Eyeglasses, ADHD, and Stigma: Introduction

eyeglasses, ADHD, and stigma

Eyeglasses and ADHD have a lot in common — chiefly, have both faced stigma, ridicule, and opposition.  

Here in the 21st Century, stigma has mostly faded for eyeglasses. An estimated 62 percent of Americans wear some type of corrective lenses over a three year-period.  Could ADHD be far behind?

This post takes a look at the history of eyeglasses,  drawing parallels to modern-day reactions to ADHD. That is:

  1. Humans have had ADHD throughout history. It’s only now, however, that we possess the knowledge to recognize it.
  2. If the printing press fueled the need for eyeglasses, we make a case that modern life’s complex demands has upped the ante on recognizing and managing ADHD.


First, A Joke About Eyeglasses and Literacy

I first heard this old saw as a child, and it made no sense to me then:

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.”

Of course someone with poor vision cannot read without wearing eyeglasses—but eyeglasses themselves do not bestow the ability to read.

(Yes, I get the joke now, thank you.)

Yet, not so long ago most people with poor vision could not learn to read. It had nothing to do with low intelligence or aptitude. They lacked access to eyeglasses—corrective lenses.

Even further back in time, reading material was scarce! Few knew they might benefit from eyeglasses because they had nothing to read! Gradually, printed reading material became more accessible.  Demand for eyeglasses rose. Check out these historical literacy rates, worldwide and country-by-country.


ADHD, Eyeglasses and Stigma - illustration that says "dyslexia"

Is It Dyslexia—or ADHD?

Here’s a common example that might help make the connection.

Many people with ADHD (though not all) struggle with reading. Oh sure, they might see the words and sentences just fine. When it comes to comprehending and remembering what is written, though? Different story!

How many times have they told me, “I have to read the first sentence of the paragraph multiple times. Because by the time I get to the end of the paragraph, I’ve forgotten it.”  In fact, such reading struggles improved only after they start stimulant medication. No big mystery there: Stimulants are the first-line treatment for ADHD.

When I first started this work, though, I was mystified. It seemed that every other person I met told me they’d been diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.  Eventually, many would learn they  didn’t have dyslexia at all. Rather, they had ADHD-related reading impairments.

What’s more, several said they started reading entire books once they began taking medication. To their amazement.

The metaphor that stimulant medication acts like “Eyeglasses for the Brain” becomes quite literal in this case. More broadly, we use this phrase to emphasize: Medication doesn’t change the person or their brain; it simply provides access to capacities they already possess.

The Parallels: Acceptance of Eyeglasses and ADHD

Considered the parallels in how society stigmatized eyeglasses and, later, ADHD?  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, we might have seen comments like this:

  • “You should be happy with the eyes God gave you! And [bonk!] 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!”

But honestly, even today my good friend, age 10, wears eyeglasses, and I’m sure it has to do with the inordinate amount of bullying he endures.

Next Up on ADHD, Eyeglasses, and Stigma

Coming up in Part 2, a brief, illustrated history of “corrective lenses”: ADHD, Eyeglasses, and Stigma: Historical Vision Correction.

I welcome your comments.

—Gina Perat

MORE FROM GINA

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!
      g

  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!
    Penny

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eyeglasses, ADHD, and stigma

Eyeglasses and ADHD have a lot in common — chiefly, have both faced stigma, ridicule, and opposition.  

Here in the 21st Century, stigma has mostly faded for eyeglasses. An estimated 62 percent of Americans wear some type of corrective lenses over a three year-period.  Could ADHD be far behind?

This post takes a look at the history of eyeglasses,  drawing parallels to modern-day reactions to ADHD. That is:

  1. Humans have had ADHD throughout history. It’s only now, however, that we possess the knowledge to recognize it.
  2. If the printing press fueled the need for eyeglasses, we make a case that modern life’s complex demands has upped the ante on recognizing and managing ADHD.


First, A Joke About Eyeglasses and Literacy

I first heard this old saw as a child, and it made no sense to me then:

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.”

Of course someone with poor vision cannot read without wearing eyeglasses—but eyeglasses themselves do not bestow the ability to read.

(Yes, I get the joke now, thank you.)

Yet, not so long ago most people with poor vision could not learn to read. It had nothing to do with low intelligence or aptitude. They lacked access to eyeglasses—corrective lenses.

Even further back in time, reading material was scarce! Few knew they might benefit from eyeglasses because they had nothing to read! Gradually, printed reading material became more accessible.  Demand for eyeglasses rose. Check out these historical literacy rates, worldwide and country-by-country.


ADHD, Eyeglasses and Stigma - illustration that says "dyslexia"

Is It Dyslexia—or ADHD?

Here’s a common example that might help make the connection.

Many people with ADHD (though not all) struggle with reading. Oh sure, they might see the words and sentences just fine. When it comes to comprehending and remembering what is written, though? Different story!

How many times have they told me, “I have to read the first sentence of the paragraph multiple times. Because by the time I get to the end of the paragraph, I’ve forgotten it.”  In fact, such reading struggles improved only after they start stimulant medication. No big mystery there: Stimulants are the first-line treatment for ADHD.

When I first started this work, though, I was mystified. It seemed that every other person I met told me they’d been diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.  Eventually, many would learn they  didn’t have dyslexia at all. Rather, they had ADHD-related reading impairments.

What’s more, several said they started reading entire books once they began taking medication. To their amazement.

The metaphor that stimulant medication acts like “Eyeglasses for the Brain” becomes quite literal in this case. More broadly, we use this phrase to emphasize: Medication doesn’t change the person or their brain; it simply provides access to capacities they already possess.

The Parallels: Acceptance of Eyeglasses and ADHD

Considered the parallels in how society stigmatized eyeglasses and, later, ADHD?  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, we might have seen comments like this:

  • “You should be happy with the eyes God gave you! And [bonk!] 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!”

But honestly, even today my good friend, age 10, wears eyeglasses, and I’m sure it has to do with the inordinate amount of bullying he endures.

Next Up on ADHD, Eyeglasses, and Stigma

Coming up in Part 2, a brief, illustrated history of “corrective lenses”: ADHD, Eyeglasses, and Stigma: Historical Vision Correction.

I welcome your comments.

—Gina Perat

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