or other activities was within their power to overcome with hard work, concentration, and memory.
When I first decided to write this response, I mentioned it to a few friends. I was trying to get a feel for whether they thought it might be too unkind (even for me). I was surprised how many of them respected professionals and public servants in our community told me that they were dyslexic, too.
If 20 percent of the population has a problem, is it a disability or merely part of life? If so and many have overcome it on their own, does it require special treatment at public expense? I don’t know.