Linkage Of Dyslexia With Crime

by Lisa Seeman


Evidence is reviewed that there is a higher percentage of dyslexics in jails and borstals. The high level of dyslexic delinquency is attributed to an emotional shift in a student's personality in cases when his/her dyslexia is undiagnosed or untreated, and he finds himself subject to repeated failures in the school environment. It is suggested that use of a dyslexia orientated word processor can repair a child's damaged self esteem and, in doing so, reverse the situation.

Linkage Of Dyslexia With Crime

A study of the probation records of 353 juveniles (Rizzo p165, 1975) showed that 95% of those charged had more than average learning difficulties at the time of their offence. Preyser (1935) in a similar experiment, found, that in contrast to the 29% in New York's elementary schools, between 84.4% and 92.8% of young offenders in New York were retarded in the basic subjects (English and Mathematics). Frederick and Bond (p236-243, 1936) confirmed these findings.

Rizzo (p165, 1975) concludes that "adolescents in trouble with the law make little progress with their studies". The New York Times (Jan 19, 1975) claimed that three out of four juvenile delinquents had learning problems. However, it is valid to question whether truancy results in learning retardation, or, whether children who are prevented from achieving in school despair and resolve to truancy. In other words, a convict's illiteracy is not necessarily the fault of the school. It is possible that these people are illiterate because their lack of respect for authority was such that they continuously truanted and rarely attended school.

Willis's (Learning to Labour, 1978, page 59) research suggests that students may consciously set up an anti-educational sub- culture where petty crime, truancy and chauvinism constitute positive aims. Human behavior, however, cannot always be attributed to a single cause. Though this research may be valid and account for the illiteracy of some convicts, there may still be room to argue that invalid educational attitudes may be directly responsible for some delinquency.

To elaborate, it is assumable that there is an overlap of the pupils who regard themselves as alienated from the school environment and culture, with those who become truants (Lawton, 'Social Class, Language and Education' p158). If schools are responsible for alienating pupils then they may also be a causal factor in the subsequent delinquency of these pupils (Holt 'Why Children Fail' p164).

The task of making students relate to classroom activities is not trivial, as cultural and peer group pressures may all be acting against the teacher. This chapter, however, attempts to identify a sub-group of students who presently are being alienated from the school society, where, if teachers had been more alert to the academic requirements of these children, their alienation in the classroom (subsequently drifting into delinquency) could have been significantly reduced. These children are dyslexic or innumerate, and this chapter is intended to illustrate how one could reduce their delinquency and subsequent drift into petty crime.

Von Ebel (1549-1559, 1980) reports that in contrast to the 7.6% of congenital dyslexics in regular schools, one third of the inmates of residential remand homes were congenitally dyslexic. Von Ebel (1549-1559, 1980) himself found that out of a hundred healthy post-school convicts, fifty two were congenital dyslexics! This research leads us to question the cause for the correlation between dyslexia and crime so that suggestions may be made to reduce the high percentage of dyslexics in jails. The issue that we are now concerned with is, what causes dyslexics as a group to rebel against authority, and how their drift into delinquency be accounted for.


McReady (p267-277, 1926-27) studied the behavior of word blind children. Those who succumbed apathetically to their handicap became withdrawn with a more generalized emotional blocking, but those who had developed a more paranoid attitude to education, tended to be disruptive in school with minor incidents of vandalism and truancy. With these disruptive behavioral patterns established, research then considered causal factors for dyslexics' paranoia, with a focus on preventive measures.

Critchly (p1537-1547, 1967) mentions that some early research inconclusively suggested that the high percentage of dyslexics involved with crime is unavoidable, because, their reading disability arises from the same mis-development as do criminal tendencies. Loubenthal (p233-288, 1938) in pre-war Germany advised sterilization of hereditary dyslexics to alleviate the problem with a long-term solution!

The belief of this document is that a valid method to alleviate the stress on the overcrowded prisons, and to account for the behavioral patterns found by McReady (see above), is to regard dyslexics as normal children who react to the stimuli of rejection and repeated failure with a tragic but predictable response. A normal reaction of spirited children to repeated failure may be to distract attention from their disabilities, and, in an attempt to gain peer group respect, exhibit disruptive behavior and truancy. Once truants, these children drift into petty crime, which later evolves into major crime.

Reinforcing this opinion is a study by probation officer Wally Morgan of fifty convicted criminals, raging form rapists to thieves who were diagnosed and treated for the first time as dyslexic. The re-offending rate dropped from the average 40 to 60% to a remarkable 2.5%. (The Time 26 October 1998 p18)


Ryback (p1, 1970) studied the effect of success/failure on the optimism-pessimism continuum of normal children. Two sets of children were given a test of short stories, each having pessimistic and optimistic possible endings. The failure- condition was stimulated in one group by a difficult arithmetic test in which they were rushed, reprimanded, and failed. The success-condition was characterized by praise, plenty of time and an easy test. The result was that the failure-condition generated an increase in pessimism. This suggests that there is for children an expectation of disappointing events following failure experiences. Rizzo (p164-177, 1975) argues that although emotional insecurity is a causative factor in reading difficulty, the equation can be turned around. If a child experiences repeated failures in his efforts to learn, he is likely to develop negative attitudes towards school attendance and life in general. J.Holt, in 'How Children Fail' (1964, p116), is convinced that teachers are responsible for personality mis- development and even delinquency, when rigid teaching practices do a disservice to their educational talents.

"To feel that you are helping make children less intelligent is bad enough, without having to wonder whether you may be helping to make them neurotic as well."

The School Factor

It is predictable that an intelligent child who is unable to succeed may be become discouraged. Kerr (p29-32, 1973) highlighted the embarrassment that dyslexic deficiency may cause. Common sense dictates that many children who are subjected to humiliating experiences similar to my own (which continued even after I was diagnosed as dyslexic) may respond with resentment and/or anger. My teachers equated dyslexia with laziness and hence called on me to recite in every assembly so that the laughter that resounded at my inevitable mistakes would "encourage me" to study harder. Such an "educationalist" gives Holt a valid argument for blaming delinquency on teachers and his argument has gained respect from members of the legal profession, when considering mitigating factors in criminal proceedings.

Judge Humo Von Holstean of Denmark (p17-31, 1951) was a pioneer for the legal recognition of word blindness. His professional contact with criminals who had developed neurotic tendencies from neglect of their handicap made Von Holstean plead that the "martyrdom" and the "frightful psychological trauma" of word- blind people should be recognised and reduced.

The erosion of dyslexics' self-esteem was analyzed by Von Ebel (1549-1559, 1980) (1980) who, as a forensic consultant to German courts, was confronted with many cases where he recommended that, dyslexics' treatment within school was responsible for their resolving to crime to the extent that their dyslexia was a legitimate mitigating circumstance. Von Ebel's (1549-1559, 1980) investigations lead him to criticize the short courses available for teaching dyslexics, which did not deal with the associated behavioral problems caused by the eroded self esteem. Remedial courses available for dyslexic children, dealt with dyslexics as though they were children of low intelligence. This was unsuccessful and frustrating for participants. Remedial timetables tended to clash with school lessons, so that other classes were missed.

I have come into conflict with teachers who regard dyslexia as an invention or an excuse. Scientific diagnosis and preferred teaching techniques were rejected in place of traditional teaching methods. Yet not withstanding the damage such bigotry can cause to the literary achievements of the pupil, the psychological impact of being reprimanded for being unable to compete in a classroom, where reading, writing, and colouring-in are the barometers of success, is immeasurable. Personally, I was bracketed together with a brain-damaged child as the "dummies" of the class. Neither myself nor the retarded child should have been subjected to this treatment.

Von Ebel (1549-1559, 1980) reports that equally damaging educational attitudes were common-place throughout Europe. Serch and Schlee (1975-76) concluded that dyslexia was an ideological tag and there is no such condition. Although they had no direct research to support their arguments, Ministers of Education non- the-less were delighted to accept their theory. In 1979, Bulgaria's Minister of Education, when writing about children with specific learning difficulty, said that "it is known these days that dyslexia is an invalid theory. That means that dyslexia is a theoretical definition and does not exist in real terms." His government had decided that the cause of a child's illiteracy should be ignored.

Western countries may also have a widespread problem of mis- diagnosing and mistreating dyslexic students. Von Ebel's (1549- 1559, 1980) researched three specialist schools for learning retarded children. In these schools 67%, 56% and 57% of the children were dyslexic. Of the dyslexics 58 had I.Q.s of between 91 and 120, 2% were higher than 120 and 15% were higher than 111. One does not expect to find such intelligent children with the educationally subnormal in a school for the learning retarded. I suggest that this may have a similar effect on live-in students as the condemned Stalinist practice of putting political prisoners in lunatic asylums to dehumanize them.

If children are unable to succeed, despite hard effort, then undiagnosed or untreated dyslexics may suffer extreme damage to their self confidence. This may manifest itself by disrupting lessons to impress other people and distract attention from their illiteracy. Alternatively they may simply despair and withdraw from their surroundings. This is this essay's explanation of McReady's research into the behavioral trends of dyslexics. Truancy here is psychoneurotic. Successful and unsuccessful suicide attempts have been documented (Von Ebel 1980). Petty crime, can be the only accessible means of boosting their image in the eyes of their colleagues. Petty crime leads to major crime, in some cases, to murder. The dyslexic pupil in school is potential fodder for penal institutions.

On a more optimistic note Kerr (p29-32, 1973) quotes research conducted at Bangour Hospital where, many delinquent adolescents, on being taught to read, changed their personality and outlook on life towards a positive approach. (The adolescents studied were found to be particularly ashamed and aggressive about their illiteracy). Kerr (p29-32, 1973) reports in the study of 400 delinquents that a clear correlation between maladjustment such as depression and emotional tension and delinquency was established. However, when progress was made among average and above average children, less backwardness led to less delinquency. Von Ebel (1549-1559, 1980) observed, from his contact with thousands of criminals, the effect of the first two years of school where undiagnosed or untreated dyslexics began an emotional or neurotic shift of their nature. He claims a high percentage of these will end with criminal behavior which could have been averted by timely diagnosis and therapy. Apart from the personal suffering of the dyslexics and their families, and in addition to the cost of criminal proceedings and jail maintenance, the cost to the state of looking after a child in a borstal in 1971 was ?1200 pa (Kerr, p29-32, 1973). A notorious example which might have been avoided is the case of Lee Harvey Oswald, who according to L.J.Thompson (1965) was dyslexic.

The evidence presented is sufficient to warrant effort concentrating on averting further avoidable tragedies. If pupils would be frequently assessed for traces of dyslexia, and the subsequently diagnosed dyslexics were competently and sympathetically treated, the negative behavioral patterns associated with dyslexia might cease to be relevant.

Suggestions For Rebuilding The Damaged Self Esteem Of Dyslexic Students.

To summarize, if pupils could experience success, then truancy and hence delinquency would be reduced. This project has constructed a prototype for a simple, user-friendly, word processor, able to correct dyslexics' mistakes whilst building their self-image by enabling them to produce perfect manuscripts.

What this chapter highlights is that the accepted abuse of children, that is inflicted by schools, can and does result in emotional mis-development. The prototype described in this report could be adapted to be suitable for school use, so that teachers can rebuild a dyslexic's self image. Dyslexics, and indeed all children, need to feel good about themselves, to feel that their efforts are appreciated and not rejected. Teachers should not necessarily flatter children or avoid reprimand where it is valid; but all children, further more, all people, urgently require to be respected for some attainable achievement. For younger dyslexics, producing perfect manuscripts may convinces them of their ability to contribute, in a positive form, to society.

It is predictable that all people require an area in their life where they can stretch themselves and be intellectually free from the bonds of their handicap. But above all, I suspect that people thirst for respect, and when this is denied them they must rebel or be dehumanized. To this end, all teachers can aid dyslexics by simply believing in their students' ability wherever possible.

This document recommends, that research be conducted in primary schools where all children are given access to this equipment. These students should then be monitored for disruptive behaviour and truancy in contrast with a control group. If educational mis- development is found to be reduced, the installation of such programs in all primary schools may be cost-effective for the government when considering the price paid by the tax-payer for the maintenance of borstals.

This document also believes that technology should be made accessible to all, so that the alienation from technology felt by low ability groups, is reduced. If engineers neglect this application then, as society's demand for word-processed manuscripts increases, the semi-literate will be unable to apply competitively for responsible jobs, and the already present divide between the able and the unable will become exaggerated.

This project is dedicated to proving that technology can be used to bridge the gap between the able and the unable. An extreme example of this ethos is that of processors used to allow sufferers of cerebral palsy to communicate and interact with their environment. However, those concerned with aiding the under-privileged should consider both the physically and sociologically disadvantaged.

I believe that such projects, although seemingly unprofitable to industry, are to the benefit of the whole of society.


To conclude, there exists a high percentage of dyslexics in jails and youth detention centers. The high trend of dyslexic delinquency has been attributed to the emotional mis-development caused by the continual failure of children, whose dyslexia is ignored. By building up the dyslexic's self image, this situation could be significantly reduced, avoiding immeasurable suffering of dyslexics and their parents. Technology is available that may enable dyslexics to construct perfect articles; however if educationalists refrain from reassessing their attitudes and practices then the percentage of dyslexics in jail will remain an indictment on society.


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