The Word Blind Centre

Early in 1962 I was surprised to receive a letter from Dr Alfred White Franklin, who was then chairman of the Invalid Children's Aid Association. It invited me to take part in a conference at St Bartholomew's Hospital on the theme of dyslexia or word-blindness; the invitation had arisen because he had read my paper on the subject (Miles, 1961).

Dr White Franklin held a senior post as physician at St Bartholomew's Hospital. I afterwards learned that he had been coming across a significant number of children who were refusing school and in some cases showing signs of stomach upsets and the like. I rate him as one of the unsung heroes of the dyslexia movement since he had the insight to appreciate that these school-refusers had one thing in common - they had difficulty in learning to read and spell.

Dr White Franklin had consulted the literature on what was then called 'word-blindness', and the purpose of the conference was to bring together those who might be interested in the manifestations in question - whatever name one might give them. It is interesting in retrospect to note that my description of Brenda and Michael in Miles (1961) must have been recognisable by him as relevant to the theme of the conference. I think it fair to say that in 1962, although there was clearly a need to be cautious in our claims, we at least had some reasonably clear idea of what we were looking for. There was, after all, a not inconsiderable literature already in existence, even though Orton's (1937) work was largely unknown in Britain and Hinshelwood's (1917) pioneering work had largely been ignored. The paper by Morgan (1896) describing a boy called Percy who wrote his name as 'Precy' and made some other strange spelling errors did not become widely known until the 1970s.

The conference was a decidedly stormy one. There was a foretaste of the heated and not always very courteous arguments which were to rage about the concept of dyslexia for the next 20 years. I remember one educationalist warning us that if we used this esoteric term 'dyslexia' we would be 'tying a ball and chain' on our teachers. I think he was somehow under the impression that if educational difficulties had a neurological basis there was nothing one could do to remediate them. When a mother complained that her child had not received suitable help, an attempt was made (in a letter written to me after the conference) to discredit her evidence by saying that she was 'a psychiatric patient'. The letter also implied that if I libelled educational authorities by implying that they were incompetent I might find myself taken to court.

My own contribution to the conference was a modest one (Miles, 1962): I simply reported on some of the techniques which I had used with Brenda and Michael. I also made a few contributions to the overall discussion.

A record of the conference proceedings still survives (White Franklin, 1962). One of the things which I particularly noticed in Dr White Franklin's foreword to this volume was his uncompromising attitude to those who were out of sympathy with the central theme of the conference and did not accept the idea of word-blindness or specific developmental dyslexia. In his foreword to the conference report he writes: 'In support they [the opponents of the concept] produced the arguments which doctors recognise as traditional among those colleagues who oppose changes or advances in the aetiology or treatment of disease in patients. One confessed to a prejudice against the idea; another had never seen a case; a third had treated a mass of children with complete success and without any need for the concept.' As will be seen in Chapters 10 to 13, controversies of this kind came very much to the fore in the next two decades.

What had clearly emerged from the conference was the existence of a need. There were parents who had struggled in vain to obtain help for their children, and it appeared that in most of Britain adequate provision was virtually non-existent.

As a follow-up to the conference Dr White Franklin invited some of us whom he knew to be sympathetic to his overall approach to form a committee. The committee members were Dr Macdonald Critchley, Professor Oliver Zangwill, Professor Patrick Meredith, Maisie Holt and myself. We were later joined by Dr Mia Kellmer Pringle, a much respected figure in the world of education. Dr Critchley was to become President of the World Federation of Neurology; Professor Zangwill, who was Professor of Psychology at Cambridge University, was sympathetic to the venture primarily, I think, because of his experiences with brain-damaged patients at the end of the second world war; the idea that there could be developmental anomalies not unlike those found in brain-damaged patients was an idea which obviously made sense to him. Professor Patrick Meredith was Professor of Psychology at the University of Leeds. Although considered by some to be rather eccentric, he was in his own way a highly imaginative and creative thinker. Maisie Holt was a psychologist who had taught dyslexic children at St Bartholomew's Hospital but was somewhat reluctant to discuss her methods.

It was service on this committee which persuaded me to make dyslexia my main research interest. There was obviously a need for people to carry out assessments, quite apart from the need for research. In response to letters addressed to the committee I carried out a small number of assessments in London at the Invalid Children's Aid Association's headquarters in Queen's Gate. Then, at some stage - I am not sure exactly when but it must have been around 1963 - I decided to carry out assessments in Bangor. This was in the newly formed Department of Psychology (Chapter 5), not, as previously, at the local Child Guidance Clinic, though I still kept up my links with the clinic by going there for about half a day a week.

Throughout my academic life I have always taken the view that academic psychologists should not lose touch with what is sometimes called the 'real world', the implied contrast being with the ivory towers of academia.

I was lucky at the time to have links with St David's College, Llandudno, where the headmaster, John Mayor, encouraged me to assess and teach boys at his school.

At this stage I had to be particularly careful not to claim too much. I made clear that I could promise no results but only that I would do my best to try to help.

My meetings with members of the Invalid Children's Aid Association committee were a constant source of stimulation. With its limited funding the Association had set up a 'centre' - it comprised two caravans - in Coram's Fields in north London, and it was here that the committee used to meet.

Quite early on we received a visit from Marion Welchman, later to become a leading figure in the dyslexia movement worldwide. One of the teachers at the centre was Gill Cotterell from whom I learned a great deal on the teaching side; and her 'Checklist of Basic Sounds' - two sides of green paper - proved a standby over many years.

The first director of the Centre was Dr Alex Bannatyne. He did not stay long, but subsequently made many valuable contributions to dyslexia work in the USA. One of my recollections of Dr Bannatyne is that he suggested to the committee that the term 'word-blind' was out of date. We did not get rid of the term altogether but compromised by re-naming the centre the 'Word-Blind Centre for Dyslexic Children'.

As director of the Centre in succession to Dr Bannatyne we were fortunate to be able to appoint Sandhya Naidoo. This appointment was a striking success, and Sandhya's book Specific Dyslexia (Naidoo, 1972) was the first in Britain to make systematic comparisons between recognisably dyslexic children and suitably matched controls.

It had never been Dr White Franklin's intention to keep the Word-Blind Centre going in perpetuity. I think originally he had in mind a period of about five years, but its life span turned out to be nearer nine years, though I do not remember the exact date when it eventually closed down. The Invalid Children's Aid Association, however, had primed the pump, which was the original intention: enough had been done to convince at least a minority of people that there was something here which was worth investigating. It was for others to determine how the ideas initiated at the Centre might be developed.

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Adult Dyslexia

Adult Dyslexia

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