There is research in the United Kingdom indicating that up to 40 percent of the prison population has dyslexia.
In Australia’s general population, it’s estimated 1 in 10 people has dyslexia to some extent, including dysgraphia (an inability to get words out on paper) or dyscalculia (an inability to work with numbers). These statistics are an indication that a significant portion of our population faces incredible challenges in a society that demands literacy and numeracy, and some of them are ending up in the criminal justice system. It also demonstrates a need for public policy to address the 10 percent of our citizens who find it hard to read and therefore learn, gain a qualification and be productive members of the workforce.
The statistic that 40 percent of the prison population in the United Kingdom has dyslexia is matched by the (albeit limited) research done on the Australian prison population. That statistic compels the question: why is dyslexia so prevalent amongst people who commit crimes?
Our analysis should go back to the early years of schooling, when a child learns to read, but the letters appear scrambled and jumping all over the page. Children who have a teacher that is inadequately equipped to identify dyslexia are made to feel stupid and inadequate, and are sometimes labelled stupid or lazy. Too often teachers give up on them, put them in the bottom reading group, and there the child flounders until they give up.
When disengagement with education begins so early, by the time a dyslexic child leaves school (usually early - to the utter relief of underequipped teachers, principals and the parent community) they are not employable. Those whose disengagement means they ‘wagged’ school and found the wrong crowd, they’ve been expelled and are now well on their way to the criminal justice system.
Of course I generalise and caricature here. There are some teachers who are well equipped, and some parents who go to great effort to overcome these challenges. Not all children fall through the cracks. But it is equally true to say that far too many do.
So what do we do?
The first thing we must to do is create an education system which recognises dyslexia as a learning disability. The Morrison Government has already identified that poor literacy teaching in the early years of primary school will have an ongoing impact well into tertiary education and employment and has started the process of identifying how teachers can teach reading better, including getting phonics included in university education degrees and professional development for those already in the profession. This change is important as a diagnostic measure: when teachers can effectively teach phonics, they will soon work out which students cannot grasp reading at all.
That’s important because it makes possible the next step that is required: channels for the simple, cost effective referral of those students on for in-depth assessment and, if the diagnosis is confirmed, intervention.
Children identified as dyslexic will need support throughout their schooling. Currently, to qualify to access any form of publicly-funded help, the child needs to undertake an assessment by an educational, developmental or neuropsychologist, which can take around eight hours of testing and which requires questionnaires to be completed by teachers, parents or carers, and costs around $2,000 per assessment. These assessments are not on the Medicare Benefits Schedule, and are often unaffordable for low income families. This will need to be addressed if we are to tackle dyslexia as an impediment to learning.
Of course, the taxpayer does not have bottomless pockets, and we must find ways to deliver this help efficiently, with an eye to reducing the cost of service provision over time. If we develop centres of excellence at key universities to bring together experts in this field, facilitating the sharing of information and the conduct of research into dyslexia and other learning disabilities, we can speed the development of the scientific, educational and health data that underpins the way we treat them. More cost-effective assessment processes that can be conducted earlier will – despite their up-front costs – deliver lower costs in the long term to the taxpayer. The earlier the diagnosis, the less of their education a dyslexic child will miss out on, the better the prospects of helping that child grow into a person capable of working and contributing to the economy. A life of welfare dependence or incarceration is both a poor life outcome and a heavy expense for others to bear.
There are programs already developed in other countries being applied here in Australia. An independent school in my state, Brisbane Boys’ College is the only one in the country with the Arrowsmith program, a program addressing dyslexia and other learning issues associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Another intervention program is Learnasaurus, in which a student is tutored one-on-one for one hour a week, using a range of techniques to retrain the brain to read letters correctly. It harks back to old-fashioned teaching of phonics, it is repetitive and builds incrementally each week. Both of these programs are available and could be applied now. They don’t need to be in every school, but they could be offered in convenient locations for those who need it.
The final issue we need to address is allowing people with dyslexia – either in education or the workplace – to use assistive technology. Dyslexia is a lifelong condition, and there is no cure. We need to look at ways to help students read in class, and to give them extra time in exams. An employee with dyslexia also needs consideration. They need to be able to use voice to text and vice versa technology to undertake work and training. To not give a dyslexic person the capacity to participate when what is needed to adapt is so readily within reach is a form of unfair discrimination that we should seek to overcome. With better awareness of the strengths of dyslexic people and the ease with which many of their challenges can be overcome with technology, dyslexic workers need not be so marginalised.
At present, dyslexic people generally have lower rates of employment, lower incomes, lower socioeconomic status, lower educational attainment and lower health outcomes that their non-dyslexic counterparts. Every one of those measures will improve with a more effective approach, using early intervention and technological adaptation to help dyslexic people reach their potential. If we see dyslexia more than an educational issue, but an interdisciplinary health, disability, employment and educational one, the solutions we develop will be of greater impact. We can expect it to, in the long term, reduce incarceration rates too.
We all have our part to play in society, and people with dyslexia are no exception.