Although never formally diagnosed, I’m quite certain that I’m dyslexic. I read terribly slowly, and I have my entire life. In first grade, we used the SRA Reading Laboratory program, which had laminated folders that conveyed a story and asked questions. I found this picture. If memory serves, and yes this was a while ago, most classmates had completed the boxes fairly easily by the end of the year. I struggled to complete the first box and barely got into the second. In fifth grade, we were asked to select a book to read on our own for a book review. I found a book that looked mildly interesting in the school library, and then I asked my teacher if I was expected to read more than a chapter. During my sophomore year in high school, I saw an ad for a speed reading course that was accessible by bus from my house. I couldn’t afford it, so I went and asked if I could attend at no charge if I enrolled a full class from my school. They agreed, and so I did. It didn’t work. I couldn’t master the technique. Before taking the SATs, I was advised to read the questions prior to reading the essays. To me that was impossible; I would never have had time. I always struggled with foreign languages. I could go on.
I read slowly, word for word, and subvocalize, meaning that I read silently aloud in my head. When I was growing up, I thought dyslexia meant flipping letters, or numbers, and that wasn’t me. I was never tested. No one ever pointed out that I was unusually slow at reading to my parents. I did well in school, at least for the most part. In my sophomore year of high school, I suffered in one course, Biology, which required endless memorization with no coherent organizational structure, at least none that I could discern. My parents became concerned, really for the first time in my life, about my academic performance. The teacher told my parents that I probably would pass the course, but that perhaps I should consider a career in the Air Force rather than going to college. To this day, I have no idea why he chose that branch. I muddled through, earning the lowest grade I ever received in any course, from elementary school through law school, with him.
I once told a pediatrician that I was quite certain I was dyslectic. He found that hard to believe. When I asked why, he said that it was because he advises parents of dyslectic children that they can do whatever they wish, with one exception: becoming a lawyer. I’m a lawyer.
With respect, I think this piece of advice is mistaken. I have taught thousands of students throughout my now 25-year law school teaching career. This has included students with wide range of disabilities. I’ve taught students who are legally blind, hearing impaired, with panic disorders, with attention deficit disorders, with anxiety, and yes, with dyslexia. I’ve observed no correlation of any of these sorts of challenges to intelligence or academic performance. I reject the occasional urban legend that dyslexics are especially smart. They aren’t. I suspect they are distributed in the same manner as nearly any other identifiable cohort, setting aside, of course, persons with intellectual disabilities. Yes, there are published lists of famous dyslectics, and one might infer from the great accomplishments of Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Steve Jobs, Leonardo di Vinci, Pablo Picasso, John F. Kennedy, Agatha Christie, Robin Williams, Steven Spielberg, and so many others, see here and here, that dyslexia implies gifted. But that’s silly. Surely, we can construct endless lists of brilliant, successful people without dyslexia, and for that matter, with all sorts of other personal challenges in their lives.
I do believe that some dyslectics have a trait that allows them to excel in a particular way. Those who successfully meet the challenge develop helpful mechanisms that otherwise facilitate learning, including figuring out exactly what it is they must read. This requires well-honed analytical structures, coherent models, and the capacity to create helpful visual aids. Such persons are prone to handwriting tables, charts, and graphs as ways to visualize what they learn, to pull information together, and to synthesize into a coherent underlying schema. And these acquired learning devices, whichever form they take, often lead those of us who use them see things that others so often miss.
There are also some unique benefits to very slow, very close, reading. Early in my teaching career, I asked the students in a large class if they could locate for the next session a single letter typo within a judicial opinion that potentially inverted the court’s meaning. Two students who studied together, one of whom had been was admitted to the law school off the wait list and soon emerged at the top of the class, came in which large smiles. They told their classmates, who had missed it, that the opinion described a precedent as “opposite,” when the court meant “apposite,” opposite’s opposite. In an early edition of the constitutional law textbook that I have used for many years, a typo appeared in the excerpt of the famous abortion case, Roe v. Wade (1973). The result was that “life [began] from the moment of contraception” (emphasis added). Now it is true that something else typically does begin at the moment of contraception, or shortly thereafter. And so this made for a wonderful moment in class, one likely missed by the many constitutional law professors assigning the same materials who are ungifted with dyslexia. Although demanding of my students the kind of close reading that is natural for me might seem a bit unfair, I continue to think it makes them better lawyers.
Most people associate superheroes, other than Batman, with superhuman powers. For a dyslexics, speed readers, or hyperlexics, hold superhuman powers. My dad was one of them. He was a natural speed reader, and on top of that, he had a photographic memory. As a child, I somehow believed the photographic memory part, but not the part about speed reading. I imagined that after storing the photographic images of the pages he had “read,” my father later went back and read them, in his mind, as I did, subvocalizing word for word. I’ve since asked a lot of people how they read, and I’ve personally read a lot about reading. I now realize that there are people who read a sentence, a paragraph, or even a page, at a time. My prior intuitions about reading were flawed. We are all products of our experience.
Dyslectics process reading in a different part of the brain, and they often learn in different ways. (I've included some links below). We are not disabled readers; we are differently-abled readers. We bring something else, something valuable, to the table. Like so many careers, law is best played as a team sport. We need those who can read and synthesize quickly. We need those who have developed complex analytical superstructures. We need those who write quickly, and those who are great at refining, reconceiving, and editing. No one has all the skills needed to make any team thrive, whether in law, medicine, sports, business, or anything else. Although I’m not hyperlexic; I’ve trained myself to be hyper-analytic. I wouldn’t trade places, just as I’m quite sure that my speed reading friends wouldn’t trade places with me.
If you have Dyslexia, or if you know someone who does, especially children or young adults, please encourage them to do whatever they wish. The sky’s the limit. It might just take them a bit longer to get there.
Some helpful resources for interested readers:
Others are easy to find, and if you have located any that you would like to share, please consider posting links in the comments, and I will also happily update this list.
As always, your comments are most welcome.