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. But it wasn’t that long ago that most people with poor vision could not learn to read, simply because they lacked access to eyeglasses. Even further back in time, few people had need of reading itself, because reading material was scarce.
As printed reading material gradually 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.
Moreover, just as the printing press fueled the need for eyeglasses, we could say that the complex demands of modern life has emphasized the need for recognizing, and managing, ADHD.
Is It Dyslexia—or ADHD?
As it happens, many 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 resolve with medication.
This just might account for so many late-diagnosis adults being told as schoolchildren that they had dyslexia. In all likelihood, most didn’t have dyslexia. Instead, they had ADHD-related impairments in reading. Several friends with late-diagnosis ADHD but childhood “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.
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.