Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Where are the BAME dyslexic role models?

Try searching for dyslexic role models and you’ll spot many well-known names like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson – but try searching for black dyslexic role models and you will struggle.

As Dyslexia Awareness Week started this week on 5th October, it’s important to understand that black disabled people, and those with learning difficulties, often encounter a double burden of being systematically undermined and overlooked, but also that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) role models are largely absent.

There is a profound impact on those who cannot navigate a socio-economic system for either learning with, or attaining, a diagnosis for a learning difficulty – this often leaves young people learning in isolation. And especially young people from a BAME background who are often shut out from this progress of diagnosis, as well as having to process a whole range of issues around social acceptance.

Role models can help us to feel accepted and normalised. But with a deficit-based model around dyslexia in the UK, that’s based around the problematisation of difficulties rather than a celebration of what neurodiversity brings, how will anyone with or without a diagnosis come forward when they can’t see any role models?

The importance of a diverse role models

Atif Choudhury, Diversity and Ability’s (D and A) CEO, questioned whether a deficit model based around diagnostic assessment for dyslexia encourages BAME communities to come forward for assessment or honours the differences of people. Instead, it can be traumatic for many people to share their diagnosis, which relates to cultural heritage and class.

He explained: “As a brown man with dyslexia, I grew up thinking anything I thought that was different to my class friends was probably wrong. Rarely did I ever recognise it as an innovation or something that needed perspective. For me, struggling to fit in with a different language and culture was enough to contend with, but different skin colour was non-maskable for a child that wanted to fit in”.

“Having to contend with a learning difference on top was too much to feel any pride. I was born in the context of learning isolation and confidence and self-esteem are easy casualties, especially when thinking differently was rarely rewarded and especially from people who looked so different from me”.

“As brown children, we quickly came to recognise our parents’ fears and challenges and the expectation of knowing we must do more in the workplace. School can be the death of any childhood, so why on earth would we share more? Shame plays every role here and with it comes exclusion”.

Greta Thunberg rightly describes her autism as her superpower, and she has gone on to shame a US President, inspire millions of young people, and ultimately change the world – and what that does for young white girls with autism is to unlock it as a positive strength. This is powerful, but as the situation stands there are no one individual who is doing something similar for the BAME community.

Creating more inclusive spaces and celebrating each other’s neurodiversity

D and A has worked for several years with homelessness charities Crisis and St Mungo’s, and found that not only is there a strong correlation between homelessness and undiagnosed learning differences, but research also shows that 44 per cent of homeless people have a mental health diagnosis, in comparison with 23 per cent of the general population.

Not only is this represented by the fact that neurodiverse people from BAME backgrounds are more likely to become homelessness, but also commonly they only received their diagnosis for dyslexia much later in life, or even when they are in prison – rather than as young people with their support of their parents and educational professionals. Inevitably there is a lot of harm being done in the struggle for attaining, an often paid for diagnosis, later in life – feelings on not belonging, of not being good enough, or lack of agency, limit that individual emotionally and professionally.

In the workplace also BAME people often find it hard to work in organisations which contain elements of systemic racism and prejudices, for example the police force, but also if they have dyslexia they might find it even more difficult, or even unsafe, to be open about their neurodiversity – which stunts or silences a larger, and fundamentally important, discussion on all our idiosyncratic needs and diversities.

Mr. Choudhury added: “If the police don’t have an anticipatory welcome, we should assume that being in the police is a challenge. But if we were to welcome the diversity of thought, the police and the workplace, in general, would be a far better place to work.”

While there has been the beginning of a healthier discussion about challenges of inclusion that neurodiverse people face. However we still don’t have an anticipatory approach, meaning we still are not looking out for problems inherit in social structures, or have started to further celebrate neurodiversity in society – and therefore exclusions from workplaces and education are still common for people with learning difficulties.

We need more dyslexia role models and changemakers, Mr. Choudhury explained: “Trusting the boldness of difference, the safety of authenticity and our lived experiences can truly change the world – perhaps it’s the only thing that ever does.”

If you or someone you know has dyslexia and would like to access some free resources, tools and guides visit https://diversityandability.com/resources/

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