Eyeglasses, ADHD, and Stigma: Introduction

eyeglasses, ADHD, and stigma


A man went to an optometrist to get his eyes tested and asked,

“Hey, will I be able to read after wearing glasses?”

“Yes, of course,” said the doctor, “why not!”

“Oh! How nice it would be,” said the patient, “I have been illiterate for so long.”

I first heard this old saw as a child. It made no sense to me. Of course, someone with poor vision cannot read without wearing glasses.

Yes, I get the joke now, thank you.

Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that most people with poor vision could not learn to read. It wasn’t due to low intelligence. They simply lacked access to eyeglasses.

Even further back in time, few people had need of reading itself. That’s because reading material was scarce!.

Gradually, printed reading material became more accessible. The demand for eyeglasses rose. Check out these historical literacy rates, worldwide and country-by-country.

We can compare this phenomenon to the modern-day diagnosis of ADHD. Humans have had ADHD throughout history; it’s only now that we have the knowledge to recognize it.

In large part, the printing press fueled the need for eyeglasses. Can we make a case that modern life’s complex demands has upped the ante on recognizing, and managing ADHD? I think so.

Is It Dyslexia—or ADHD?

As it happens, many (not all!) people with ADHD also have trouble reading. More precisely, they make out words and sentences on the page just fine. But they struggle to comprehend what is written.

For many, their reading struggles lie beyond vision correction. It resolves with medication.

Might this account for so many late-diagnosis adults being told as schoolchildren that they had dyslexia?  Of course.

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In all likelihood, most didn’t have dyslexia. Instead, they had ADHD-related impairments in reading. Several friends with late-diagnosis ADHD but childhood diagnoses dyslexia told me they started reading entire books once they began to take medication.

The common metaphor—that stimulant medication acts like “eyeglasses for the brain”—applies rather literally in this case. More generally, the phrase means to convey the idea that the medication doesn’t change the person; it only provides access to capacities the person already possesses.

The Parallels: Acceptance of Eyeglasses and ADHD

Have you ever considered the parallels in how society has treated the concept of both eyeglasses and ADHD, especially as regards stigma?  In both cases, knowledge that promised to vastly expand human potential gained acceptance only slowly and amid great opposition.

In other words, on the imaginary Internet of two or three hundred years ago, might we have found comments such as these?

  • “You should be happy with the eyes God gave you! And [smack!] I told you 1,000 times: Stop walking into that wall!”
  • “Wearing glass disks on your face? Are you crazy? That’s dangerous!”
  • “This is a nothing but a get-rich invention of Big Lens.”
  • “My parents and my grandparents got by without reading. That’s good enough for me!”

Next Up on ADHD, Eyeglasses, and Stigma

Coming up in Part 2, a brief, illustrated history of “corrective lenses.”

I welcome your comments.

—Gina Pera


8 thoughts on “Eyeglasses, ADHD, and Stigma: Introduction”

  1. Pingback: Myth #8: Only Severe Cases of ADHD Need Medication

  2. Pingback: Gafas, TDAH y estigma. Primera Parte | Dra. Elena Díaz de Guereñu

  3. I’d actually be curious to know if there really were any stigmas like that when glasses were first invented, or when they became more widely adopted. I’m guessing probably not since the effects of glasses are more apparent to the outside observer, whereas the effects of ADHD medication are purely internal, but it’s still interesting to think about.

    1. Hi Allie,

      From what I’ve read, the issue was mixed and largely influenced in the early days by the fact that only wealthy people could afford any form of “vision enhancement.”

      For example, the lorgnette was typically a fashion accessory. The side benefit was magnification for fashionable ladies with poor vision.

      Perhaps then, the wealthy turned flaws (poor vision) into features (fancy lorgnettes and monocles).

      Apparently, the attitude toward glasses varied by country. The British thought that glasses should be worn only in private, but the Spaniards viewed them as conferring dignity and so should be worn publicly whenever possible.

      Overall, “handicaps” of any kind were stigmatized for centuries. Many simply didn’t want to announce poor vision by wearing eyeglasses in public. Perhaps that is the source of stigma that was quite common well into the 1970s and even still exists to some extent.

  4. As an adult with ADD and a former special ed teacher-cum-second grade teacher, I wish I could share this with a couple of parents. I know I gave students this would help.

    1. Hi Suzanne,

      Feel free to print and share.

      I have two other parts, because I thought the whole piece might be too long. So watch for the rest.

      Glad you found it made sense for you and your students!

  5. Penny Elliott

    This describes my experience to t “T”. My stepson was told he had dyslexia as he could not read at school. Whereas my son, who has been medicated early is loving reading now that he got the hang of it via neural pathways that were generated with his medications and then doing lots of repetition.

    BOY OH BOY – Am I sick of the stigma and judgement surrounding medication for kids!

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