At first glance, it may seem that dyslexia is a disorder that simply affects the way we visually process letters and words. For a dyslexic person, letters on a page may become jumbled or the person may have trouble matching sounds to letters. But the disorder that we associate with reading isn’t strictly visual. In fact, even those who are blind can have dyslexia.
Think about it this way: A person who is dyslexic doesn't have a vision problem; he has a reading disorder. The problem can't be defined only in terms of visual reading. Blind people certainly read through braille, so if reading can be done with the eyes or the touch of a finger, how can we explain what dyslexia is?
It all comes down to phonetics. For a dyslexic person, reading confusion doesn't necessarily relate to the way a word is seen (or touched), but the way the word sounds. Phonemes are the sounds that are used to distinguish letters from one another, and a dyslexic person often has trouble with phonetic recognition, which leads to comprehension difficulties.
"The brain of a person with dyslexia has a timing issue with connecting sounds to meanings," according to BrailleSC.org, a South Carolina braille literacy website. Looked at this way, it's easier to think of dyslexia seen as a reading comprehension disorder, not a literacy or visual disorder.
Dyslexia involves a time lag in phonetic interpretation, making reading all the more difficult. It matters little whether a dyslexic person has 20/20 vision or is completely blind. Dyslexia "does not cause a major impact on normal daily activities, like conversation," says the BrailleSC.org website. But conversation isn’t the same as reading. The organization notes that, in contrast to conversation comprehension, "reading requires much faster connections to be made."
The human brain isn't geared for reading
If a person struggles slightly with the relation between phonemes and their meanings, then reading comprehension can be a more overwhelming activity. Not only do dyslexic persons have to grapple with oral phonetic miscomprehensions, they also then have to carry those struggles into the arena of reading. The main hurdle here is that reading is a skill that has to be learned, not something that's already embedded within the human brain.
"Part of what makes dyslexia so hard to understand is that the human brain is not designed to read in the first place," says brailleSC. We all have to know how to speak and converse before we can read. We don't know how to do one before we know how to do the other. In reference to a 2008 book by Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University titled "Proust and the Squid," brailleSC notes, "Wolf says that we've altered our brains to accept reading."
The human brain has to adapt to the reading process after it's introduced to speech. Whether an individual uses touch when reading braille or sight when reading words on a page, it's easy to see that readers engage with words in different ways. We can't just say that the brain is specifically constructed to read in only one way.
When we really examine what it is to read and the different ways we read, studying the adaptive process of reading leads us to greater insights about reading comprehension. By understanding how blind people can be dyslexic, we can gain clarity as to what the real struggles with dyslexia are.