Dyslexia and Illiteracy

October is National Dyslexia Month. If you’ve never battled dyslexia, you may think it’s simply a disorder that makes kids mix up p and q. A few special language classes and it’s all fixed. But dyslexia is much more complex than that, and experts believe that it is the number one cause of adult illiteracy. 

A Significant Overlap

Dyslexia is more common than you might think. The International Dyslexia Association reports that 15-20% of the population shows symptoms of the disorder, which causes difficulties with certain language skills, reading in particular. 

It would make sense, then, that 36 million American adults struggle with some form of illiteracy. Dyslexia is a lifelong disorder, often first appearing when children learn to read in school. But when many illiterate adults were that age, the scientific community didn’t know all they do now about dyslexia, despite the fact that the term originated in 1887. It is likely that many students went undiagnosed. Educators, overworked and underresourced, simply saw these kids as poor readers, having low aptitude for language. 

The Shame Factor

This constant low rating of a student’s learning skills can bring about feelings of shame and can cause him to distance himself from reading. That shame only compounds as he becomes an adult and watches his peers advance in life with fine reading skills, leaving him behind. This is a common reason that many illiterate adults never learn to read. They keep it a secret.

Unfortunately, this embarrassment can also lead to a lack of dyslexia diagnosis. Without regular reading experience, they don’t know they have a disorder, assuming instead that they just have “low aptitude” for reading.  

A Barrier to Communication

Contrary to popular belief, dyslexia isn’t just about reading. It affects all language functions, including speaking and comprehension when listening. So not only do dyslexic adults face the stigma of illiteracy, they often have trouble communicating what they experience as they try to read, and understanding the disorder when it is explained to them. This further hinders diagnosis. 


While the problem may seem frustrating, especially if someone you know is illiterate due to dyslexia, you can do more than simply putting an arm around them and assuring them, “It’s not your fault,” like Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting

At Reading to New Heights, we understand that dyslexia is a major contributing factor to adult illiteracy. Identifying and helping people adjust to it takes special skills, plenty of training, and lots of patience. We are committed to eliminate adult illiteracy in the DFW metro, even among the dyslexic community. You can make a difference by volunteering with us, donating, or simply sharing this blog post. Literacy is possible, and we can achieve it together. 

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