A Dyslexic’s Introduction to Lexism

Doctor Craig Collinson

wooden letters scattered over a surface.
Colour image depicting an overhead view of a large selection of wooden alphabet letter tiles scattered, apparently haphazardly, across a blue metallic surface.

My doctoral research was, in simple terms, a reply to a seminal article which applied the social model of disability to dyslexia. It was not just an academic exercise – it was a process by which my self-identity changed; from being ‘someone with dyslexia’ to a dyslexic who experiences Lexism. Initially I was resistant to that change. I had stipulated a new concept – namely ‘Lexism’; similar to racism and sexism, but that which is applicable to dyslexics. Initially I was unwilling to see that the logical consequence of putting forward that new concept was that ‘dyslexia’ itself became a lexist concept. In so doing my self-identity had to change, and with it my understanding of the world, and my place in it.

What is Lexism? In my thesis I refer to Lexism as the normative practices and assumptions associated with literacy which discriminate against dyslexics. When we refer to something being normative, we generally mean following a social rule or expectation, or infringing upon that social rule or expectation. So, for example, spelling as a set of social expectations which a dyslexic is consistently unable to meet. Those normative practices and assumptions come in a variety of forms in everyday life, and educational practices. It would be reasonable at this juncture for someone to ask: ‘But what is wrong with dyslexia as an explanation?’

Dyslexia is a problematic concept. There are a number of competing and contradictory theories. Those theories tend to be built on a number of essentialist – and often scientistic – assumptions. To assume something is essentialist is to assume that one is dealing with a thing, with a single essence. This essence can be defined, and what is more should be defined, for it to be recognised as ‘real’. Scientistic is the misapplication of science to social questions which can lead to pseudoscientific claims. For dyslexics to be dyslexic they must have this thing called dyslexia. Some psychologists have realised that pseudoscientific claims have crept into the dyslexia debate. Unfortunately, in rejecting the existence of dyslexia they are assuming that dyslexics’ existence (why we say dyslexics are ‘real’) is reliant on this essence – which of course they could not find because it was never there.

But this was not why we need the concept ‘dyslexic’. We need the concept to acknowledge the existence of individuals who have a wide range of intellectual abilities, struggle to acquire literacy, but have sufficient education. So perhaps dyslexics exist for another reason – which is not the realm of the psychologist at all. In contrast, if one accepts Lexism one views such matters differently. Literacy is not a historical constant – that which defines dyslexics is not in the brain but in the world. The experience of doing a PhD for me, was a profound one. It was the realisation – the understanding – of who, and what I am. 

Dr Craig Collinson is a Researcher Development Fellow in the Graduate School at Edge Hill University.

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