I know, I know. Our educational system is such a target-rich topic that its hard not to be overwhelmed by the the sheer magnitude of examples. Whether it’s stupid “zero tolerance” rules, teachers sleeping with students or kids graduating without a basic ability to read, you can pick up any daily newspaper and find example after example after example.
So I share this post only as a selfish rant–a “Vanagram Vent”– but perhaps there may be some nugget of value for others in this personal story should you wish to indulge me. So, the set up:
I have two daughters. My oldest daughter has dyslexia and dyscalculia, both of which were formally tested and diagnosed at a very early age. We were extremely fortunate to have her in a school that assisted us with this process in 1st grade (our public school system is not required to perform a dyslexia evaluation until 4th grade, and then it is highly subjective). We took her to U of I to have a formal, clinical test and diagnosis as this is not something a family doctor or pediatrician can accurately diagnose. It is, in fact, a specific medial testing process. NOTE: Pediatricians will often say something off-hand like “He/she might have dyslexia, or maybe ADHD” which will result in a poor diagnosis and the wrong treatment. I can cite several examples of this happening with others from personal experience. Advice: Go to an expert.
I was initially shocked at how few dyslexia resources were available to us locally and how little our school knew about it. None of the teachers at our school had any specific training on teaching kids with dyslexia. We tried to find special or additional classes for her, only to find they simply did not exist. We looked for tutors with the same result. Tutors–yes; tutors who could work specifically with dyslexia–no. So, Mrs. Vanagram and I dug in and learned everything we could, did endless research, and reached out to whatever support mechanisms we could find. We found training for the teachers at her school, and helped secure training for them. And, fortunately, we we eventually found a Orton-Gillingham trained tutor, quite by accident, who could work with our daughter. Her world changed immediately. She improved, succeeded, then thrived throughout grade school.
While our daughter worked with her tutor, Mrs. Vanagram became a big dyslexia advocate locally. I was surprised by the number of calls she received weekly from parents asking “what we did” or “how we did it” or seeking direction on where to go or what to do. We provided whatever assistance we could, shared what worked for us, provided the resources we could, but always tied it back to this statement: “It takes work. Hard work. By your child and by you. You have to put in the effort personally, be an advocate, and make it your priority.” We still field these calls on a regular basis.
I was equally surprised by how many parents were simply unwilling to do this. They were looking for a book, “an online program”, a pill — anything that would allow them pass off the responsibility to someone else. It was disappointing to us, and in my view absolutely tragic for their children. I hear these same parents continue–year after year–talk about how their children struggle, how their kids hate school, but then say “there is nothing we can do” when in actuality the truth was closer to “there is nothing we‘re willing to do.” But I digress.
Part of having a learning disability (my daughter calls it merely a ‘learning difference’!) is developing a plan for success. Part of this planning process involves the creation of a 504 Plan, a federal program that has students and teachers work together to tailor specific class room strategies that allow kids with challenges to overcome their specific obstacles and succeed where they would otherwise fail. For my daughter, this includes an ability to use a calculator in math class on certain assignments, and is given extra time to take some tests. Her specific challenge is not an ability to retain or recall information, but to do so on paper quickly and in an organized manner–she has to think about it and process it differently, and that takes a bit more time than for others. She has had this 504 plan in place, with these two simple accommodations, for years.
Fast forward: My daughter will start high school next year. She has made the academic honor role every semester thus far. Her state scholastic assessment tests put her at the collegiate level in every subject except math (she is grade level in math but also has dyscalculia). She was awarded the top honor her school offers for Excellence in Leadership and Stewardship, and and was a State Champion for the Mock Trial Competition this year. She has accomplished all of this in spite of her challenges, and through a tremendous amount of hard work and commitment, significantly more work than “normal” learners. School is hard for her, and always will be, but she loves it. She hasn’t had a tutor since 4th grade, and has developed several unique learning strategies (i.e. sensory learning) that allow her to succeed. And she has been given the accommodations (tools) that allow her to continue to succeed.
So what, you ask? What’s the problem? Well, there is discussion about changing the 504 program to require bi-annual re-testing for dyslexia. In short, she would have to be “re-diagnosed” with dyslexia every other year. At the surface, this is no big deal (other than her original formal testing and diagnosis wasn’t exactly cheap). It won’t affect my daughter in any way whatsoever. So again, what’s the problem you ask? It demonstrates that our educators still don’t get it. Even after decades of dealing with dyslexia — they still don’t get it. This can be illustrated by this conversation (true events):
Education Liaison: “Well, there’s discussion about re-testing kids for Dyslexia.”
Vanagram: “That’s an excellent idea. All kids who may show signs of dyslexia should be tested as early as possible. We had our daughter tested in 1st grade.”
Liaison: “No, the discussion, I think, is focused on testing kids who have been previously diagnosed.”
Vanagram: “So, its an assessment test? To check their progress bench marked over time or against the general population? Well, that probably makes sense, too.”
Liaison: “No, not an assessment; a diagnosis. You know, to make sure they still have dyslexia.”
Vanagram: “Excuse me? You’re not serious. Please tell me you don’t believe that dyslexia can somehow be ‘cured’. Do you plan to re-test kids with Down’s Syndrome? You know–to make sure they still ‘have it’ ?.”
Liaison: “What? Of course not. But with dyslexia, while ‘cured’ may not be accurate, I think they want to see if kids still are challenged by it as the grow. If they still struggle with it academically, or to the extent they used to. To see if they have overcome it.”
Vanagram: “I see. So you think people grow out of dyslexia? Well, that’s great news! I’ll be sure to share it with all my adult dyslexic friends as they’ll be thrilled to hear it. Can you tell me at what age they should expect to not ‘have it’ anymore?”
Liaison: “Look, I think you’re missing the point. If kids are doing really well (apparently in reference to students such as my daughter) perhaps they don’t need their classroom accommodations any more. That’s all.”
Vanagram: “Interesting. Do you consider kids who need eye glasses to read or see the chalkboard as having a specific accommodation?”
Liaison: “No. I don’t think anyone would consider eye glasses as an accommodation.”
Vanagram: “But course it is. What do you think would happen if you took a top performing kid who wears glasses, and then took those glasses away? He’s doing well, right, so perhaps he doesn’t really need them anymore. Maybe he’s overcome his sight challenge? Or, perhaps, are those glasses the very item that allows him to be successful where he would otherwise struggle or fail? If so, then it most certainly is an accommodation.”
Liaison: “Well, when you put it that way, I guess I just don’t know.”
Vanagram: “Funny. And I thought as an Educational Liaison it was your job to know. You don’t work to find a tool that allows kids to be successful, then take that very tool away from them because they’ve used it…to become successful!. That’s the most asinine thing I’ve ever heard. What’s next — take hearing aids away from deaf kids because they actually using them to hear?
And the discussion sort of dissolved from there…..vanagram was not happy. I might have suggested that the liaison needed some kind of head-up-the-ass kind of accommodation. I guess I can’t believe that after all this discussions about dyslexia and the number of kids who have it, that our educators largely remain absolutely clueless to what it is, how to address it, or how to effectively reach out and help kids learn. Amazing. Sad and amazing.
For those of you who have dyslexia, have children with dyslexia or would like to learn more about it, feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit any of these sites to get you started: