Cutting-Edge Technology from 3500BC

papyrus_featherYou probably don’t remember learning to speak. It happens too early. Most of us are chattering away before we’re out of nappies. But you may have painful memories of learning to read: the anxiety of spelling tests, word lists, and red pen.

That’s because speaking comes naturally to us, and reading doesn’t. Human beings have always talked. Our brains seem to be ‘hard-wired’ to pick up language. Put a normal baby in an environment where people talk to it, and within a couple of years it will have started to speak itself.

But put a normal person in an environment where there’s writing, and they’re unlikely to learn to read without being taught. That’s one reason why we spend such a large part of our childhood in school. Reading and writing isn’t usually something you just pick up.

Writing first developed in Mesopotamia in the fourth millennium BC. It started with pictograms, mostly used on receipts for purchases of beer. (There’s your fun fact of the day.) But then the city of Uruk developed symbols that represented sounds rather than things, so you could write down anything you could say. The Phoenicians developed this into a proper alphabet, and their trading network spread the cutting-edge technology.

However, for most of history, writing was reserved for experts like scribes and priests. Sometimes rich people and merchants would be able to read and write too, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that the ‘three Rs’ were considered essential for everyone.

So what has all this got to do with dyslexia? By the end of the twentieth century, the developed world finally achieved near-universal literacy – so dyslexia suddenly became visible. Even though ‘dyslexia’ describes a whole spectrum of challenges, reading and writing are the most obvious ones. In fact, dyslexia is only a significant problem if you live in a society where everyone is expected to read and write. Literacy has its drawbacks!

It might be tempting for dyslexics to wish we had been born in a pre-literate age, when we would have been just like everybody else, but that would be a huge loss. Literacy reduces inequality and enables social mobility. It provides huge opportunities for communication and co-operation around the world, without having to go through privileged mediators like priests and scribes. Reading fiction increases the skill of empathy. Some scientists even think that learning to read is necessary for analytical thought; being literate allows you to organise your thoughts and make connections between them, even when you’re not actually writing them down.

With the invention and growth of the internet, we’re currently living through a technological change almost as huge as the invention of writing. But it wouldn’t have been possible without writing. Even computer code is a form of writing, after all.

The written word can sometimes feel like the enemy to dyslexics, but writing is the thing that makes our whole modern world possible. That includes technology, like text-to-speech, that is making life easier for people with severe dyslexia. For better or worse (at least until the next dark age) our modern lives are founded on literacy.

Karen Murdarasi, guest blogger

About Me


Dyslexia: a journey of discovery

In May 2015, I attended an adult network meeting in Glasgow. The topic for discussion was ‘living with a dyslexic – a partner’s perspective’.   Hearing the discussion was really enlightening – I really started to understand my husband better. I’d suspected for some time that my husband and stepson were dyslexic, but at that time none of us knew for sure. I was already on a journey to discover more about some of the difficulties that I’d faced over the years and was assessed as dyspraxic in June 2015.

Fast forward to spring 2016 and my stepson had been screened at school and confirmed to be dyslexic. As a result of this, my husband decided to go for an assessment too, and the results confirmed his suspicions.

In my current role, I’ve learned a great deal about the journeys that people go through when they discover that they are dyslexic later in life. There is a need to reframe the difficulties that the person has faced in school, college/university, work and life in general; away from ‘why don’t I get this as quickly as other people?’ to ‘ah, that’s why I struggled with that!’.

If you have an understanding partner to talk these difficulties through with, it can help them to understand why you do those things that drive them round the bend. Even after 12 years together, we’ve learned new things about why we do what we do – especially around life admin. In previous years, I never really understood why the confident man I knew, felt anxious about booking a train journey while we were on holiday in Italy and why he had many piles of unopened mail! Now I understand that dyslexia was the reason. Trying to decipher timetables and communicate well enough to buy a ticket is hard enough, without trying to do this in another language too; opening a letter might mean reading complicated instructions, processing that information, then trying to find the right way to respond (and procrastinating a fair bit along the way – but that’s a whole other blog!).

We do wind each other up regularly – Me: ‘Why did you do/not do that?’ Husband: ‘Come on, don’t you know I’m dyslexic?! Or vice versa. We have a laugh about our foibles and the tension dissolves. I know I’m lucky, I have a neurodiverse mind and so does my husband – we can understand and empathise now about why we each do those things that drives the other one round the bend. We have grown as a couple, as we have learned more about how dyslexia and dyspraxia impacts on our daily and family life.

I know that not everyone has such understanding partners and if you are in that situation, please know that you are not alone. Come along to one of our adult network meetings. There is a real mixture of people, between those who learned that they were dyslexic while at school, but never really understood much about how dyslexia impacted on their daily lives; those who found out only when they went to college or university and thrived when they finally got the support that they needed; to those who found out much later in their lives and are still on a journey to learn more about themselves. All of them have stories to tell and strategies that have worked for them – come along and hear all about them. And if you feel like it, tell your own dyslexia story.

To learn more about the Dyslexia Scotland Adult Network meetings, visit our website here.

Helen, Volunteers Manager