To label or not to label

Dyslexia is not a disease, and is not caused by a damaged or dysfunctional brain.

Although having dyslexia means that learning and performing based on reading and understanding may be difficult or even impossible, most dyslexics are blessed with a higher-than-average intelligence, creative abilities, and a dynamic perceptual talent enhancing their performance in strategic planning, inventing, engineering, architecture, music, and manual skills, to mention but a few..


So then, why is having dyslexia often seen as an unfavourable, stigmatising label, so much so that some of our educational and psychological professionals in South Africa hesitate to use the word? The word is even taboo in some individual and franchised private schools where teachers are prohibited to use the word. (Funny, they do not mind using the word Ritalin!, which is printed on a bottle of tablets)

Parents are often left with evaluations referring to their child’s working memory, performance levels, abstract visual reasoning skills, conceptual thinking  (below average), etc., but the diagnosis of (possible) dyslexia is often not mentioned.

As a fully trained and experienced in Dyslexia Correction  I am perplexed as to the reason why parents bring their dyslexic child for intervention, but refuse me to use the word “dyslexia” in front of their children. Most of them say they do not want their child to be labelled. It seems they fear the child might be bullied in school.

What they do not realise, is that their child is already “labelled as having a type of learning “disability” – that is why the school, and/or other specialist therapists have referred him/her to me to address the apparent dyslexia problem!

What is a label?

Neutral label:  a piece of paper or other material that gives you information about the object it is attached to, like inside your  trousers indicating the size, and to how clean it..). No problem with these labels (only perhaps those nasty non-diplomatic reminders that my clothing size is still XXL!)

Labeling theory is a study field in deviant sociology developed in the 1960’s to address deviant behaviour of how the perception of oneself and one’s behavior are often shaped by daily interaction in a community (e.g. school). Communities have many unwritten rules and norms, and even more so in a school community.  Here the Self is constructed and reconstructed through the daily interactions of the learner with his peers, teachers, and the extended community (parents and relatives).  Here the learners get non-intentional feedback “labels” which are used to describe and classify the learner:

  • clever, brilliant
  • outstanding performance
  • an example
  • can do better
  • underperformed
  • slow or fast
  • try harder next time …

Some of these, let’s call it scholastic stereotypes, appear formally in teacher comments on assignments and tests, (very good, brilliant, try harder next time, Fail! Come see me…).  The repertoire is not big, as it is understandably difficult for a teacher to give unique individualised comments on 30-40 daily assignments or test papers. However, these types of comment very easily become stereotypes, linked to a person to whom the comments are directed on a regular basis. Johnny always gets a try harder label and Sue is always brilliant.  The few times that Johnny did try harder and delivered better work, the try harder comment may not appear, but no other comment is made as replacement!  Johnny has the  permanent label of a learner who will do better if only he tries harder and harder.  The sad reality is that Johnny has probably long ago reached the limit of his ability to “try harder”. Johnny is now most probably busy to do or already past the point where his Self-image is being formed by what he thinks (or knows) others are  thinking of him.  One of the American Sociologists who coined the concept of social interactionism, George Mead (1935) found that this feedback that a person gets is the main creator of human behaviour, both real and imaginary.

“Am I learning disabled or … dys-learning abled?”   Watch this YouTube clip

The majority of young learners who show symptoms of dyslexia are  made very aware that at most times of any day they experience some form of a  learning disability.  The disability can feature in reading, spelling, writing, and Math.  As we all know, schooling is heavily based on reading and writing.  The person with a reading disability usually knows there is a problem with his/her reading, (often already in preschool and is labeling himself as having a learning disability: “I cannot read.”  As the words “learning disability” is most probably not part of his vocabulary, he/she judges him/herself as dumb, stupid, lazy.

Negative labeling:

Comments from teachers (“you have again not prepared” , “try again”,  “it’s not that difficult”, “focus!”) and peers laughing and mocking, add to strengthen that self-perception. It becomes his negative label. Often one of a whole range of negative labels all derived from his problem with reading.

No two dyslexics are the same, and the learning disability is only one facet of dyslexia. As the Davis  School of thought has proven that dyslexic disorientation is mainly caused by confusion about a written or spoken symbol, we understand that when that confusion is not immediately solved, a myriad of distorted and false sensory perceptions are formed in the mind. To solve the confusion the dyslexic will most often assimilate incorrect data like turning the letters around, guessing, over-concentrate or trying any possible action to cope, which sadly, in most cases, will fail him/her.  The dyslexic will start to apply all sorts of compulsive solutions to help him out of the dilemma.  Instead of helping him to cope, it makes the problem worse, by adding more “negative labels” to his Self.

The professional label of “dyslexia”:

Difficulties and challenges arise when parents refuse to discuss dyslexia with their children, relatives and even teachers. Teachers are often hesitant to share their suspisions of dyslexia  with the parents. But many teachers will easily go so far and suggest that a drug like Ritalin taken for ADD is the solution.

Parents and teachers often do not realise that the dyslexic child is very well aware that he/she is already been given the overall label of “one with a learning disability”.  The child is daily bombarded with remarks like:

  • Fail!
  • You are not listening;
  • Stop dreaming;
  • Apply yourself;
  • Do not lie to me, you have not practised your spelling!
  • Sit still!
  • Don’t be lazy.
  • Homework again not done;
  • Try harder ….

I am not even going to repeat remarks from peer groups.

His marks are most of the times below average, his handwriting often  is a mess, she forgets books at home, and spend most of his day day-dreaming.  His self-esteem plummets, and it is not unusual for a nine-year-old child already on anti-depressant meds.

Learning the truth:

Eventually, the dyslexic child will learn the truth.  During  a parent-teacher meeting, it’s often the teacher who is recommending intervention, referring the child to a Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, Psychologist and eventually to the GP for his chronic dosage of Ritalin and similar drugs.

By now the child is officially aware that something seriously is wrong with him.  But still, parents and some teachers do not discuss the condition with the child. My experience is that in most cases, parents have little or no knowledge of dyslexia, and does not know where to go to learn more. For that no one can blame them. The concept of dyslexia is very new in South Africa,  The same apply to most teachers – dyslexia is not part of their training.

Label on the bottle:

Every morning he reaches out to get his daily dose of life-saving meds.  What are the labels on the bottles?   Ritalin, Concerta,  Strattera, Leximal …?  Very clear labels for a type of behaviour that may not be mentioned?  Does it make sense?

Currently typing the word “dyslexia” into a Google search immediately gives more than 13-million results!  If dyslexia is a stigma, an unacceptable label, then we have massive epidemic on hand.


Till next time,

Jan Viljoen