Legislation and Governmental Recognition

The first attempt in Britain to achieve legal recognition for dyslexic individuals was in 1970, when the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act of that year included a reference to 'acute dyslexia'. The word 'acute' appears to have been poorly chosen, since this word is normally taken to mean 'coming on suddenly'. In this context, however, it should presumably be taken simply to mean 'severe'. Because of this clause the Tizard Committee was appointed to look further into what was needed. Unfortunately the Tizard Report (1972) was a great disappointment as far as the recognition of dyslexia was concerned:

We are highly sceptical of the view that a syndrome of developmental dyslexia with a specific underlying cause and specific symptoms has been identified ... We think it would be better to adopt a more usefully descriptive term, 'specific reading difficulties', to describe the problems of the small group of children whose reading (and perhaps writing, spelling and number) are significantly below the standards which their abilities in other spheres would lead one to expect.

The authors of the Tizard Report failed to take seriously the possibility that the difficulties which they described might be constitutional in origin. As a result the Report did nothing to counter the then prevalent view that literacy problems were caused by unsatisfactory relationships within the family. Also it is strange that they were willing to include references to 'writing, spelling and number' but nevertheless to recommend that we speak only of specific reading retardation. Sadly the opportunity to explain that dyslexia involved much more than poor reading was lost.

The Bullock Report (1975) also contained some references to dyslexia, but these were not very helpful. We were told, both in the main text (p. 268) and in the glossary (p. 587) that the term 'dyslexia' 'is not susceptible to precise operational definition'. Even at the time this seemed an unnecessarily provocative statement, and no attempt was made to give reasons in support.

I was, however, grateful to the Tizard Committee for making clear that many of the children whom they described were in need of specialist help; this enabled me in my reports at the time to say that I believed X 'to be dyslexic in the sense intended in the Disabled Persons Act, 1970, and to need special help as recommended in the Tizard Report, 1972'.

It was left to the Warnock Report (1978) to provide the machinery via which the needs of dyslexic children could be recognised and met. Until that time children with special needs had been classified according to their category of handicap - blind, deaf, having speech defects etc. Dyslexia was not one of the specified handicaps, and the best one could do by way of securing financial help for dyslexics was to classify some of them as having a different handicap, usually by saying - as was true in a number of cases - that they had a speech defect. The Warnock Report did away with these 'categories of handicap' and replaced them by the concept of 'special educational needs'. It was reckoned that 20% of the school population would have such needs at some stage in their school career, and this was a greater proportion than was receiving help at the time, and would therefore require more funds. This proposal did away at one stroke with any arguments about dyslexia: the typical dyslexic child clearly had 'special needs', and the machinery was in place for making provision for them.

In retrospect the whole idea of 'categories of handicap' seems problematic. In some cases, certainly, children could be said to have one particular handicap; in other cases, however, there were overlapping handicaps. In the last two decades there has been greater recognition of dyspraxia (clumsy child syndrome) and of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). In some cases there is co-morbidity with dyslexia; in some cases not. We owe to the Warnock Report a wider public recognition that children cannot always be fitted into pre-specified categories; there are all kinds of overlap.

When the Warnock Report was followed by appropriate legislation, things really started to move. The climax came in 1987, when Robert Dunn, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Education and Science, announced in the House of Commons:

The Government recognise dyslexia and recognise the importance to the educational progress of dyslexic children, their long-term welfare and successful function in adult life that they should have their needs identified at an early stage. (Hansard, 13 July, 1987, 950)

This announcement marked the formal recognition of dyslexia by the British government.

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