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Sens. Cassidy, Mikulski Urge More Action to Address Dyslexia in Ed. Committee

Advocates for children with dyslexia, senators, and researchers stressed during a U.S. Senate education committee hearing Tuesday that more must be done in schools to identify and support students with the condition, especially since students from low-income backgrounds are less likely to get the help they need. 

The committee hearing, presided over by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., and Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., dealt with expert testimony about the condition, misperceptions attached to it, and how mandatory screening for children at a young age (in the 1st grade, for example) could dramatically improve their experiences in schools and educational outcomes. Roughly one in five Cassidy.PNGchildren has dyslexia, yet teachers and other educators often lack the tools or training to even identify, let alone help students who are showing signs of dyslexia, those testifying told the committee. 

"If the family is less wealthy, it's quite likely they cannot afford to have their child's needs met" through actions like dyslexia screenings, Cassidy said.

Last year, Cassidy and Mikulski co-sponsored a Senate resolution designating October as "National Dyslexia Awareness Month," and "recognizing that dyslexia has significant educational implications that must be addressed." And Cassidy, who has a daughter with dyslexia, pushed through a bill signed by President Barack Obama earlier this year that will designate additional money for dyslexia research as well as associated learning disabilities. 

Last year, my colleague Christina Samuels wrote about a new parent-advocacy group, Decoding Dyslexia, that is lobbying both Congress and statehouses to address dyslexia more seriously in education policy. 

"It's considered the most important learning disability," Mikulski said in her opening remarks, adding that she and Cassidy were a political odd couple but were united in their dyslexia advocacy.

'I Thought I Was a Dummy'

Researchers testifying before the panel stressed the complexity of the condition, as well as misunderstandings that frequently attach themselves to dyslexia.

In her testimony, Dr. Guinevere Eden, a professor at the Center for the Study of Learning at Georgetown University, stressed that the brains of those with dyslexia are different from those without the condition, saying, "This should not be a stigma." Even children who can read well when there are pictures alongside the text may have dyslexia go unrecognized, Eden said.  

And she noted that there's a disconnect between the tools used by those researching dyslexia, and the screening methods and other resources available to parents and schools. This sometimes leads parents to seek out help that can be costly, but ineffective.

Even where terms covering dyslexia exists, there's enough heterogeneity in that terminology to sometimes cause confusion, said, Dr. Mark Mahone, the director of the department of neuropsychology at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore. Conditions linked to dyslexia can also cause further struggles for children, Mahone noted: "A child might be failing for reasons that go beyond dyslexia."

Screening all 1st graders for dyslexia should not only be mandatory, but it would also be relatively straightforward and cost-effective compared to the expenses incurred by dealing with older students who have the condition and haven't been diagnosed and treated properly, said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, the co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity at Yale University. And Shaywitz clarified that people with dyslexia do not read words backwards.

Those with personal experiences struggling with dyslexia also told the committee that their lives were severely impacted not just by having the condition go undiagnosed and treated, but how they were perceived by peers and others.  

Ameer Baraka, an actor and model who only had his dyslexia identified after he was sent to prison, said the lack of support for his condition as a child made him feel ashamed in school and helped drive him into a life of crime as a teenager. 

"I thought I was a dummy like my mother and my sisters said," Baraka told the senators.

And April Hanrath, a mother of a child who has dyslexia from Salt Lake City, Utah, discussed how she was largely isolated and without institutional support as she sought to have her daughter screened and treated. Her daughter Jocelyn, Hanrath said, was only identified with dyslexia in the 4th grade.

"These last 13 years taught me that while the educational system is not created with dyslexics in mind, with the right information, training and support students with dyslexia can thrive," Hanrath told lawmakers.

Photo of Sen. Bill Cassidy courtesy of Sen. Bill Cassidy's Senate office

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