A Brief History of Dyslexia

Dyslexia: A Brief History

Dyslexia is a condition that is recognised the world over, particularly when it comes to schools and helping children to learn how to read and write. However, this hasn’t always been the case and for some time those who faced the challenges that are associated with dyslexia were thought to have problems with their sight, rather than with the written words themselves. 

It wasn’t until a professor looked into the problem, that it was discovered what was actually happening to those people who found themselves with dyslexia. 

The Discovery

The phrase dyslexia was thought up by a German ophthalmologist and professor based in Stuttgart, Rudolf Berlin, some 130 years ago. During his time practising and studying adult patients, he found that some of them had problems reading printed words during their eye examinations. 

He found that these adults had no problem with their vision, having passed other forms of the eye exam. Therefore, he realised that the problem must lie with the brain itself. 

Although, Berlin was not the first to discover dyslexia. He was actually led by the work of Adolph Kussmaul, another German professor, who had identified during 1877 the exact same issues that Berlin had seen in his patients. Whilst he was the first to recognise these problems, it was Berlin who put the name dyslexia to them. 

The UK Research

At a similar time, there were several UK based scientists who were also working on the idea of the yet to be named dyslexia. They were James Kerr, James Hinshelwood and William Pringle Morgan. The three of them together, coming from different medical backgrounds, were focused on ‘word blindness’. Whilst others looked solely at adults, they also decided that it was necessary to look at children too. 

In recognising that children too could have the same symptoms as adults, this discounted the idea that dyslexia was caused by a disease or a brain injury. Both things that were not present in the children studied. 

Their research became a key part to understanding dyslexia, particularly when it came to how it impacted children and their education. 

The US Research

As the UK was gripped between two world wars during the turn of the century, the research into dyslexia took somewhat of a back seat. However, it continued in the US; centred around one man, Samuel T Orton. During 1925 he published his first paper around the subject of “word blindness” summarising that it was a problem that was found in the brain and therefore a part of cognitive development. 

It wasn’t until the 1960s where work started again around dyslexia in the UK and it took some years for it to be recognised and openly diagnosed as a condition that needed support right from an early age. Work is still being done to ensure that children and adults with dyslexia get the support that they need to enable them to succeed in their education and get where they need to be. 

Now – 2020 and Beyond

Dyslexia now receives prominent awareness and professional supports. Dyslexia assessments can be conducted to determine whether a child or adult has dyslexia, the severity of the dyslexia, and determining the best supports for that person. There are charities and organisations with the sole purpose of furthering understanding of dyslexia and providing supports. Dyslexia is now recognised as a disability when diagnosed formally and is therefore eligible for reasonable adjustments. Reasonable adjustments can be made for dyslexia at school for children – such as teaching assistants and longer times for exams – and adults seeking or in employment – such as assistive technology or reading overlays. 

Further Reading

  • You can read more about the history of dyslexia on this University of Oxford website. 
  • You can read more about dyslexia and reasonable adjustments here. (link dyslexia overview page). 

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