I am dyslexic

I am dyslexic

* Updated for 2019

This post has nothing to do with law, copyright or technology, but it has everything to do with my career as a lawyer and a legal academic. I don’t usually write about personal things on this blog, but this is both hyper-personal and more than personal. I wrote the first version of this post in 2013. Having just published a high-profile blog post on ScotusOA.com with some embarrassing coding errors which I attribute to my dyslexia, now seems like a good time to revisit this topic.


If you don’t know that I am dyslexic, you really don’t know anything about me. That would not be your fault, I have spent most of my life trying to hide the fact that I am dyslexic. In fact, I used treat my ability to hide my dyslexia as a measure of how well I had overcome it. But mostly I hid for the same reason people always hide, for fear of exposure. Years of bitter experience at school and in the workforce  had taught me that if you have a learning disability, many people think you are stupid. Some of those who don’t think you are stupid think that you are just lazy or a liar instead.

Even though I knew early in my teaching career that I would have no trouble meeting the tenure standard at my school, I still worried that if my colleagues realized that I was dyslexic they would hold it against me when it came to tenure and promotion. I know other people in the academy who feel the same way, even now in 2019.

You might think that these fears are uncharitable to my colleagues, but I feared their ignorance more than their malice. When I became a tenured full professor I really did (mostly) stop worrying about what people thought. More importantly, I hope that by sharing my experiences I might offer encouragement to others coping with learning disabilities and help change attitudes towards dyslexia.

Reading with dyslexia

Dyslexia is characterized by difficulty with learning to read fluently and with accurate comprehension despite normal intelligence. American Academy of Pediatrics “Joint Statement—Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision” 124 Pediatrics 837 (2009)

Dyslexia can mean a lot of different things. The term is used as an umbrella term for a combination of auditory, visual and attentional disorders that manifest as learning disabilities.  I can’t say what it means in general to be dyslexic, I can only say what it means to me.

My type of dyslexia is visual/attentional, but mostly visual. When you look at worlds on a page, chances are that you see words on a page. For most of my life I have had 20/20 vision, so I see the words too – but I don’t really see them. For some reason I just don’t process combinations of letters very well. I see what you see, but what I see is not very stable. The word reversals and word skipping associated with dyslexia seem to be the result of a software failure in the brain, rather than a hardware failure in the eyes. [Although the instability is more of a hardware issue than I had previously understood.]

Some common illustrations on the Internet can give you some idea of what a dyslexic might see, but they are not exactly right either. (These two are from the Irlen website)

Screen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.39.16 AMScreen Shot 2013-08-12 at 11.38.22 AM

The best way I can explain it is that when I read a word, I can only process two or three letters at a time. A word like “detection” becomes

de – et – te – ct – ti -io – n

But I compensate by sort of flitting over the words so “detection” might actually be more like

det – [bla] [bla] [some kind of tall letter] [bla] – ion

Defection! That sounds like an interesting book, … why is it all about detective stories?

It took me a long time to learn to read. When I was in grade one I would chose my books for quiet reading time on the basis of which ones had the most pictures. I would figure out one or two words per page and then just make up the rest of the story. Even when I supposed to read out loud I found that making things up was pretty good substitute for actually reading.

All through primary school, my reading age lagged my actual age by two or three years. This confused my teachers because I seemed to have “normal intelligence” and my vocabulary was quite strong. I did the usual range of remedial exercises and vision therapy (this mostly involved crossing my eyes and making red and green circles come together). These things helped a bit but I still read poorly, and only when forced. [I recently did some more vision therapy and found it quite helpful. I had not realized how much vision had destabilized since I was a teenager, but it still was not the cure that some hold it out to be.]

In year seven, thanks to the loving tyranny of the diminutive Mrs. Johnson, I realized that I had to start reading. The first book I read was Battlestar Galactica, not a literary masterpiece but easy to follow since I had already seen all the TV episodes more than once. I spent weeks reading Battlestar Galactica at the glacial pace of about 10 pages an hour. After that I very slowly worked my way through my older brother’s sci-fi collection. I loved the escapism, but reading gave me a kind of dull headache and left me exhausted.

Reading in color

In year eight (the first year of high school in Australia) my English teacher told me that my written work showed that I was either stupid or lazy. He then explained that he could see (I am not exactly sure how) that I was not lazy and that he knew from my standardized testing (I was always good at multiple choice tests) that I was not stupid. My new school’s special education teacher referred my on to a psychologist who tested me for “scotopic sensitivity syndrome” also known as Irlen syndrome. The psychologist ran me through a battery of tests and then we spent about two hours trying different colored lenses while doing yet more tests to see which color worked best for me.

Reading with colored lenses was, and remains, a totally different experience. I began to read much more quickly and without headaches. By year 11 I had transformed from a C student in everything but math to an A student. Colored lenses have not cured my dyslexia, but they make it manageable. I still have a shorter than average span of visual focus and words still tend to swim around on the page, but now it is more like

det -ect-ion


de – et – te – ct – ti -io – n

How do colored lenses help? Do they really help at all?

This is very difficult to explain. Irlen syndrome and the associate Irlen colored lenses are controversial. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Joint Statement—Learning Disabilities, Dyslexia, and Vision”

“Most experts agree that dyslexia is a language based disorder. Scientific evidence does not support the efficacy of eye exercises, behavioral vision therapy, or tinted lenses.”

There are studies showing the effectiveness of colored lenses, but the American Academy of Pediatrics does not think that much of them. I wear non-tinted lenses for social activities that don’t involve reading. When I forget to change back to my tinted lenses all my old symptoms come back. This is as close to proof as you can get that colored lenses work for me and that this is not just a placebo effect. On the other hand, it also seems clear that these lenses don’t work for everyone. Likewise, vision therapy is great for some people, but again, may not work for everyone.

What is it like to be dyslexic?

People who know me now think of me as confident, perhaps even a little brash. I did well at university and as a lawyer, but have only really excelled as an academic. I have published in Nature and many of the top U.S. law reviews (California, Northwestern, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Iowa, Vanderbilt, Ohio State, …) and I receive great teaching evaluations. So, yes, I am fairly self-confident — though not confident enough to leave these achievements unstated.

I have not always been so self-assured. For most of the time I was in school I my greatest intellectual aspiration was to be normal or average. I told myself that I was average and that it was just my dyslexia that held me back. For a long time this anchored my self perception, to the extent that when I started excelling in high school I wondered why 95% of my classmates were below average. I did not know about Bayesian inference then.  When my sister told me that I would never get the grades to get into law school I resented her because even though I was determined to prove her wrong, I also thought deep down that she was right.

Being dyslexic means being misunderstood, dismissed and underestimated. I was almost held back at the end of third grade. I failed the recorder in year 8. I always did poorly in English when it was graded on in class exams and then I was accused of cheating when I handed in high quality short stories and essays that my mother typed for me. [Thanks mum!]

My grade seven teacher asked me once, how do you expect to get a job if you can’t spell? I had just read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation where one of the characters  dictated into her screen and the words appeared in her own handwriting, so I pronounced that by the time I entered the workforce computers would spell for us. It actually only took until I was in year 12. I love words and I love language, but if not for spell check I probably would have become an accountant.

I am still a terrible speller, especially when writing by hand. Spell-check has made my life possible, but even without it, there is something about the muscle memory of typing that works better than the fine-motor skills required for handwriting. My spelling embarrasses me. Even today, I will do almost anything to avoid letting other people see my handwriting. If I have to write a card I usually type it on my computer and then carefully check each word.

When I write on the whiteboard in class I know that my students can see how poorly I spell and that I often write words out of sequence and then add in the missing letters. This used to be excruciating (a word I would never try to write on the whiteboard), but I try to think of it as a demonstration of how amazing I must be to be a successful law professor with this kind of spelling ability.

Proud to be dyslexic

Not all differences are defects. I grew up thinking of dyslexia as a problem to be overcome, a disability that was holding me back. It took me a while to realize that dyslexia is also a gift. I am a bad speller and my attention to detail is inconsistent. On the other hand, I am a great problem solver and and excellent generalizer. I can grasp general patterns based on what seems like insufficient data to most people. I am usually the first person in a movie theatre to get the joke. I also have great listening skills. When I was 26 I moved to the United States and studied for the California bar exam purely by listening to audio tapes from a cramming course. Life with dyslexia is an obstacle course — it is frustrating at times, but there are benefits if you can learn when to avoid and when to overcome. Dyslexia has made me creative and resourceful; it has also pushed me into a career path where these faculties are valued more than penmanship and spelling.

There are lists of famous people with dyslexia on the Internet, but I suspect that most of these are rubbish. For example, the biographies of Winston Churchill of Albert Einstein that I have read provide no basis for the common assertion that they were dyslexic. I am not famous, and I have no plans to become so. But I am reasonably well known and respected in the small world of the American legal academy. If anyone compiles a list of non-famous-but-reasonably-accomplished dyslexics, I would be proud to be on it.

Are dyslexia jokes funny?

Yes. Absolutely.

My personal favorites are the one about the dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa, and the one about the dyslexic agnostic who wonders if there really is a dog.

Coping with dyslexia

I have some suggestions for individuals and parents dealing with dyslexia.

  • See a range of vision, educational and psychological experts. Anyone who tells you they have all the answers is probably a quack or a charlatan.
  • Most of the advice in books like “driven to distraction” about ADHD actually works really well for dyslexia.
  • Don’t just treat dyslexia, think about ways to treat the inevitable frustration that goes along with it.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek reasonable accommodations at school, but also think about which ones will and won’t be available in the ‘real world’.
  • Spell check. I used to carry a pocket dictionary with me at all times but this is much easier now in the digital age.
  • Dictation software. Dictation software can be useful but I find it hard  to use because I don’t always see the mistakes.
  • Audiobooks. I love audiobooks and they may be the pinnacle of Western Civilization.
  • Listening to eBooks. I listen to ebooks using the text to speech function on my Kindle Fire (I don’t know why this feature does not exist on the Kindle iPhone app.)
  • Also “Natural Reader” is great text to speech app for the iPhone. I use it to read a lot of law review articles while exercising or walking the dog.

My final advice is that you should accept that you need to better than other people to do as well. That sounds hard, but it is a challenge that is shared by many groups who, for one reason or another, have something to overcome.

That is pretty much everything I have to say on this topic. In the years since I wrote this post I have been told by a surprising number of people that it has offered them encouragement or helped them to understand their child. That brings me joy and satisfaction. I know that some of my students will read this and know that they are not alone in their struggles, whatever they may be.

* originally published Aug 12, 2013 6:59 pm.

Extended Readings on Copyright

After teaching copyright law based on my own materials for several years now I have decided to release my reading materials under a creative commons license. You can find these materials on my website at https://matthewsag.com/eroc/.

These Extended Readings on Copyright can be used as a textbook or as individual modules to supplement a textbook. Unlike a regular textbook, I don’t pretend that every important issue in copyright is addressed in these materials. The modules are arranged in the order that I teach them, but most can be used in any sequence. You should consider the current offering as a Beta version. I will post additional modules and revise the existing ones on a continual basis, major revisions will be noted on this website.

Chicago Marathon 2019

I am running the 2019 Chicago Marathon in honor of my sister Rebecca who died of pancreatic cancer late last year. Rebecca’s death is incredibly sad, but her life is worth celebrating. Something else worth celebrating is that cancer deaths have declined 20 percent in the US since the early 1990s.

We have a long way to go but we are actually making progress.

The American Cancer Society supports research, treatment, prevention, and education efforts. Please help me to help them by donating to the ACS and together, we can finish the fight against cancer!

You can support my running of the 2019 Chicago Marathon for the American Cancer Society at this address: (http://main.acsevents.org/goto/MattSag) or by mail.

IPSC 2018 Slides from my talk on Legal Infrastructure for Text Data Mining

I presented my working paper on the legal infrastructure for text data mining at IPSC yesterday and I promised to post my slides. Here it is: Public, Matthew Sag, Legal Infrastructure for TDM (IPSC August 2018). I won’t be posting a draft online for a while because I want to get more feedback from people actually working in this area. But if you would like an advanced draft, please email me.

What is TDM?

Neglect, but only of my website

I have not posted here in a long time, but I am still alive. Partly I have been busy some long term projects and some things that don’t fit the copyright and tech focus of this website. My work on the copyright implications of text data mining has lead to a series of projects actually doing text data mining. This has been fun and has lead to new insights about the copyright issues that have dominated a lot of work for the last decade.

Check out my new website devoted to empirical analysis of Supreme Court oral arguments: ScotusOA.com.

NAFTA must include fair use commitments

I joined with over seventy international copyright law experts today in calling for NAFTA and other trade negotiators to support a set of balanced copyright principles.

Policies like fair use, online safe harbors, and other exceptions and limitations to copyright permit and encourage access to knowledge, flourishing creativity, and innovation.

The following copyright principles are essential to ensure consumers’ digital rights. Copyright law should:

  • Protect and promote copyright balance, including fair use
  • Provide technology-enabling exceptions, such as for search engines and text- and data-mining
  • Include safe harbor provisions to protect online platforms from users’ infringement
  • Ensure legitimate exceptions for anti-circumvention, such as documentary filmmaking, cybersecurity research, and allowing assistive reading technologies for the blind
  • Adhere to existing multilateral commitments on copyright term
  • Guarantee proportionality and due process in copyright enforcement

Measuring the value of copyright and the value of copyright exceptions is methodologically challenging, but if we use the same criteria that WIPO adopts to estimate the value of copyright, then in the U.S., fair use industries represent 16% of annual GDP and employ 18 million American workers.

The Washington Principles on Copyright Balance in Trade Agreements and the new research on Measuring the Impact of Copyright Balance are located at http://infojustice.org/flexible-use

An all new election law course at Loyola Law Chicago in 2018

Election Law Spring 2018
(Thursday 4pm – 6pm)
In an era of computer-aided gerrymandering, foreign interference in our elections, increasingly unchecked campaign finance, systematic voter suppression, and (as yet unsupported) assertions of voter fraud, the study of election law seems more relevant than ever.

In Spring 2018 Loyola Law Chicago will offer a 2 credit course on election law co-taught by an experienced election law litigator, Ruth Greenwood, and Prof. Matthew Sag. Prof. Ruth Greenwood is the Senior Legal Counsel for Voting Rights & Redistricting for the Campaign Legal Center where she worked on the Gill v. Whitford gerrymandering case that was just before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Election Law will give students an understanding of the themes in the legal regulation of elections and politics. It will cover all the major Supreme Court cases with respect to the right to vote, regulation of political parties and candidates, redistricting, race and representation, and campaign finance. The course will also cover voter fraud and vote suppression. Election law is a product of federal and state law, both constitutional and statutory. Consequently, this course provides a good foundation for students interested in constitutional or statutory litigation.

Loyola students please note that the course will be graded by class participation and either a paper or a take-home exam.  This course is available to 1L students as a perspectives elective.

[This is not an official Loyola Law School announcement]