Monday 5 October 2020

Dyslexia Wars

Ireland is no longer the second Least Equal society in the OECD and there doesn't seem to be much election manifesto stomach for advocating a redistribution of wealth through taxation. So we're going to have to live with rich people and poor people and a weird disconnect between the wages given to essential workers [pandemic: nurses, Lidl shelf-stackers, hospital cleaners, teachers, pharmacy technicians] and salaries of the layers upon layers of useless bureaucrats and box-tickers. We might be prepared to suck up the inequality but it is galling to have unfairness as a toxic icing on the cake of late stage capitalism. 

Unfairness is when some people, or conditions, are able to game the system and get more cake than they might strictly deserve if all things were equal. We are living a Covid-19 year where all sorts of things are put on hold because we are privileging the pandemic. It's not just pubs and airlines being preventing from trading; it is other life-threating illnesses [cancer, coronary infarction, AIDS] which are backlogged with diagnosis and treatment. But leave that aside: I given examples of fantastically expensive and not particularly effective treatments being given the go ahead because it makes a nice photo-op for the Minister. Rees-Mogg and Battens; Harris and Orkambi; Crown and PembroThe Downs gets a you a medical card no matter how adverse the symptoms. It is notorious and shameful and, well, yesterday's thinking that mental illness gets the bum's rush for funding compared to cancer, heart disease and pretty much every other medical speciality.

I've written about dyslexia before. One of my [dyslexic] final year project students did some comparative genomics to check the status of "dyslexia genes" in dogs and other mammals. Of course the neurotransmitters and their receptors had been, and still are, used for purposes other than interpreting glyphs on a page into words. My student identified a number of different genes where genetic variants are 'associated with' dyslexia: they run in families and (imperfectly) track a problem with reading and writing. That tells me that, like cancer, dyslexia is not one disorder but a whole clatter of different lesions which share some symptoms.

But getting a diagnosis of "dyslexia" can secure you or, more likely, your child additional state-funded resources. And it seems that middle-class parents are more likely to be able to access the diagnosis and the bonanza that attaches to it. Attempts by educational bureaucrats to reject this dichotomy and spread the largesse to all children who struggle to read have been met with shrieky push-back from those who chose to define themselves by a dyslexia label.  

At The Institute, I was requested and required to set questions for written exams to be taken at a particular time and place, under exam conditions. That made assessing the Learning Outcomes easy. But many of my students fared much worse under exam conditions than in other modes of assessment. Indeed I made a point of exhorting my, generally not academically inclined, Pharmacy Technicians to put serious effort into the quizzes, assignments and essays because statistically and historically everyone did worse in the May exams. And every year at the beginning of May, we get a list of students who had played the dyslexia card and were thus able to win extra time, and other help, to complete the exam. Of course we should so accommodate the kids who struggle to read the question because b & d & p & q blend into each other. There were a number of other get out of hell cards - dyspraxia, visual impairment, cerebral palsy - but more or less everyone had to be put through the May Exam Mill is some form or other. The rules are that "I get so stressed by exams that I lose sleep or my mind goes blank" is no excuse and those students just have to suck it up. That's unfair.

The rules are made by people like me who were actually quite good at functioning under exam conditions and so we really  don't understand what the issue is. It's like the Patriarchy [jaysus, me again] making the rules for maternity leave and diversity hiring. Haven't a clue, lads.

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