HomedyslexiaDyslexia and Literacy History Lesson!
The interior of an ornate church with the entry title superimposed along the top.

Original photo by Michael D Beckwith via Unsplash Edits myself

Since I can’t afford to travel, I live vicariously through Globe Trekker and other PBS shows. Yesterday, I watched an episode about the founder of the Lutheran Church, Martin Luther, and the sights associated with him.This morning, as I was navigating e-mails for the upcoming semester, I made a dyslexia connection.

Mini-History Overview
Religion has always been used as a form of governance. The separation of church and state that so many modern democracies hold dear is a relatively new idea. Once Christianity took hold in Rome, it spread across the Empire. There were continued widespread abuses, up to and including execution based on differing beliefs.

Religious texts were only written in Latin, which meant only those wealthy enough to learn the language could read them. The vast majority of people only heard what was preached and had little choice to agree. Since people tend to have differing points of view, offshoots of Christianity began popping up, founded by wealthy scholars. That’s why there are varieties like Protestant, Lutheran, Quaker, etc.

Whenever only one class of people has access to education, they have great power over those under them. That holds true today. The wealthy can to send their kids to the best colleges, protect them, and teach them how to hold onto that wealth. Those of us who weren’t born into privilege often struggle to go on to secondary school. That translates into lower paying jobs and vulnerability to societal abuse. Mandatory primary education is great because poor parents can give their kids the education denied them. That’s the theory, anyway.

Marin Luther noticed this disparity. The lavishness of Catholic churches upset him, as it seemed to be a direct contradiction to what he learned in his Biblical studies. He took several more steps, and recognized how unfair it was to deny poorer believers the chance to analyze their own holy texts.

Prioritizing Literacy
One of the things Luther did was emphasize the importance of the Bible being available to all people in their native language. As a result, he made Germany one of the most literate countries in the west earlier than most others in the area. As the Lutheran Church grew, he required land-holding parishioners to provide education for children under their rule.

This all happened somewhere in the 1500s. Now, fast forward somewhere around 300 years to the mid to late 1880s. As literacy became more common, doctors and teachers noticed patterns in how children learned. Some weren’t thought to be as smart as others. However,otherwise intelligent children couldn’t seem to grasp the mechanics behind reading or writing.

Why did these kids struggle with something their peers caught on to with ease? This caught the attention of doctors. After study, the concept of “alexia”, or “word blindness” was born in the 1860s. Not coincidentally, many doctors were of German origin. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that the word “dyslexia” was created by a German optometrist.

I wouldn’t say Germans were superior in any shape or form. Those observances came from the fact they had more time to spot patterns than other countries. Another interesting note about dyslexia is that it wasn’t seen as a mental illness back then. Instead, it began as a suspected symptom of brain injury. Doctors and scientists later realized it was hereditary.

These parallels illustrate how hidden disability is in history, though it’s a huge part of it. Many modern political, scientific and business leaders are dyslexic, as are many inspiring entertainers. Dyslexics have played a large role in molding in our world, as have others of all ability levels, but that’s not taught in schools.

That’s the beauty of having educational resources like the internet, libraries, and public broadcasting. Of course, you need to sort through a lot of trash to get to decent sources, but they’re still out there. It’s just up to us to look for them.

Sources:
History of Dyslexia
Dyslexia Awareness – History of Dyslexia
PBS Globe Trekker (I can’t seem to find the specific episode online)
Lutheran Church History

A note: I’ve already studied up on dyslexia history, but my bookmarks are a mess. These aren’t primary sources, but they do jive with what I’ve learned and verified in the past. I still used rough dates, because I wasn’t up for verifying specific years.

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