For John Spence, a soldier, it was easier to come out to his comrades about his homosexuality than it was to tell them that he couldn’t read. That says a lot about the social stigma about illiteracy, and about John’s shame and embarrassment.

This short article gives an inkling of how neurological conditions like Irlen syndrome are under diagnosed and how this can have huge long-term consequences. In someone with Irlen syndrome, misprocessing of visual information causes apparent optical distortions, and letters seem to move on the page when the person tries to read. As a lecturer I was lucky when a mature nursing student with Irlen syndrome was able to tell me exactly what modifications would help him to contribute – in his case printing handouts on mauve-coloured paper allowed him to read class material better. But John Spence is just one of who-knows-how-many who struggle on for years undiagnosed. In John’s case he did not learn to read until he was diagnosed in his 30s, and he then took 9 years to do an Open University degree.

There is value in following the time-lines of John’s story, and seeing the consequences of an undiagnosed condition. The other strength of this short reminiscence is John’s descriptions of how he felt as a child, and the strategies he adopted to avoid discovery and humiliation.

Spence, J (2018) I couldn’t read until I was 34, The Guardian, Experience 7 July 18

Simulation of distortions experienced by people with Irlen Syndrome created by the Irlen Institute available here:

It should be added that there is some controversy about the very existence of syndromes like Irlen Syndrome, and the monopolies in treatment claimed by experts in the field. See the articles in the BMJ, Williams G.S. (2014) Irlen syndrome: expensive lenses for this ill defined syndrome exploit patients, BMJ 2014;349:g4872, and the response by Tosta S.I. (2014)

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