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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Widemire Smith

Say Dyslexia

A while I ago, I ran into my university art history professor, Dr. Bob. It had been ten years since I’d studied with him. He was one of my favorites.

I loved art history classes when they were taught like his—story based, cultural discussions, ramifications, the why of importance. He rarely asked us to remember dates and titles. He said, “Those things you can look up in a book. What you need to understand is the why. The how. The significance.”

I was a vocal student, always asking questions. I found the whole subject matter fascinating and never left feeling that all my questions had been answered. I would sigh and save them for the next class . . . or office hours. I always needed to process what I’d learned that day before I was able to formulate what had me puzzled. This is something dyslexics do and need. The chance to chew on information. The chance for it to click into all the places in our minds that the information can be applied too.

I made my then boyfriend (now husband) take the classes with me. He wasn’t always thrilled, but he loved me enough to learn my language of the arts. During study sessions, I would teach him the material. On exams, he would make a perfect A; I would make a low B or C.

That day, when I ran into Dr. Bob he made me blush. “Miss. Widemire. It’s been a long time since we last spoke. But I remember you well. You could teach my class with how much you understood, but if memory serves, you barely passed my class.”

I shrugged. Smiled. “I guess I never studied hard enough.”

“Procrastinator huh?”

“Something like that.” No. Not really.

“You were one of my brightest students who’s grades always confounded me.”

For his classes, I had studied until I passed out for weeks before his tests. There were never enough hours to study, and the A was always just out of my grip. I would beat myself up saying, “If only you hadn’t fallen asleep an hour after beginning.

“If only you had stayed up til 2 am . . . .

“If only you’d spent 8 hours instead of 6 in the slide lab trying to memorize titles and artists . . . .

“If only you’d taken Advil sooner for the headache you always seem to have. Maybe you should get a prescription for your headaches. Then you’d study like a proper student, you lazy ass procrastinator.”

If only...

If only I had known in elementary school that I had dyslexia.

If only I had been taught that 20 mins of studying and reading about a new subject will exhaust me.

If only I had known that breaks were imperative to studying.

If only I had known that, if I pushed myself to study for an hour, I’d give myself a headache and cause extreme exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety.

If only I had been taught to cover my pages while reading to reduce the stimulus around me and get the most out of my 20 minute increments.

If only I had been taught how to limit what I try to memorize at one time, and how to make flash cards with image association using red markers.

If only I had learned that, to be a good test taker, I needed certain accommodations.

If only I had known how to not beat myself up and call myself names for not being good enough at school.

If only...

I didn’t know all this. Most people don’t. Teachers certainly aren’t taught in school how to recognize it. How to work with it. How to teach students to overcome it.

They should be. Dyslexia was discovered and diagnosed in 1904. That same year, doctors showed teachers how to successfully teach reading to dyslexic students in their area but were instantly met with opposition and skepticism by the larger educators population. Let me put it another way: For one hundred and thirteen years the education systems of the United States of America and of Great Britain have known about the existence of dyslexia and have done nothing, or at best have done the bare minimum. Claiming there wasn’t enough evidence to support the doctors theories. That the children were making up lies about their frustrations or that the children were just lazy. Even now, after MRI’s can confirm the physical existence of dyslexia in the brain, schools and educators are reluctant to say the word, “dyslexia” out loud.

Five generations have come and gone and still our education system must be dragged into modernity, kicking and screaming, with its fingers in its ears saying, “I can’t hear you. Your child just needs to try harder. Your child is just lazy. Your child is just a bad student—a procrastinator. No, we won’t give your child special consideration. It’s not fair to the other students. Dyslexia is such a dirty word. We don’t believe it exists. Why would you want to label your child? Your child will be bullied if you label him.” And on and on.

I’ve got news for you. My child is already being bullied by the American education system. My child’s label of dyslexia is one that brings freedom, clarity, understanding and hope. A dyslexia diagnosis and the consequential understanding of what that means is a gift. You cannot remediate something you cannot diagnosis or understand.

To raise a child in this day in age will costs the parents $245,000. To raise a successful dyslexic child with reading and learning remediations will cost parents $400,000. 20% of all Americans are dyslexic. In our current economic situation 20% of Americans cannot afford to send their dyslexic children to specialty schools, specialty tutoring centers. They need our public schools to do better. To actually meet the needs of 20% of their school populations.

A right to an education—an ability to read, write, learn—is considered a sacred right of all American children? Is it not required by law? Of course, it is! However, a teacher cannot teach what she doesn’t know.

Teachers are not taught:

1. What dyslexia is,

2. How to spot it,

3. How to remediate it, or

4. How to test for it.

You might be thinking, like I first did when my child was diagnosed, “This is why we have special education services.”

Special education services include ADHD, ADD, Autistic, Aspergers, Dyslexics, Speech therapy, and others. Would you like me to run those numbers? Cool. I already did. If you add up these statistics, about 1/3 of all students in all schools would need special educational services. This is an absurd figure. It’s illogical to think that special ed could make a dent at all. No, this is a classroom issue. We have to change how the classroom works. But it’s also a cultural and community issue.

Twenty percent of all American children are dyslexic. Special Ed cannot physically nor financially support and remediate 20% of all school children. Therefore, this burden falls to the parents. It will cost them an additional $155,000 to do it, if they can afford to. If not? Often, these children, who’s needs have gone unmet and have been abused by the very system who swore an oath to teach them, become highschool drop outs with a tendency to become criminals.

Walk into any juvenile detention center in any state of America, and you will find the highest concentration of dyslexic children who cannot read or write their own name. Let that sink in a moment. We’ve had one hundred and thirteen years to stop this cycle. When you cannot read or write, you cannot be good at school. When you are not good at school, you find something else to be good at. And it won’t be upstanding…

What needs to change?

Number One: We must teach our teachers.

Educators must be trained to recognize the signs of dyslexia and be allowed to tell parents what they see. Currently, even if a teacher does have the training to identify dyslexic students, they aren’t allowed to say anything. The schools worry they could be sued. That’s messed up. Who else in our society but teachers would have both the training and opportunity to notice the signs? Teachers are on the front lines. They are the ones who can catch it. But only if they’re trained.

Number Two: The reading curriculum taught in schools must change.

Dyslexics need hands on instructions for all things. They need all five senses involved, and they need more time to learn the material. None of these things would negatively affect children without dyslexia. Science has already proven that we all learn better with hands on training. Everyone’s brains click better when other senses get involved. When a scent is associated with the word “apple,” or when the sound of the apple’s crisp skin is bitten into, or the sweet juicy taste, becomes associated with the memory of the letters, those memories are stronger and more easily accessible.

All children benefit from multiple breaks in the classroom. We all know this. All children need more recess time. We all advocate for this. Just look up “recess in schools” on Facebook, Google, or Pinterest. You won’t be able to see the end of your search results, and every single one will advocate for more time outside. More time for play.

Number Three: How we test children’s knowledge must change.

We all hate standardized tests. Educators, parents, students alike. They don’t work. They don’t reflect aptitude. They discourage more than they motivate.

What’s more,the standards do not include standards for dyslexics or other learning disabled children. The tests are not “standard” when 20% of the population can’t pass them without great difficultly, extreme effort, or not at all. This is also despite the fact that the same child could teach you the material. They know the subject matter. They just can’t pass the test.

Schools are failing 20% of their mandate by refusing to change and incorporate hands on learning and curriculum designed by neurologists, child psychologists, and dyslexia educated experts into every single classroom. Do we have to go another hundred and thirteen years before we listen?

We have the resources. We have the education. We have the proof. Educate teachers, give students the space to learn. The space to play. But at the very least, stop denying its existence. Stop refusing to speak its name.

Say dyslexia.





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