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It's Fine For Districts to 'Say Dyslexia,' According to New Ed. Dept. Guidance

States and districts should not feel reluctant to use the terms dyslexia, dyscalculia, or dysgraphia when describing a particular child's learning needs, says guidance released Friday by the U.S. Department of Education. 

For those outside of the special education field, such guidance may seem obvious. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act names dyslexia as an example of a disability that would be included in the broader term "specific learning disabilities." About 40 percent of the students who are covered under the IDEA are classified as having a specific learning disability.

 But the department's action was prompted by concerted efforts from parent groups such as Decoding Dyslexia and other advocacy organizations, which have recently rallied around the Twitter hashtag, #saydyslexia. Those groups say that the specific needs of students with dyslexia are too often glossed over, because educators don't know enough about the disorder, or that they lump dyslexic students along with struggling learners who may have different challenges.

A recent article by KQED explored this dynamic. A family in Nashville talked about how the district first told them—erroneously—that the state didn't recognize dyslexia as a learning disorder. Once corrected, the district then wanted to put the student through specialized reading instruction, instead of creating an individualized education program with dyslexia-specific interventions.

Advocates have been pushing states to define dyslexia in state law (Iowa is one recent example) and have also made efforts to have dyslexia placed in the draft of a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, though that effort has thus far been unsuccessful. October has been designated by advocates as a month of awareness for learning disabilities, dyslexia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, so the department's action was right on time. 

Dyslexia Guidance Supported, But Only a Start

Advocates cheered the release of the guidance. 

"Today is a victory for children with specific learning disabilities and their families," said Denise Marshall, the executive director of the Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates. "COPAA knows firsthand how families have been subjected to intimidating and discriminatory treatment as they have sought to include the proper terms of a child's condition as part of a special education evaluation, eligibility determination, or within a child's Individualized Education Program. We now have a valuable tool to assure these practices stop." 

Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana who wanted dyslexia included in the ESEA, said that guidance is a good start, but doesn't go far enough.

"It's important for teachers and parents to be aware of the challenges facing our students, but it's equally as important to act," Cassidy said in a statement. "Scientific data shows that we can help students with dyslexia reach their educational potential by providing them with an evidence-based curriculum. All children must have the opportunity to succeed—let's put these successful educational models to use to help them reach their goals."

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